A bit of nonsense in the Twitterverse this week about developer seniority and usage of the mouse.

I see this as recurrence of the long running thread that rears up now and again about how ‘real’ developers use keyboard-driven editors like Emacs or Vim.

Some thoughts:

There could be a loose correlation between seniority and keyboard driven editors due to:

  • Age. These are old tools, and the people who started out when they were cutting edge are now old, and yes senior developers.
  • Injuries. Ergonomically, a mouse and standard size keyboard just don’t work long term for a segment of the population. Ergonomic keyboards, and keyboard mappings in keyboard-driven editors are a common solution to this. But you have to be at a mouse and keyboard for a fair amount of time for this to become a pain issue - skill accumulated over that time again probably leads to a loose correlation with developer seniority.

So I think some people might be observing a signal that is real (if weak), but surprise surprise getting themselves snagged in the correlation-causation-conundrum.

I have my own theories about better markers for productive programmers. I think after you gain enough programming skill you reach an inflection point where that skill can be brought to bear not just on the problems you have, but on your processes for solving them. You can write code to make yourself more efficient at writing code. You craft your own tools to fit your own niche problems.

There are examples of people who are known to be highly productive doing this everywhere. In the R world think about how {knitr}, {devtools}, {usethis}, {reprex} and their like came to be. They’re programming/CLI tools intended to supplement the capabilities of a GUI in a composite interface to the niche problems of building documents, packages, projects, and examples.

An interesting thing often happens where these things start out as command line things, and become so important to a workflow that they graduate to a keybinding or a GUI button. And so here I think we encounter another loose correlation between preference for keyboard-driven and seniority:

If you’re in the business of crafting the interface to your workflow, keybindings or buttons allow you to reduce the friction of that interface and make it ‘feel’ nicer to use. I guess it’s like the digital equivalent of a wall-mounted pegboard for tools. Having all these for-purpose tools right at your fingertips, you can reach for without thinking, helps you focus on what’s on the bench.

You could array your tools with buttons or menus to be moused-on, but keybindings give you a bit more ‘space’ to work with before things get unweildly - you run out of pixels fast! So there’s a practicality aspect that could be a driver for keybindings and editors that make keybindings easy to execute.

But it’s not creation of buttons or keybindings that is important. What exactly is a ‘low friction’ inteface will vary by person, and is relative to the friction of the task being interfaced with. In fact if you have powerful commands, a sharp memory, and are a fast typist, maybe a CLI already feels friction free.

The important thing - the productity multiplier - is using your skills to shape your tools and the environment that you work in, which in-turn makes your skills more effective. It’s an extremely virtuos loop, and I think possibly what people are really aspiring to, rather than say mastery of the keyboard or a keyboard-driven editor like Vim or Emacs.

Commands, buttons, bindings, foot pedals, voice commands, gesture controls… these are all just implementation options for interfaces created by that virtuos loop.