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Daan Debie
Daan Debie

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Use Tools that Suit You and the Problem

A couple of weeks ago someone shared an article on Hacker News that discussed the drawbacks of using an IDE for programming. Needless to say, when you touch people's tools, you can be sure to spark a hefty discussion.

(To be fair, the author did clarify that they're not against IDE's in general and they actually use one on a daily basis.)

When reading the discussion, one of the first things I wondered is if there are places on the internet where carpenters or plumbers furiously criticize each other's choice of tools. But even that has a place on Hacker News

In this post I want to explore the fundamental problems with this type of discussion and how you can embrace freedom of choice.

It's all about context

When discussing someone else's choice of tools -- in this case the choice of editor or IDE -- it's good to be mindful of what we don't know about this person and their reasons for choosing certain tools. Aside from personal preference and/or familiarity, there can be lots of extra factors to consider:

  • We don't know what kind of problems they're working on
  • We don't know the context in which they work (e.g. security requirements laid down by the company they work for, available budget)
  • We don't know their level of experience

I think it's good form to voice an opinion only when we can see the whole picture. I also think that people should be encouraged to choose the right tool for the job. And to put it simply: the right tool for the job is the one that fits the problem and makes you the most productive.

It's also about definition

Another issue with this kind of discussion is that everyone has a different idea of what really constitutes an "IDE". We're inclined to frame the choice of editor as a binary choice -- "pure text editor" vs "IDE", almost like a false dichotomy -- while it really is a spectrum. On this spectrum you'll not only find different editors, but even different configurations of the same editor with varying degrees of "smartness" applied through plugins.

So when someone says "why use an IDE when you can do everything an IDE does in VIM if you install the following 20 plugins", is this really so different from an actual IDE (that was branded as such)?

Philosophies in tool choices

When looking at how people setup their development environments, I basically see 2 different approaches:

  • The "additive" approach: this basically follows the UNIX philosophy of composing many different tools that each do one thing well. It often involves a terminal-based editor like VIM, optionally with some plugins and supported by external tools like grep, sed and awk that can help with refactoring code. You basically stack tools until you have an "integrated" development environment
  • The "subtractive" approach: you take one "big" editor as the basis of your stack. This is often an editor that is branded as an IDE (e.g. Eclipse, Jetbrains editors). Then you take away/replace ("subtract") the parts that work better through dedicated tools (according to personal preference of course)

To me, both approaches have their merits and uses!

How to create freedom of choice?

I think the most important question around editors is not

How to choose the right editor?

but rather

How to enable each member of my team to choose the editor that makes them most productive, while enabling effective collaboration?

Here's my recipe to do that:

My basic starting point in teams: everyone can use the editor/IDE of their choice. To enable effective collaboration, the following rules must be followed:

  • Editor configuration is never checked into version control, unless it's generic and applicable across editors. Examples of generic editor configuration are: line endings, tabs vs spaces, max line length etc. There is some overlap with linters here
  • Enforce common code style through external tools (i.e. linters, code formatters)
  • Everyone should be able to build and run a project, regardless of the choice of editor, preferably through the terminal. This means that we'll always prefer external tools for this. Many languages provide tooling for this:
    • Java → Maven/Gradle
    • JS/TS → NPM
    • Go → Go
    • Rust → Cargo
    • ...
  • Additionally, building and running code can be made easier and better reproducible by using Makefiles and/or Docker (combined with Docker Compose)

I have to admit that in some ways I also limit choice within my teams: building and running projects often involves shell scripts which are portable between Linux and MacOS, but not to Windows. This can be solved by using WSL on Windows.

This is my setup

My personal setup involves quite a lot of tools.

For any "serious" development work (i.e. long stretches of coding and big projects) I take the aforementioned "subtractive" approach. My basis is one of the Jetbrains tools, depending on the language(s) I'm working with. I find the Jetbrains tools make me really productive and their All products pack offers great value for money, especially with their huge loyalty discounts after 1 or more years.

I still use the terminal and external tools for many things in this case. I put quite some time in improving and maintaining my dotfiles as well.

  • I prefer to use the terminal for: building, linting, running tests, using git
  • I prefer to use the IDE for: writing and editing code, refactoring, searching for code, find/replace through regex

For quick and short edits and viewing files where speed is preferred and conveniences like syntax highlighting and intellisense are not important, I use Sublime Text or VIM. Example of this: editing my dotfiles.

Sometimes, but rarely, I use VSCodium for editing or viewing files which are not part of a project and which I want to reformat/reindent. This doesn't work well for me in Sublime Text. For example: viewing/editing minified JSON files.


To wrap this post up, I just want to reiterate: use whatever tools make you productive and help you solve the problems you're trying to solve and please let others do the same.

And here's some additional closing advice: should you ever grow unhappy with the tools you're using, just write a blog post extolling the virtues of your current tools. You can be sure people on the internet will tell you how much better their tools are, thereby providing you with potential alternatives to your current setup 😇

Thanks to Dan for proofreading this

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