On the usefulness of a little bit of programming

    On the usefulness of a little bit of programming

    While I am a professional software developer (or machine learning consultant, to be more exact) and I have started learning programming more than 10 years ago, I went to college to study it, I spend a lot of my free time learning more about this domain (because I love it), I'm starting to realize that knowing a bit of programming is a super power, from which many people could benefit, if only they knew just a bit of coding.

    For example, about 6 years ago I wrote a 2 line JavaScript bookmarklet for a recruiter, that reduced the number of clicks he had to do, from 10 clicks to 3, for each of several thousand candidates. It was a simple script that looked for an HTML tag, extracted a value and put it in the clipboard (from where he pasted it into a spreadsheet). The guy was so happy that he gave me a peer bonus, because it saved him hours of boring work.

    Another example is when I have to replace something many times in a text document and I can quickly write a regex to do it. My dad sometimes calls me to do that for him when he is typesetting books.

    This week I wanted to read a transcribed sermon that came in a .doc format. For more pleasant reading, I copy pasted it into a markdown file, quickly fixed some Markdown issues (mostly lists and headers), ran it through Pandoc and got a beautiful HTML, that was easy on the eyes. I sprinkled in some copy pasted JavaScript and I had automatic popups for Bible verses when hovering over references.

    Julia Evans recently wrote about some tiny personal programs she wrote that both had marginal utility in her life and also brought her joy while writing them.

    Doing this kind of programming doesn't require knowing a lot about programming, much less how to develop software professionally, but it does require you to have a knowledge of what is possible with code and either a low enough friction to get started (such as a text editor with a built-in regex search and replace), or a high enough motivation (such as wanting to avoid tens of hours of boring work) to do it.

    But unfortunately, I don't know if this is something that can be learned quickly. All these examples I gave took me 5-10 minutes to implement, but that's because I already knew a fair bit of JavaScript, I've had to process Markdown in the past, I've written regexes many times for work and I've had a general awareness of Pandoc, even if I didn't use it much before. If I had to search Kagi for all of these (or if I didn't even know what to search for), it would take a lot longer.

    In my opinion, this approach is much more useful than the no-code approach that is popular today (at least among startups) and it would be great to see more startups trying to reduce the friction for doing just a bit of coding, not eliminating coding at all. Grist seems like a pretty good approach in this direction.

    What's your favorite quick "hack" where you used a bit of coding knowledge to bring quality of life improvements for yourself?