Typical Technological Trickery

Are custom dev setups worthwhile?

20 Nov 2021

I work on a heavily customised version of Ubuntu which I treat a bit like Arch Linux but with more stable packages (i.e. custom X session with no GNOME etc, only running what I configure). I also use Emacs with a lot of configuration for almost all of my programming work. I was nudged down this path by The Art of Unix Programming, and I assumed that it would pay off but didn’t have much real foresight on the issue. In retrospect this kind of setup has some tradeoffs so I’m often unsure whether to recommend that younger engineers do something similar or stick with more standardised tools.

Being willing to put some effort into customising your setup can get you some nice benefits, e.g.

  • Tiling window managers to remove a lot of fiddling with window layouts.
  • Hotkeys for the tools and commands that you use the most (e.g. opening your todo list in a new editor window with one keystroke).
  • If using a mouse causes you RSI problems, no problem: configure things such that you rarely need to use one.
  • You can choose to only use applications with a text-based configuration, store all of the files in git, and so be able to configure a new machine to work exactly the same way in minutes.
  • You can use a more RSI-friendly keyboard layout (Colemak!) and rebind keys to be sensible in the alternative layout.
  • You also gain the ability to quickly experiment with new ideas. Because you already understand the basics additional configuration is easy.

But maybe the most important thing is the knowledge that you get along the way. In customising your environment you are forced to learn all sorts of little things which can pay off later. I first learned about systemd, bash scripting, udev, makefiles and much more in this way. All of these examples have been useful in my day job. Learning about such things while trying to make your window manager do something neat is much more fun and rewarding than learning them from books or exercises. In fact I suspect almost no-one learns this stuff in an academic way because it would be so dull!

You also gain more abstract knowledge too. The practice of customising your environment pushes you to work closely with a wide variety of software written in a wide variety of languages. This exposes you to various philosophies on configuration, updating, compilation, dependency management, correctness etc. For example you gain an appreciation for simple interfaces and code because it makes your life eaisier. You get to see how different styles of typechecking and auotmated testing play out in terms of how reliable the software is (spoiler: old untested lisp code often doesn’t do as well as e.g. well tested Haskell).

Along the same lines, you are pushed to experiment with multiple languages. My go to languages for real work are python, C++, and javascript, but through environment configuration I’ve had plenty of exposure to outliers like lisp, Haskell and bash. This makes it easier to understand new languages or language features e.g. my prior experience with lisp made it particularly easy for me to understand javascript well.

One downside of all this is that it takes some work. As long as it’s still fun this isn’t a problem, but sometimes these days I just want my computers to work without needing to think about anything. An example: my laptop doesn’t currently autodetect external monitors. I know that I could write a udev rule to automatically run the appropriate xrandr command but I haven’t bothered yet. So 2.5 years after switching from a desktop to a laptop I still run a command whenever I plug in a monitor.

Another is that sometimes you just have to live with something a little janky. In my case I wanted a status bar containing live graphs of CPU/memory/disk and applets for wifi, volume, skype, etc. But I couldn’t find anything that supports both so I’m actually running two status bars that look like they are one. This is fine except that depending on the screen size there can be a slight gap or overlap between them. Purely an aesthetic issue, but annoying nonetheless.

But maybe the biggest downside: the more standard your environment is the more you can benefit from economies of scale in getting new features and keeping everything bug-free. For example this seems to be happening with VS code - any new text editing idea is quickly added to VS code, but sometimes they take longer to reach Emacs (and longer still for a high quality version). Similarly when you work for a sufficiently large company they will likely have some engineers working on tooling and the more standard your enviroment is the more you can benefit from this.

An aside: some people avoid doing a lot of custom configuration because they want to be able to work easily on other people’s computers. I haven’t found this to be an issue yet: I’ve probably spent double-digit hours working on other people’s computers vs >20,000 hours on mine!

So to sum it up: maybe. Some configuration is probably worth the effort (e.g. tiling window managers and custom OS-level hotkeys are low effort, high payoff and easy to maintain), others might not be worthwhile directly (e.g. writing your own Emacs package to do autoformatting). But aside from the direct benefits, tinkering with computers and programming for fun outside of work can teach you a lot. If you find configuring your environment fun then it is a great way to learn!