If you want to start a war between coders, just ask them to start describing their tools. Text editors, programming languages, and even platforms form entrenched camps of dispute. Even so, like the great religions of the world, we cannot but help proselytizing about the virtues of our one true way. This post is no different.

I’ve been coding a long time and I’ve had all that time to become embittered and crotchety about my development environments. I won’t lie, when I see someone coding in Textmate, I judge. Sure, there’s an element of jest, but I do it all the same.

Not all tools are created equally. This is my set up. It is the one true way. If you’re doing something else, may locusts descend upon your backups, and may your keyboards be sticky.

On a serious note, though: Using a good set of tools, whether hardware or software, can make an enormous difference in a developers speed, accuracy, and even happiness. I’ve come to these through a rather convoluted past, and they work really well for me. I will happily promote them to others, but I think it’s more important that you have tools than that you have my tools.

If you’re reading this and you’re a coder and you haven’t spent time really customizing your environment, setting things in just the right way and just the right place, and using just the right brushes; you need to stop what you’re doing and get to it. I don’t care how brilliant your mind is, if you’re writing in Notepad, or TextWrangler, then you’re not at your best.

The list below is a snapshot of what I’m doing now. I’ll give the reasons for each and try and highlight some of the benefits. I hope some of you will find this interesting and useful. Perhaps you’ll even find something here to add to your own collection. If you have questions or comments, lets Disqus.

Dvorak Simplified Keyboard

The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard is the first fundamental difference in my computer interface. For those unfamiliar, the Dvorak key-map rose in response to the outdated keyboard layout at the time, QWERTY. The history in short is this: QWERTY was designed in the age of typewriters, when speed led to jams. The letters used most often were spaced apart to avoid these mechanical problems. Unfortunately, while we’ve outgrown these problems their patch-work solution has remained. QWERTY became the de-facto standard, and its proponents have promulgated through the ages.

Dvorak was created a bit more scientifically, with a focus on speed and conservation of movement. The most commonly used keys (in English) were placed on the home row. The left hand home row contains all the vowels, for instance. Again, unfortunately, time was not kind to Dvorak. Like Betamax, it has lost out. Still, there are users, and quite a number of them. It is available on all major operating systems, and for those that know it, we cannot live without it.

Not only is my typing speed much greater than it was in QWERTY, the real reason for my adoption was more health related than designed to eek out those last few WPM. I had been beginning to develop repetitive stress injuries in my wrists from prolonged typing. Dvorak has all-but-cured that issue.

Now I wont lie. Switching from QWERTY to Dvorak was not easy. It took me at least a month to make the switch, during which time I was not working and my constant typing was not necessary. I also lost my ability to type in QWERTY as I developed the new layout. I know some folks have managed to hold on to both, but not me. I can type my name, common passwords, and that’s about it. Anything else requires me to hunt and peck.


At the heart of my operating systems is the UNIX philosophy, a tiny piece of wisdom:

Even though the UNIX system introduces a number of innovative programs and techniques, no single program or idea makes it work well. Instead, what makes it effective is the approach to programming, a philosophy of using the computer. Although that philosophy can’t be written down in a single sentence, at its heart is the idea that the power of a system comes more from the relationships among programs than from the programs themselves. Many UNIX programs do quite trivial things in isolation, but, combined with other programs, become general and useful tools.

In short, “do one thing, and do it well.”

With a UNIX based operating system, you gain the power of composition. You no longer just do a task, but have the power to chain them together, feeding the output of one thing into the input of another. Before you know it, little commands like sed, awk, grep, and so on become instruments of magic.

find "${SRC}" -type f -exec grep -H 'TODO:' {} \; 2> /dev/null | grep -v -e -e -e pre-commit | awk '{for (i=1; i<=NF-1; i++) $i = $(i+1); NF-=1; print}' | sed -e "s/.*TODO:[ ${TAB}]*//" | sed -e "s/^/- /" >> $TODO 2> /dev/null

Take the line above as an example. It’s one line of a script I’m using in a pre-commit hook for my latest front-end web boilerplate. Whenever I commit code to my repo, this spiders my source directory and finds any TODO comments I’ve littered throughout the code. It parses them and returns a markdown formatted list of them, which the script then outputs to a README file inside the repository. With some basic use of built-in utilities I can compose a sophisticated script that keeps and up-to-date TODO list for my active projects. How neat is that?

Windows is getting better at this sort of thing through projects like cygwin. Apple means nothing to me, but their decision to buy out NeXT and use it to create OSX was fantastic. That was the game changer that saved the operating system, and it’s the only reason I use their products now. Build a consumer friendly UI on top of the UNIX philosophy and you combine ease of use with true power.


Running OSX or Debian or Ubuntu or whatever is great, but there’s a lot of customization that can be done to make things more personal. The first step of that is your dotfiles.

These are my dotfiles.

I define my environments, common aliases, and even some helper functions. Git settings and shortcuts and my vim (coming soon) customization. I’m very proud of my dotfiles, from the organization and installation to my prompt.


The other half of my working OS is my collection of binfiles that I carry with me from machine to machine.

This is my bin repo. They tie in to my dotfiles quite closely. Some of these are handy things I use all the time, and others are extremely specific tasks I do for work that should never, ever be run unless you know what you’re doing. It’s like a fun minefield. Enjoy!


I work predominantly at the command line. I build my projects there, use source control, and–as you’ll see in a moment–do my development there. Sometimes it’s necessary to do more than one thing at a time. I could make a new tab, but there are better options. The best option I’ve found for session management is tmux. It’s the inheritor of the old screen program and it enables you to create sessions, windows and panes, jump around, re-size, and dance across your system with ease.

Right now I am in tmux writing this post. I am in the second window, first pane, of the session called “personal”. The pane to my right is running make devserver, a script that runs both a development webserver but also watches the file system for changes to this blog and re-compiles it as they happen. It is a part of Pelican, my blog platform, which I’ve written about in the past.

I have context to my activities, whether it be work or play. This is thanks to tmux. Like everything else, tmux customization is key.

Here is my tmux configuration. It’s a part of my dotfiles repo.


Finally we come to the most important part of my tool box, vim. If arguing developer tools can start a war, arguing with a vim (or emacs) user must signal the end of days.

If you don’t know what vim is, shame on you. Also, go read this explanation in six kilobytes. I couldn’t possibly do a better job than that.

Suffice it to say, vim is what makes my system work. The reason I can develop entirely in the console is because I have a fully featured IDE right there at the command line. I have more power at my fingertips without a mouse than pretty much anyone I’ve encountered in my career. Sublime Text 3 is a great editor. PHPStorm is a great editor. And yet they’re worthless next to vim (or emacs. Seriously… not gonna fight you guys).

I code in vim. I author in vim. I take notes in vim. I’ve done presentations in vim. I rebind my keys in first person shooters based on the HJKL navigation in vim. I play vimgolf. I’ve gotten on the high score board for it too.

The best thing I can say for vim is that it makes my desires transparent. I want to move this block of code to another area, done. I want to mark this particular word so I can jump back to it later, even from another file… done. I want to reverse every line of the file (why? no idea): That’s as easy as typing :g/^/m0.

Vim isn’t easy. It’s a power tool. If you haven’t bothered to learn a real editor yet, or if you’re just starting out your career, then do yourself a favor and master vim. I’m serious, it will change your life.

You can do pretty much anything in vim out of the box, but if you want to simplify some things or don’t want to code it yourself, there’s probably a great plugin that someone has made already to help you. I’d recommend hitting up VimAwesome to see what’s popular. I’ll call out a few of my favorites below as well.


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James Tomasino

I like reading, writing, and arithmetic

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