Know Your Tools

Wesley Bland bio photo By Wesley Bland

Whenever first starting out, whether as a grad student, professional, or hobbyist, one of the first things I think you should do is to be as familiar with the tools that you plan to use as you can be. They should be just like a part of your body. Someone who does woodworking knows exactly where all of their tools are and what they do. They slowly expand their set of tools as they discover that they need another one to do the task they want to do.

So it should be with those of us who use computers all day. Whether a developer or manager, we should all know our tools.

For instance, if you spend a lot of time writing and responding to emails and setting up meetings, you should know everything you can about your email and calendar clients. You should know how to customize your signatures, set up threading in the way you like it best, check other people’s free/busy schedule, etc. All of these are important for you to do your job and when you need to do something, you should have to spend as little time as possible looking for the way to do that feature.

Of course, this takes time. We all are always short on time. My way of trying to cheat this is to do it first. When I get a new device or start using a new program I look at the settings. I go through every menu and every check box to figure out what they do. This way I know the capabilities of the tool before I ever start using it, and later, when I need to do something complex, I can think, “I remember seeing something somewhere that would make this faster.”

For some tools, this is pretty simple. It’s not too hard to go through your mail client’s settings. In some sense, it’s not to bad to go through your terminal emulator either. It does get more complicated when you get to other tools though. For instance, I’m a VI (really Neovim) user. It’s truly impossible for me to know every customization that’s there. In those instances, do a bit of research. Do a Google search for “getting started with X”. There is almost certainly someone out there who’s written the canonical post for how to set up your tool and what sort of things you should start looking to customize.

One of the things I hope to do with this blog is to provide another data point for people to reference when starting up with a new tool and perhaps to shine a light on a tool that’s not currently being used, but could improve people’s work.