Those who think with their fingers

In the past couple of years, I’ve discovered an interesting way to think about programming problems. I try to solve them while I’m away from the computer. Talking through a program, trying to hold all the abstractions in my head, thinking about ways to re-arrange the code to solve the problem at hand whilst walking. The key to this is that I’m activating different parts of my brain to try and solve the problem. We literally think differently when we talk than when we write or type. Sometimes, the notion you need is locked up in other parts of your brain, just waiting for you to activate them.[1]

But sometimes, when I’m doing this thinking, there is something I really miss: the feel of the keyboard under my fingers and the staccato of typing. If there’s an analog to “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, it’s “I love the sound of spring-loaded keys making codes”.

With the release of the iPad, it’s quite likely that a large percentage of the population can start to eschew the traditional keyboard and pointer that have served them in such a mediocre fashion for so long. On the other hand, you can take my keyboard from my cold dead hands. I really like typing, I’m pretty good at it, and I feel like I get a lot done, pretty quickly, when I’m typing.

Last year, I decided I would give other text editors a try. I stepped out from my TextMate happy place to try VIM. I knew this part of the experiment wasn’t going to work because when I felt like I’d gone through enough reading, tutorials and re-learning of VIM, I sat down to tap out some code. And…nothing. I felt like I was operating the editor instead of letting the code flow from my brain, through my fingertips, onto the display. It was as if I had to operate through a secondary device in order to produce code.

Sometimes it seems that developers think with their fingers. I’m not sure what the future of that is. We’ve created environments for programming that are highly optimized for using ten fingers nearly simultaneously. How will that translate to new devices that focus on direct manipulation with at most two or three fingers at a time. Will new input mechanisms like orientation and acceleration take up the slack?

Will we finally let go off the editor-compiler-runtime triumvirate? Attempts to get us out of this rut in the past have proven to be folly. I’m hoping this time around the externalities at the root of past false starts are identified and the useful essence is extracted into something really compelling.

In the mean time, it’s going to be fun trying the different ways to code on an iPad as designers and developers try new ways to make machines do our bidding.

1 If this intrigues you, read Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic Thinking and Learning it’s excellent!

One thought on “Those who think with their fingers

  1. I find myself using that phrase (“I think with my fingers”) a lot, when teaching, pair programming, etc. I’m not in any hurry to give up the traditional keyboard; I don’t find that it presents any problems to which getting rid of it would be a solution.

    The thinking with fingers thing applies also to writing (i.e., composing text, whether on a keyboard or otherwise). I’ve never viewed writing as a matter of creating an outline and then filling it in. For me, writing is performative: while actually writing I come up not only with wording for ideas but with ideas themselves, not to mention just about every aspect of the order and flow of topics. Of course I have a sense of what a chapter or article is going to cover before I start it. But beyond that, I take a very non-waterfall approach to writing.

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