The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Sharpening Your Blades

February 12, 2014

The “toolbox” metaphor often used to describe a programmer’s knowledge, favorite software, shell scripting tricks, and so on, is a convenient one. The skills and utilities that a seasoned programmer brings to bear on any given problem is much the same as the craftsman’s physical collection of implements; selected carefully, representative of the craftsman’s preferences, and wielded with precision borne from experience.

We can learn much from these parallel concepts. In the same way that a builder must keep the blade of the saw sharp, so must a programmer focus some effort on sharpening the “blades” of his or her tools and techniques. This is not a post about education or learning new algorithms or solving ridiculous code katas every day. This is a story about chainsaws.

I watched this talk by the inimitable Gary Bernhardt (some day I hope someone describes me as “inimitable”) called “The Unix Chainsaw.” Though the technical guts of the talk consists of (awesome) Unix shell wizardry, the philosophical thread that runs throughout is the avoidance of what Bernhardt terms “the tar pit of immediacy,” an expression that has since been used far fewer times than I feel it deserves, which is why I’m mentioning it now.

The “tar pit of immediacy” describes the experience of encountering a problem, reaching for some familiar tool, solving the problem quickly and messily, and then whenever the problem is encountered again, doing the exact same thing. Often, getting the job done is absolutely the most important thing, but looking at it from the perspective of our metaphorical craftsman this is much like cutting things with the same blade until it’s as dull as a spoon.

If there is one single piece of advice that I would like to give to every software engineer ever, it’s this: you need to take the time to sharpen your blades.

The best programmers are fundamentally lazy people. They abhor repetition, they embrace automation. If I see a programmer pressing the same keys over and over, or submitting code for review with the same trivial syntactic mistakes (like trailing whitespace or mis-alignments), I am going to walk over to them and ask them how their chainsaw is doing because it sure looks to me like they’re cutting down a tree with a camping hatchet.

I have been, and continue to be, a massive advocate (some might say proselytizer) of Vim and the Unix shell. I write about them, I teach Vim and the shell at work, I give Vim talks, I own a t-shirt with the Vim logo printed on it… You get the idea. This set of tools works for me; if I were a carpenter they would be the hammer or chisel that fit so perfectly in my hand that it would seem as though they were molded to my very palm. And indeed I have spent enough time customizing my tools that in some ways they are molded to my way of doing things, as a good tool ought to be.

But this is where I need to be absolutely clear: your tools are yours. Vim isn’t for everyone. I will continue to try to convince you that you should learn it, but you can probably hit the ground running at a faster pace in Sublime Text or some other editor. That you have chosen tool X, Y, or Z and I have chosen A, B, or C is of little consequence. What is more important is that you are always thinking about making your tools work for you.

I often see people using Sublime Text rather poorly. Sublime Text is a tremendously powerful editor with most, if not all, of the capabilities of Vim or Emacs. If you are using it on a daily basis you should be fast and confident with it. If you are doing a lot of repetitive text translations, you need to find a better way, and that’s what leads me to my ultimate point:

Test the sharpness of your blades often.

Vim has a learning curve whose difficulty falls roughly in between playing a song on the harmonica and building the Space Shuttle. People who have reached even a modest efficiency in Vim feel like they’ve learned a new language (and in some ways they have), but it becomes obvious through that process that there is much, much more on the horizon. The programmer within them swells with the anticipation of shaving further keystrokes off of each operation, of creating macros for every common task, of learning more and more. This is how you should feel, all the time, with all of your tools.

Contrary to Vim, a tool like Sublime Text is easy to pick up and use. This is a great advantage and the reason I recommend it to many new programmers. Be careful, however, to recognize the distance between you and the horizon, between your ability to type in some code and maybe use some multiple cursors and the vast array of keyboard shortcuts, plug-ins, and built-in functions that will make you a wizard of your craft. Don’t fall into the tar pit of immediacy.

Always seek out the shortest path to your destination. Reduce patterns to scripts or macros. Look up keyboard shortcuts for frequently used operations. If you are annoyed or slowed by anything, anything, do a quick search to see if there is another tool that does it better. You don’t have to solve these problems of efficiency right away; by all means, get the job done, but come back to your pet problems and find a way to solve them. Only then will your toolbox truly be yours.