Dvorak or Bust

Hannah Willis // January 9, 2020


Principal Consultant Robert Leahey knows a lot about languages and computer keyboards. Below, he shares how confronting change head-on has defined his career.

It’s 1998. I’m typing code 8-10 hours a day, playing music gigs at night, and my wrists are telling me they’ve had enough of this nonsense. To varying efficacy, I try a number of possible remedies including ice, anti-inflammatories, oddly-shaped ergonomic keyboards, some changes to my musical techniques, etc.

I’m having a modicum of success with an ergonomic keyboard when I read of something really odd: the Dvorak Keyboard Layout

I’m not here to sell you on Dvorak, and I’m aware of its over-hyped reputation. You can read about it for yourself here. But look at that layout insanity! What was August Dvorak thinking? A friend once described it as “playing 52-card Pick Up” with your keyboard. 


The Dvorak Keyboard Layout

I was desperate enough to try it; but I knew that just dabbling in it was insufficient. To test its effectiveness I needed to go all-in. So I switched my Windows Input Layout, printed out a Dvorak layout like above and taped it to my monitor. Since I couldn’t afford an actual Dvorak keyboard, I went with my QWERTY ergonomic keyboard, flipped that Windows input and never looked at my keyboard at all. I couldn’t! If I typed what the keyboard said was “Robert”, I would get “Osndok”.

The point is that I made the decision to take the productivity hit to learn the new skill. The productivity hit was significant, but 20+ years later, I am a touch-typist in Dvorak, and until recently, was pain-free in my wrists. 

"....Until Recently"

Noticed that qualifier, did you? The pain is returning and it’s not from an increase in sax gigs I can tell you. I'm staying with Dvorak, so that won’t be changing, but there are quite a few more ergonomic keyboard choices today than 20 years ago. I’ve been typing on the same style of ‘board 15 or so years, so I looked for other options. Leaving aside the not inconsequential issue of price tag, there are a lot of options out there. I did my reading, I made my purchase, and now I’m typing on something of an… alternative nature.


My new set-up with the ErgoDox Keyboard

While the ErgoDox Keyboard has received rave reviews for its ergonomics, you may or may not notice from that picture that there are fewer keys here than on a standard 101/104-key board. Unfortunately for me, what’s missing are the symbols. You know, the things that programmers get paid to type. The good news with this keyboard is that I can program the symbols to be anywhere I want. That’s great, but now I’m suddenly a not terribly effective typist again, and I’m looking at another 1-2 month drop in productivity while I master a new skill. 

I suppose that in both instances I could have remained at status quo; I wouldn’t have gone through (or be currently going through) some reformative trauma, but I’d also be out of the industry due to my inability to adapt.

And when I look back on my decades long career, that spirit of adaption has been the key to survival.

The Illusion of Stability

The first time someone actually paid me for programming, it was for Visual BASIC work, and I said, “Yes, sir” and I wrote my interpreted code. Then one day the heavens opened and I was introduced to object-oriented programming via the Borland compilers. I loved Object PASCAL. It was a good OO language. I wound up working for a series of talented vendors in the Borland compiler 3rd-party developers’ tools sector. I wrote articles, I presented at conferences, I helped create amazing devtools, I created training materials for those amazing devtools, and I thrived in this wonderful object-oriented language in this wonderful paradigm called Win32. Then one day my company sent me to a conference at Borland for how they were going to support this new “.NET” thing from Microsoft. Thus began a period of chaotic change. Delphi didn’t die (it’s still being actively developed), but C# and .NET were where it was at now. For a while, I tried to fight it: I’d try to convert C# questions in my head to Delphi; yeah, that didn’t work. So finally I decided that I had to suck it up and commit to learning C# and .NET. It was a huge productivity hit, but I got through it and behold! I was relevant again. 

Fast forward to today. I’ve been working strictly in back end and middle API projects for 10+ years. During that time, a lot of new technologies have scurried past me and in my most recent job search it showed. 

Them: “How many years of Angular do you have?”

Me: “Uhm…”

And so, it is once again time to swap the metaphorical keyboard layout, tape up some allusional cheat sheets, and take the hit to learn something new to keep myself productive and relevant. 

I’m spending a lot of time with Components, ngModules, and TypeScript; and I’ll come out the other side better for it. 

As developers, we either change or we cease to be useful. I’ve reinvented myself repeatedly over the years and I’m very glad of it. Today I live in the ripples of of both the big and small changes made long ago. If I had allowed contentment to be more powerful than my need to make an impact, my wrists would have fallen off and my code would be too antiquated to serve anyone or anything. In these two aspects of my life, it’s pretty clear that the choice was always either adapt or die. I’d bet you can think of a time when your own life brought you to that choice too. What did you do? Which way did you go? I’d bet that you’re facing this quagmire right now, in some way or another.

So here’s the most important question I can ask...what are you doing about it? 


Robert in his natural habitat. Keep up with him here and find out what other Improvers are saying on our Thoughts page.

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