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To Vim or Not to Vim

Flatiron School / 29 October 2013

The following is a guest post by Michael Polycarpou and originally appeared on his blog. Michael is currently in the Ruby-003 class at The Flatiron School. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Michael, this is Vim. Vim, this is Michael

This week I started learning how to use Vim. I had used it briefly a couple summers ago when I was working for an engineering company. The first day at the company was the first time I had heard about Vim. I had just started my internship and in the afternoon they introduced me and another intern to the Engineers that we were going to be sharing an office with.

One of the guys in the office asked us if we were Vim boys or Emacs Men. Neither of us knew what either one was, and we told him that. Well he replied, Emacs is the best text editor ever created by man and Vim is a wannabe second. The previously quiet room burst into uproar. It was like hearing Englishmen talk about the football teams they supported.

At the time I was pretty confused. After everyone settled down I looked around and saw Vim and Emacs slogans written on whiteboards all over the room. I was bewildered.

The awesome but infuriating editor

Vim is a text editor designed for super users (programmers). Vim allows you to do everything using keyboard commands so that you never have to touch the mouse. The idea is, whenever you move your hands from the keyboard you lose efficiency.

Vim is also very useful when you are ssh’ing into a remote server with a terminal. When you want to alter a file on the server you can’t just open a GUI text editor such as Sublime as you would do if it was on your own machine. Even if you have Sublime installed on the remote server you wont be able to open it through a standard ssh connection. The alternative is to use something like ‘nano’ which is an extremely limited editor. Vim or Vi(vim before it was improved) is installed on pretty much any unix based machine.

One thing that struck me when first learning vim is how completely different it was to anything I had ever used before. Menu bars, copy pasting, even typing letters. Nothing worked. It lived in its own little world.

Vim has two main modes of functionality. You can either be in Command or in Insert mode. Insert mode is what we are used to. Typing words actually puts them on the screen! Now, if we are not supposed to use the mouse or arrow keys, then how are we supposed to navigate and manipulate the text we already have? Well, the answer to this is the command mode. By tapping the escape key while in insert mode we enter command mode. Here we use the keyboard in a completely different way. Each of the keys does something else. The h,j,k,l keys are use to go left, down, up, right respectively. ‘w’ goes to the beginning of the next word, ‘e’ goes to the end of the word, ’d’ deletes. Pretty much every key can do something. Commands can also be combined ‘y3y’ yanks or copies 3 lines.

It makes little sense and it is even harder to remember. It is just muscle memory. You need to be using it day in and day out for you to be able to get any real traction from it.

“The learning curve is like a fortress. With a moat” -frustrated vim noob

Why use it? There are so many easier alternatives. I can’t find any rational arguments that justify the hours someone needs to spend to even get close to being comfortable with the program. After countless hours spent customizing your profile (.vimrc) and learning the countless commands a person might become a little bit better than if they had used another editor but not that much better. Not enough to justify all of that time they had spent.

One reason why I started learning vim again is the same reason why people get so into games like quop or super meat boy. These games are famous for their notorious difficulty levels. People play them because they are a challenge. I like vim because it takes me out of my comfort zone and I am forced to do something the harder way, and there is a kind of joy in that.

Learning vim almost never ends. People using it for years find new ways to make their workflow even easier all of the time. There are just so many possibilities. Vim is extremely popular among developers. 3 out of the 3 developers that have come to flatiron this week has shown us or has mentioned that they are vim users. There is not arguing with that.

The first things to learn. Be patient with the rest.

Most people are encouraged to learn vim by first learning the fundamentals.

  • enter command mode using “esc”
  • enter insert mode “i” before, “a” after, “o” next line
  • navigate a file (h,j,k,l)
  • copy using “y”
  • cut or delete “d”
  • paste “p”
  • save :w
  • quit :q

Then just learn something new every week after that.

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