Should IT professionals learn to type? – Investing in yourself

Why learn?

I was listening today to one of Scott Hanselman's awesome podcasts with Miguel de Icaza and during the show they discussed things that you really should invest in. One list that came up was a good bed, a good chair, and to learn to type. Most of us spend 1/3 of the day in a bed and 1/3 of the day in a chair, so they seem like no-brainers. Typing is an interesting addition to that list.

Back when I was in school, in those sexist old days, typing wasn't something that the boys learned. It was something that was taught to the girls, and mostly to those that weren't heading in an academic direction. Up until about 1990 I was a pretty fast two-finger typist (probably more like a four-finger typist). I could cut code pretty quickly and I wasn't too concerned about it. Occasionally though, I kept feeling that I could do much better if I learned to type. Eventually I convinced myself that if a sizeable percentage of the population could do it, surely I could learn.

Is it hard to learn?

At that time, some pretty decent typing programs for the PC had started to appear. I decided to try to learn to type and chose TypeQuick. It's interesting (and good for them) to see that they still exist today. So many applications from those days have long since gone. I particularly liked the way that it constantly pushed you just a little bit faster than what you were achieving. I haven't tried the program since then but I hope it's just improved over time. But regardless, there are many of these types of programs around.

But then the real problems began. Most of these types of programs assume that you can spend an hour a day learning to type, and in a few weeks you'll be able to do so. The implicit assumption though is that's the only time that you'll be typing during that time. The hassle with this is that if you type for a living (by cutting code or interacting with IT systems), spending an hour a day doing it the right way, then the rest of the day doing it the wrong way isn't a formula for success.

I decided that I needed to break that impasse. Early one fine Sunday morning, I started doing the course and I kept going until I had pretty much finished the course, at around midnight. By then I could barely move my hands at all but I had learned all the basics.

What I hadn't figured on though was that the hardest part was to come. During the next four weeks or so, I had tight deadlines that I knew I could meet by typing my old way, and yet I had to force myself to type correctly, even though it was at a fraction of the speed that I could do the wrong way.

I did force myself to put up with the stress and after about four weeks I was back to about the same typing speed. The brilliant part is that I was then able to keep getting faster and faster. I'd probably now average about three or four times faster than what I could do in my heyday of four-finger typing.

What difference does it make?

Clearly if you are writing a bunch of code, you can do so much more productively but there are also many subtle improvements in what you achieve, not just how quickly:

  • You are much more likely to use clear (but often longer) names for objects
  • You are much more likely to write documentation while coding (Miguel noted that people who can't type tend to always put off tasks like documentation and I have to say that I've seen the same)
  • You are much more prepared to throw away code and replace it with better quality code (I've noticed that people who don't type are much more likely to cling onto their first attempts at any piece of code)
  • While it's possibly an even more minor point, you will simply seem more professional to those that you work with. Professionals invest time in skills that matter in their profession. If you're reading this, chances are that typing is in that category for you.

I'm really surprised that typing isn't considered a core skill for IT people today. Perhaps there will be a time in the future when it won't matter but it does matter today. Curiously though, it's often viewed as a less-important skill to master. But those who have done so will all tell you how important it is.

When I worked at a university, I was pushing for students to learn typing in the first two weeks of their Computer Science degrees. The idea was almost mocked by most lecturers as typing wasn't something that was taught by universities. Yet the same university struggled to have enough resources for students to use, and the resources they had were tied up by people that took forever to type anything. The real irony is that in most courses, there isn't much other useful work that the students could do in the first week or two anyway.

So, if you have made it to this point in the blog, and you can't yet type, I hope that you'll consider it.

10 thoughts on “Should IT professionals learn to type? – Investing in yourself”

  1. Totally agree!  And after reading your story I'm glad I learned it in early secondary school!  Not everyone took the class but I knew it would help me use my Commodore 64 faster.  In those days we learned typing the hard way: on those heavy mechanical typewriters.  If you weren't careful your finger would slip off the button and you actually could hurt it quite a bit on the buttons above the one you'd slip off.  And typos were for real, no backspace…
    In the second year of typing class I was upgraded to the next group and I was allowed to use the (back then) new modern electric typewriters, what a difference! Those even had a backspace button.  Pushing it would make the machine use some whitener to hide the previously-typed character.  But we weren't supposed to use that… 🙂

  2. Hi Grant, I'd guess around 90-100 wpm at present. But totally depends upon what I'm typing. Programs that measure that tend to measure typing formal letters, etc. rather than things like code. (And no, no plans for DVORAK)

  3. Thanks Greg. In the formal tests, I'm around 70-80. I must admit that when I watch over other dev's shoulders that are really fast typists, it is quite impressive. You've inspired me to improve my craft.

  4. I knew early on that learning to type would be a handy skill to have if I was going to work with computers, so in year 8 at High School I asked the school librarian if they had a 'learn to type' book. She got one for me from one of the 'Business Studies' teachers (the ones who taught the girls to type as you mentioned).
    I then sat down and pounded away on a manual typewriter for a few weeks (to my frustration it would be a few years before I had a computer at home), until I'd got all 10 fingers working well.
    It's a skill that I now take for granted every day.

  5. I also took a typing class on manual typewriters — the last one my high school ever ever offered — and I'm very happy that my mother forced me to do so! No matter where I work I'm generally the fastest typist around, and I believe that speed contributes to greater productivity. I often feel that devs who can't properly type are in a slightly lower caste 🙂
    I highly recommend giving Dvorak a try. I've been using it for the last 15 years. I can switch fairly seamlessly back and forth between it and QWERTY when necessary, but I can do 20+ WPM better on a Dvorak. It's a much more comfortable and natural layout. And really not at all difficult to learn. Anyone who can already touch type will have a bit of unlearning to do on the way there, but if you can find a week of semi-downtime and force yourself you'll find that it's not at all difficult.
    Bonus: unless you're REALLY hardcore you won't want to get a hardware Dvorak keyboard, so you'll have to learn blind — on a keyboard marked for QWERTY. This is a good thing. It means that you'll be forced to actually touch type and not use your eyes at all.

  6. I sat through a presentation last week in which the presenter typed a great deal of code using the hunt-and-peck approach. It was painful.

  7. I agree it's a vital skill but as nice as it is to type fast, I think the real gain is not thinking about the typing and being able to let your brain concentrate on the coding.

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