An Engineer's Tools: Hands. Yours for Life

Michael Robinson Michael Robinson Connect Nov 20, 2023 · 4 mins read
An Engineer's Tools: Hands. Yours for Life

Ever considered the most crucial tool in a software engineer’s arsenal? It’s your hands, something you might overlook.

Software Engineering is an interesting profession, there are no mandatory tools, no agreed handbook explaining minimum basic tenets to follow to ensure a long and healthy career. We’re expected it seems, to figure it out ourselves. In this post I want to talk about a tool we take for granted that you’ll notice only when they break: your hands.

Many assume that as sedentary workers, we can’t physically wear out. For me this led to mistakes early on that nearly cost me my income.

Jump to advice: my hands are sore, what do I do?

Over my career as an individual contributor I worked through solutions until I settled where I am today. I coach my managers and talk about this topic whenever I’m triggered. It’s important and can be the difference between being able to focus on what matters or struggling to work at all.

The Issue

Numbness and pain, starting in the pinkies-developing upwards through the outside of my arms and into my shoulders and neck. Being young and relatively stupid in many ways, I ignored it assuming it would go away; it got worse.

Solution Part #1: A New Virtual Input Method

I was a month away from starting a new job and efficient in my current work. I took this as an opportunity to change habits. I discovered Vim, and learned that it was designed to split reading and writing, a modal editor. The options it gives to minimise finger movement seemed ideal. The learning curve was steep!

It took about a week for me to get to 75% of my previous efficiency and another two to get close to 100%. I think I would have been much faster today, given the resources available:

This alternative input method helped, but didn’t fix the problem. It did give me a new joy - editing text with Vim. All Vim users will tell you it’s worth learning! Most engineering oriented applications come with in built Vim commands or plugins that add them, including modern IDE’s like VSCode, IntelliJ IDEA and others.

Do your brain a favour and learn Vim today.

Solution Part #2: A New Physical Input Method

Months into my new job, responsible for technology within a small company, doing my work and fixing any mistakes or omissions by the team, the pain came back with a vengeance.

I didn’t know what to do! I turned to Reddit and Google, who indicated standard keyboards might be to blame. Much research and thought later, I boiled the problem down to:

  • Standard keyboards requiring fingers to contort in order to hit keys.
  • Ironically, my now obsessive use of Vim putting a high load on my pinkies - ctrl, esc are both little-finger-buttons.

Thankfully there are a number of keyboards out there that offer “thumb keys”, a cluster of keys optimised for your thumb. Command, CTRL, ALT, Shift, whatever keys trouble you.

Thumbs are strong, pinkies are not. This made a big difference to me. The pain went away and I was happy.

Solution Part #3: Lost Youth

You won’t believe it until your time but bodies wear out and require maintenance. We can ride youth for a while but it catches up to you.

Number 1 and 2 solved one set of problems, it was nearly a decade after I discovered special keyboards when I implemented the final stage - exercise and the use of a standing desk.

On top of all this I’ve had fairly crippling back pain since young adulthood, and assumed it was just part of my life. Obviously not getting better as I aged, I decided to try the one thing I had avoided most of my life: exercise.

Eventually I settled on Apple Fitness and some dumbbells. After 6 months I was hooked. Back pain gone, strong enough to stand at a standing desk all day, better posture, many benefits (all of the benefits they say you get!).

It didn’t make me young again but it restored the strength and vitality that had been lost.

Working your body makes your whole self stronger, including hands. The main tool for engineers beyond our minds.

What Should I Have Done?

Wonderful story - but starting over what should I have done? What do I think you should do?

Talked to a professional: a Doctor, a Physiotherapist. At the time this didn’t occur to me. If you’re experiencing any pain, this should be your first port of call.

Don’t learn the hard, through years of pain like I did. Remember, your hands are the tools that shape your career; take care of them.

Michael Robinson
Written by Michael Robinson Connect
I specialise in creating change that ensures technology organisations provide the engagement, speed and quality so critical for business success in today’s hyper competitive market.