Noel Rappin Writes Here

Control Your Development Environment And Never Burn Another Hamburger

Posted on February 17, 2012

Everything I know about the world of fine dining I know from watching Top Chef and from eating at Five Guys. But I do know this: chefs have the concept of mise en place (which does not mean Mice In Place), which is the idea that everything the chef is going to need to prepare the food is done ahead of time and laid out for easy access. The advantages of having a good mise en place include time savings from getting common prep done together, ease of putting together meals once the prep is done, ease of cleanup. Again, I have no idea what I’m talking about, but it seems like the quality and care that a chef puts into their mise en place has a direct and significant benefit on how well they are able to do their job.

You probably know where I’m going with this, but I’m becoming increasing convinced that one of the biggest differences between expert and novice developers is control over the environment and tools they use. I came to this the hard way – for a long time I was horrible about command lines, it was actually something that kept me away from Rails for a little bit. It’s not like I’m Mr. Showoff Bash Script guy these days, but I know what I need to know to make my life easier.

Let me put it another way. Once upon a time I read a lot of human factors kind of materials. I don’t remember where I read it, but I read once about an expert short-order cook at a burger joint. His trick was that he would continually shift the burgers to the right as he cooked them, such that by the time they got to the end of the griddle, they were done. Great trick (though admittedly you need to be a bit of an expert to pull it off). Not only did the cook know when things were done without continually checking, but it was easy to put on a burger that needed a different amount of doneness simply by starting it farther left along the griddle.

What does that mean?

The name of the game in being an expert developer is reducing cognitive load.

Try and list all the things you need to keep in your head to get through your day. Think about all the parts of that you could offload onto your environment, so that you can see them at a glance, like the short order cook, and not have to check. What are the repetitive tasks that you do that can be made easier by your environment? What can you do so that your attention and short-term memory, which are precious and limited, are focused on the important parts of your problem, and not on remembering the exact syntax of some git command.

This is not about which editor you use, but it is about picking an editor because you like it and understand how to customize it, not because all the cool kids use it. If you are going to use Vim, really learn how to use Vim – it’s not that hard. But if you use Vim, and don’t learn the Vim features that actually make it useful, then it’s not helping you, and it’s probably hurting you. Is Vim (or TextMate, or whatever) making your life easier or not? Vim drives me nuts, but I’ve seen people fly supersonically on it.

I’m getting a little cranky about seeing people’s environments – I’m not normally a big You’re Doing It Wrong kind of guy, but, well, I’m getting a little bit cranky.

If you’re doing web development, there are probably three things that you care about at any given time: your text editor, a command line, and a web browser. Every man, woman, and child developer at my fine corporation has a laptop along with a second monitor that is larger than a decent surfboard. If you can’t see at least two of those three things at all times, try and figure out how much time you spend flipping between windows that you could be seeing together. If you are running Vim in a terminal in such a way that you can never see an editor and a command line at the same time, I think you can probably do better.

If you use Git, for the love of God, please put your git branch and status in your shell prompt. RVM status, too. And it’s not hard to add autocompletion of Git branches, too. Or, go all the way to zsh, which has fantastic autocompletion. Again, reducing cognitive load – you can see your environment without checking, you can type complex things without knowing all the syntax.

Use a clipboard history tool. I use Alfred, which is generally awesome as a launcher and stuff, but it’s not the only one.

Use some tool that converts frequently used text to shorter easier to remember text. Shell aliases do this, I also use TextExpander, which has the advantage that TextExpander shortcuts are usable in SSH sessions.

The thing is, I don’t know what the most important advice is for you. You need to be aware of what you are doing, and strangely, lower your tolerance to your own pain. What do you do all the time that is harder than it needs to be? Is there a tool that makes it easier or more visible? How hard would it be to create or customize something? Are you the cook who can look at the griddle and know exactly when everything will be done, or are you the guy constantly flipping burgers to check?


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