Skill vs. Better Tools

I have been doing quite a bit of programming over the past few months.  Last night I took a few hours to see if I could find some better tools. I tried out a different programming environment and tested some tweaks to Eclipse (the program I currently use for programming). My goal was to see if I could find a way to get my tools to help autocomplete certain parts of the code I was typing into the web templates.  For example, if I start to type ”

I found a few things that look promising, but I couldn’t find anything that worked automatically out of the box.  I started wondering if it was worth spending those hours looking for a better tool.  What if I had of spent two hours in just practicing? By “practicing” I mean coming up with some sort of exercise that I could repeat over and over for two hours to help make myself faster at programming those particular parts of the code.

It is easy to invest hours in finding a new tool that might make us marginally faster and overlook the real gains that are possible from increasing our skills at a particular task. I’m not saying that looking for better tools is always a bad thing. However, it is easy to invest a lot of time in a new tools, while overlooking the very real return on investment from increasing our skills. It is easy to focus on the tool rather than the benefit it provides.

Switching tools isn’t free.  It takes time to find a new tool and it takes time to learn it. For example, if I switch my programming environment, it is going to take quite a while for the  time saved from programming faster to offset the time lost in re-learning everything else.

I have seen people convinced that they would save so much time by getting a new computer program, PDA or smartphone. They go through life thinking that each new piece of technology is a silver bullet that will finally solve their problems–completely oblivious to the amount of time they invest switching from one device or one piece of software to the next. Their fundamental problem isn’t their toys I mean tools.  Their problem is their skill set.  In reality improving your skill set may not be any harder than trying to learn to use a new tool, but the difficulty of learning a new gadget or software is often masked by “new toy syndrome.”  Something can seem exciting and fresh simply because it is different and because you “won”. In the corporate world “winning” might be a matter of convincing your boss that you are important enough to warrant a $500 investment in the latest phone. At home “winning” might involve convincing your spouse or yourself that you are important enough and your time is valuable enough that the new fancy gadget is worth getting.

This feeling of “winning”  makes it easy to overlook just how much time you are investing in something new. This feeling makes it seem like you are investing less time that you would have in increasing your skill to get the same level of benefit.

Speech recognition software is a good example of this. Here is a story to show what I mean.

Bob’s job has evolved to the point where he has to do a bit of typing.  It really isn’t that much typing, but Bob only types about 18 words per minute.  Since he is slow, he hates typing and even though it doesn’t take up that much of his day, his dislike for the task makes it seem like it takes forever.  At a family get together his cousin tells him about some new speech recognition software and Bob is intrigued.

Back at work he talks his boss into buying $250 worth of software and microphones. Bob works on training the software and starts trying to use it in place of  typing.

Eventually Bob is going to realize that talking into the computer doesn’t really make him as fast as he had hoped.  He will either continue using the speech recognition software because it is marginally better than typing for him, or he will decide he (and his co-workers) hate computer transcription even more than he hates typing and go back to the 18 words per minute hunt and peck method.

Of course,  Bob could have invested the same amount of effort/money into learning to type better. If he had, he’d now be typing 40 to 50 words per minute and have acquired a very useful skill.

There are a lot of wonderful technological tools available to us, but the search for new tools can often distract us from investing in developing the skills and discipline that will bring even greater benefit.


  1. dajolt says

    If a software behaves in a non-efficient way practicing will only improve your speed in little ways.

    How about spending some time to get the software you already have to behave in a more efficient way instead?

    On windows, there’s the freeware Autohotkey ( that marvels at autocompletion, and lets you script anything in a windows environment. You need some basic programming skills to use it, but it comes with a helpful online community so if you can describe your ideas, you’ll hardly ever get stuck.

  2. says

    I couldn’t have agreed more with you here. I ahve seen this beahaviour in many friend and myself in the past. I also think that people want to buy themselves time. They somehow convince themselves that THIS is the thing they need to get to where they want to get. The simple answer is this YOU NEED TO PRACTCE.

    Nothing gets better than hard work.

    We all need to rememebr that tools are there to assist us and it is how we use them that really matters.

    Will a paint brush make you an artist? NO!

    great post, I jsut thought i’d share my own views :)

  3. says

    I feel I must protest the writers huge mis-understanding of the HUGE leap forward resulting from only three hours of newbie time. , in favor of all my fellow 10-15 WPM-sufferers. In XP pro I trained the program painlessly, by simply reading out look severals chapters , from about 10 different types of books. I repeated the dictation twice, at 40 minutes each. This allowed me to then dictate a one page letter in only 5 minutes, and edit it in three; instead of 50 minutes to peck out, plus 15 to edit. As a PC newbie it was one of my few major advancements, and left me smiling. Could Not Disagree More Re
    Mr. Shead’s quick dismissal of the very real rise in joy, and productivety, that those two hours can provide my fellow 10-25 WPM sufferers……

    I go now to check out the 2 sites recommended above…….score one for the good side of PC’s.

    Appreciate the forum,

  4. Dave Floyd says

    You are so right. Master your skill sets first, then look for tools to make you more efficient in using your skills. The example of a carpenter mastering the building of a house using hand tools and then moving to power tools to make him more efficient with his time.

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