Saturday, March 6, 2010

Correlation Between Typing Speed and Programming Competence

A colleague recently asked me, "Have you noticed that the better developers we've worked with are also fast typists?" I acknowledged that I had noticed relatively quick typing speed to be a common trait of most of the best developers that I know. It also made me think of the Jeff Atwood post We are Typists First, Programmers Second and the Steve Yegge post Programming's Dirty Little Secret.

I do know a few exceptions where a particularly talented developer is not even in the top half in terms of typing skills, but it is the rare exception. The majority of the best developers I've had the good fortune to work with are in the "top half" in terms of typing speed. I am a strong believer that good software development is much more than just hacking some code. So, I in this post, I look at the correlation between the ability to type rapidly and the likelihood of being a successful software developer.

It goes without saying that a fast typist is not necessarily a good developer. I've never seen (other than on television) anyone type faster than my mom. She had been an administrative assistant (called secretary at the time) for several years. This experience combined with an obvious knack for the skill had led to her typing 120+ words per minute with few or no mistakes (on typewriters no less). She was not a software developer.

Although it is true that typing is a big part of the software developer's job, so are many other things such as understanding customer needs, coming up with architectures and designs that feature the most important -ilities, working on teams, knowing language syntax, understanding various third-party products and frameworks, and so forth. Typing is clearly a big part of most software developers' daily routine, but what makes it seem to be so highly correlated with the most successful software developers?

We Do Well What We Do Often

In many ways, the correlation between typing and software development success is not so as much about faster typing leading to a better developer as it is about faster typing being evidence of countless hours spent with the keyboard writing code. In other words, it is not necessarily that faster typing makes the developer better or more efficient (though it obviously cannot hurt) as it is that the great developer is a fast typist simple because that developer has spent so much time coding (and learning to be a better typing as a pure side effect of those many hours). One could make the argument that becoming experienced and accomplished in software development makes one a better typist rather than making the argument that being a better typist makes one a better developer.

I have noticed that my fastest typing comes when I type the same thing over and over. What this means is that I end up being very quick to type things like build commands, database/SQL commands, application server administrative and deployment commands, configuration management commands, and the like. The things I do everyday are the things I do most quickly.

Efficient Typing Allows Time for Other Things

One advantage that faster typists have compared to developers with lesser typing skills is that less time spent typing in characters means more time doing the many other things that good software developers do: scripting routine tasks, writing and running tests, documenting for users and maintainers, learning new things, writing e-mail messages, writing blogs, etc. In an almost recursive fashion, many of these tasks that can have more time dedicated to them because a developer was able to type code more quickly are themselves beneficiaries of better typing skills as well.

Efficiency of Typing can Lead to Perceived Faster Typing

One of the interesting characteristics I've observed in many of the best developers I've worked with is their ability to take advantage of many different key strokes, macros, and other devices to accomplish the same task more quickly. Although just about every developer I work with these days uses an IDE, it wasn't all that long ago when certain developers could make the (truthful) argument that they could write and develop code more quickly in their simple text editor than most developers around them could with the IDE.

For the smallest of projects, I still find myself sometimes using these simple tools when the IDEs or other more advanced tools just feel unnecessarily heavy. I have amazed some people around me with my perceived vi prowess, but what they don't realize is that I'm really an amateur compared to some of the vi skills I have seen others possess. When these developers combine a powerful IDE with a vi emulator, it can be dizzying trying to watch them in action.

Some of the fastest developers I have worked with complement their own typing speed with knowledge of and familiarity with their favorite tools. This is often seen in the world of IDEs where a developer who knows the IDE well can take advantage of all types of different features to developer more quickly and accurately.

Fast Typing is an Inherent Advantage in Some Aspects of Software Development

Although it can be argued (as I did above) that fast typing is a side effect or consequence of years of inadvertently practicing typing while writing code, there is no question that some areas of software development are prone to benefit from faster typing. It is obvious that a fast typist has advantage when getting his or her thoughts into code, though I have seen that advantage at least partially mitigated by IDE code completion and other features.

Writing original code is an obvious area where faster typing is an advantage. Faster typing is also an advantage, however, for the person doing refactoring outside that supported well by the IDE. Faster typing might make a developer less concerned about having enough time to write that one last test he or she feels would be nice to have.

Typing is Not Writing

One of the areas where the correlation between fast typist and great developer breaks down most is when typing without creativity is considered. Developers' typing is more like authors' and reporters' typing and less like administrative assistants' typing and stenotyping. By this, I mean that a developer typically must insert his or her own creativity and thought into what he or she is typing. Rarely is the developer asked to simply type up some pseudocode or other previously dictated implementation. What this can mean is that the raw speed of typing may be not quite as important as it would be if typing up what someone else was saying or writing because some time is spent in that thinking.


It's not all that surprising that, at least in my experience, that the better developers generally tend to be faster typists. The correlation between productive developer and typing skills seems to enjoy somewhat of a causal relationship from both sides. Being a better developer as a result of years spent toiling over a keyboard writing code cannot help but make one more efficient with the keyboard. From the other perspective, faster typing skills help a developer to get more done in the same amount of time. As with just about everything in life and especially in software development, there are exceptions. I do know of some really good developers who are probably not in the top half of typist abilities, but they are the exception. Most of the best developers I know are also better than average typists. The good news is that developers can practice both at the same time. As one writes code, one also practices typing.

Additional References

Programming's Dirty Little Secret

We Are Typists First, Programmers Second

Speed Chess

⇒ Stack Overflow: Should Programmers Be Excellent Typists?

1 comment:

touchtyping said...

Touch Typing:- Great article! This is about reasonable competency at a core programming discipline.