Developers, please nurture your coding experience

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I see writing code as an art. An art we would each approach from a different perspective, playing with the tools we are being offered. We all evolve at a different level of the stack. And yet, we all conceptually work very similarly: editing some code in a form or another to make the machines behave as we expect.

What is the only interface between you and the code you write? Your machine. Your workstation. Your work environment. Your workflow. There are different ways to name it, but ultimately that’s what enabling you to write code.

I believe taking complete ownership of one’s environment is a key attribute of becoming a better engineer. Some people would argue it brings a productivity boost. While that might be true, I think the main reason to get to know your environment is to move potential obstacles out of the way. To let your thoughts flow efficiently from your brain to code. The productivity boost is a consequence, not a mean in itself.

We should all get to know our environments. Caring about it is not only beneficial for you. It is also beneficial for your coworkers and any person you work with. Not only that, but it will give you a better intuition of what represents a good or bad environment, and that always comes handy.

The good news is: your journey has already begun. You already have a work environment. You already took inspiration from your peers. You are already using tools developed by people that happen to be improving their environment in a way that suits your needs. So where should you go next?

Pursue your journey

I usually start by introspecting my workflow to identify pain points. It is often harder said than done, especially because our brain is excellent at accepting a current situation as long as we’ve been exposed to it long enough. And that’s still the case even if there are significant improvements waiting for us down the road.

Introspection could happen in the form of self-assessing questions like:

  • what are my most frequent tasks?
  • where am I wasting my time?
  • what are the most tedious tasks I have to do on a regular basis?
  • which inconsistencies can I find in my workflow?
  • what is slowing me down?

All of these questions will help you find potential directions for improvements.

While working on this article, I was wondering about what would be the fundamental concepts if I were to distillate my mindset into key points. I found 5 of them:

  1. Keep your stack simple. When you can, choose simplicity over complexity. Find the smallest set of tools required to do the job and consolidate your workflow around them. Remove the tools you don’t need.

  2. Don’t let your stack get obsolete. Challenge your existing stack on a regular basis. Make sure you keep your tools up-to-date. Do not miss out on the latest opportunities brought by modern tooling.

  3. Integrate your tools together. Having a small set of tools that you master and make them talk to each other is immensely useful. The Unix philosophy applies here. By design, it is easier to follow this principle when working in a terminal.

  4. Practice is essential. Getting to know your tooling is all down to practice. Learn the shortcuts. Learn how they behave. You need to deeply understand these tools, so they become an extension of yourself.

  5. Stability is key. This is a never ending journey, and you should always keep digging for ways to improve. But also know when to pause. Your habits and muscular memory will be impacted if you change your stack too often.

Applying these concepts has been my rock over all these years. Sticking to this will slowly but steadily bring you to a better place.

Concrete examples

I’ve started to code back in 2005. I was using Windows XP, Firefox, and Notepad++ at the time. At that time the concept of productivity didn’t even cross my mind. Over the years, I’ve gathered experiences in various environments (mainly Linux and macOS). I want to talk about a few situations which I’ve identified as problematic and improved in my workflow.

The first one I want to mention is about my keyboard. What is slowing me down? Well, I found myself doing a lot of typos when typing. I had to stop my flow, correct the error, and start typing again. So I looked it up and tried to find solutions. The first thing that comes up on the topic is to learn how to touch type (I couldn’t recommend enough). But then my brain was tickled: if I’m ready to spend time to improve my typing skills, is there more I could do? It turns out I could, and long story short, I ultimately settled on learning to touch type with the Colemak layout. It’s been so since 2015, and I couldn’t be happier.

The second one is about the feedback loop when working on Go and Rust projects. Where am I wasting my time? I was used to working with the Node.js ecosystem (jest, nodemon, webpack, etc) that natively integrates many ways to optimize the feedback loop (watching, reloading, hot-reloading, etc). I was manually restarting my programs and tests when working on Go and Rust projects, so I tried to find a way to replicate this. I have currently settled on using watchexec that is a general purpose watcher. And I’ve aliased it to w to make it convenient to use.

The third one is my shell. What are my most frequent tasks? Well that is a software I’m using all day long, so I have high performance expectation. I want it to be blazingly fast, and it was not the case. Startup time as well as printing the prompt was slow. A basic shell is actually fast by default. Just try for yourself: start zsh without loading the configuration files to see how fast it is. I didn’t want to compromise on a rich prompt, but on the other hand, my shell was slow. So what to do? I began with an empty configuration file and only added the bits I needed. My ~/.zshrc is 200 lines of code and loading 4 plugins. I have also made the switch to powerlevel10k. And I’m now satisfied with my shell user experience.

The last one is a story happening at my current job. I’m working for REKKI as a Lead Platform Engineer, and part of my team’s mission is to design and improve the Developer Experience. In doing so, I’m letting the vision shared in this blog post infuse in my every day work. What are the most tedious tasks I have to do on a regular basis? Well, setting up the stack for all the engineers working at REKKI was getting more and more painful. So we’ve released an internal CLI that does this for us, installed by default on all the engineers machines.

Each of those examples could be a blog post in itself. And I could continue over and over on other topics: learning how to debug and instrument my code, learning how not to use the mouse, learning how to master my editor (nvim/init.lua), learning how to use snippets, learning how to take notes efficiently, learning how to create impactful slides, etc. But it’s not the point.

The point here is to show you the mindset: identify issues, find which one would have the biggest impact if fixed, and address them.

Final words

We’ve seen why spending time on your work environment is important, along with some practical advices to help you shape it according to your own needs. We’ve also looked at some examples of how I applied these advices to improve my workflow over the past few years.

This is in the end a very personal experience, and is all about getting to know yourself. Introspection is key here: what works for you might not work for someone else, and vice versa. This is your journey, and I hope this post inspired you to revisit your work environment. I’d love to hear how you improved your workflow.

Give it time, and you will be rewarded.