Henrik Sommerfeld

Use a US Keyboard for Programming

An advice I would give my youth self, if it was possible, would be to properly learn the keyboard. It’s quite embarrassing, but here I am, having spent half of my working life, in IT, and can’t properly handle a keyboard. Based on that insight, this is what I would tell myself (regarding keyboard usage) at about the time of entering higher education:

  1. Get a US keyboard
  2. Practise touch typing
My custom built keyboard with a US layout
My keyboard that uses a US layout

1. Get a US keyboard

In all programming I’ve done, a US keyboard would have been easier to use. Thinking of it, I think most software would have been easier to use with a US keyboard. How many times have I not been frustrated when looking up shortcuts and it says ctrl + \. I didn’t have a backslash key on my keyboard, but now I do.

The characters frequently used when programming, like $ [ { | / >, are also accessed in quite different ways between macOS and Windows/Linux/other, making that switch harder.

Just as inconvenient as typing ^ on your non-US keyboard can be, so can writing in some other language than English be on a US keyboard. Thankfully it’s generally easy to switch layout in the operating system (I use HYPER + L, as in “language”), and having used a Swedish layout up until now I know where my umlauts are placed even if it’s not printed in the keys.

2. Practise touch typing

I actually had one semester of typing class on a typewriter in school, before the typewriters were replaced with computers in that classroom. The shift of focus in the teaching is striking now that I think about it. On the typewriter, the goal was to teach us touch typing, but when the computers took over, we should instead learn how to use the computer (which most of us kids knew better than the teachers at the time). From that moment on, the great usefulness of typing fast and accurate was lost in my schooling.

I had many years of school left after that typing class and really should have kept practising. My relative proficiency with keyboard shortcuts might also have led to a self belief that I handled the keyboard well enough. Mob programming with people who live in Vim with every movement on their custom keyboards deeply engraved in muscle memory have made me reevaluate my own abilities in several ways. It’s a harsh awakening.

Learning touch typing is like planting a tree or investing money – the best time to start was 20 years ago and the second best time to start is now. So I’m starting now.

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