What’s the easiest way to boost your career as a software developer? Learn to touch type.
I’ve been a professional programmer for about 30 years, self-employed for 25 years, and doing full-time corporate Python training for more than a decade.
I run a small business, which involves me writing, programming, and teaching, as well as handling all of the business-related stuff.
So, what’s my most important skill, the thing that helps me get lots accomplished in a short period of time? Easy: My ability to touch type.
It all started when I was in high school in the mid-1980s. I would use my family’s computer — yes, in those days, the entire family shared one — for schoolwork, for doing some introductory programming, and even writing newsletters for my high-school youth organization. The thing is, I was doing all of this typing with two fingers, and this drove my parents bananas.
Both of my parents can touch type. In those days, it was typical for office workers to record their correspondence, give the recording to a secretary, and then review the result before sending it out. My father never did that, because he typed at least as fast as his secretary, and the whole dictation process would slow him down. It wasn’t unusual to hear the rat-tat-tat of my father typing from his study at home.
It’s no surprise that it bothered my parents to be hunting and pecking. I was pretty fast at it, but I was no match for my father or any other touch typist. My parents strongly encouraged me to learn to touch type, but I was a teenager, which meant that I knew better than they did. And besides, I type fast enough, right?
Finally, my parents set a new rule: For every hour that I used the computer, I had to spend an hour doing a lesson from a touch-typing book. (How quaint, right?) I yelled. I screamed. I cried. I protested. But my parents didn’t budge.
At first, it was painful: When you start to touch type, you are learning to use your hands in a new way, one that feels completely foreign. You also type much more slowly than you did before, and feel like you’re wasting your time. I certainly had these feelings, and when I had to get something done quickly, I would refer to my old two-finger method.
But within two or three weeks, I was already touch typing as quickly as I did with two fingers. Better yet, and somewhat amazingly, I was able to type without looking at the keyboard! I could enter passages from a book, without having to move my eyes from book to keyboard and back. I could talk to someone while typing. I could even sneak a peak at the TV while I was typing.
Achieving true speed didn’t happen for a while. But when I started college in the fall of 1988, I was already typing at a pretty fast clip. At the student newspaper, I was frequently drafted to take printouts from the Associated Press and type them into our “world and nation” section. And at the computer labs, where we had loud, mechanical IBM keyboards, people would ask me if I could type more slowly, because the rat-tat-tat was disturbing them.
Fast forward to 2020, and I cannot imagine my work without being able to touch type:
- Just about every day, I teach Python programming to my corporate clients. Rather than using slides, I live-code, talking while looking at my students (or the screen). I describe what I’m typing as I do it, and type at the same speed as I speak.
- Similarly, the online video courses and YouTube videos that I’ve created wouldn’t be possible were it not for touch typing.
- I can type at about the same speed as I think, meaning that when I have ideas I want to put into an article, blog post, or book, I can just sit down and write. This doesn’t mean that my text can get away without editing — but I can’t imagine the writing and editing process if typing weren’t a natural extension of my thought process.
- When I speak with a potential new client, I can take notes in real time, while holding the conversation.
- I can write and respond to e-mail quickly and easily. (This is something of a curse; I never learned to write short e-mail messages. It’s always full sentences, and typically full paragraphs, from me.)
Lots of professional writers know that they need to touch type. After all, they write for a living, and being unable to get the most out of their keyboard would seem like a crazy thing to do.
And yet, I find that a small number of the developers in my courses can touch type. They never really thought about it that much, or decided not to put time and effort into it, or thought that it was hard or impossible to learn. But it’s definitely not a priority.
Touch typing looks magical and impossible to achieve. It’s like watching a virtuoso pianist expressing themselves through the instrument, their thoughts and feelings flowing effortlessly from their brains to their hands, and then to the piano.
But here’s the thing: It’s not hard to learn. You’ll be frustrated for the weeks during which you’re learning and forcing yourself to work in a new way. But it pays for itself in spades, allowing you to write, edit, and express yourself — in code and text — more easily than you could ever imagine. And if I managed to learn from a book as an angry teenager, then you can certainly learn with the variety of online tools, many of them free, available today.