How Do I Start Learning Python?

Python is hot right now. Recently, several people have asked me how they can start learning Python. Here are my answers, nuanced by goals and roles.

I’m completely new to programming. How can I start learning Python?

That’s awesome! Python is a great language for beginners. You can do just about anything with Python, and its learning curve is lower than other languages. Here’s what I recommend:

  1. First, find a friend who knows Python. They can encourage you in your journey and also help you when you get stuck. If you need help finding Python friends, look for a local Python meetup, or just reach out to me.
  2. Second, install the latest version of Python from Python.org onto your computer. If you want to learn Python, then you’ll need to get your hands dirty!
  3. Third, read through a good Python book for beginners. Despite all the material available online, nothing beats a good book. I recommend Automate the Boring Stuff with Python by Al Sweigart. It’s a book written specifically for people who are new to coding, and it shows very practical things you can do with Python. You can even read it for free online! Udemy also offers an online course based on this book. Make sure you follow along with the example code on your own machine.

Once you finish your first book, keep learning! Try another book. Take an online course. Come up with a fun project you can do yourself, like making a website or programming a circuit board.

I’m a hobbyist. How can I start learning Python for fun?

Python is a great language for fun side projects. It’s easy to learn, and it has tons of packages to do just about anything. If you just want to start programming in general, then I’d recommend reading Automate the Boring Stuff with Python by Al Sweigart or Python Crash Course by Eric Matthes. No Starch Press also publishes a number of other Python books on nifty topics like games, math, and ciphers.

If you’re a hobbyist, then my main recommendation would be to come up with a fun project. Learning Python by itself is great, but learning Python to do a cool project will keep you motivated with a clear goal. Here are some ideas:

I’m a software engineer. How can I pick up Python quickly?

If you already know how to code, and you just need to pick up Python for a project on the job, don’t fret. Python will be very quick to pick up. When I re-learned Python a few years ago, I read the Python Programming book on Wikibooks. Learn X in Y Minutes and learnpython.org are also great resources for learning quickly by example. Once you breeze through the language, then you’ll probably need to lear packages and frameworks specific to your project. Some projects have better docs than others. For example, Django and pytest have great docs online.

I’m a scientist. Should I start using Python, and if so, how?

Data scientists were the first scientific community to adopt Python in large numbers, but now scientists from all fields use it for data analysis and visualization. I personally know an environmental scientist and a virologist who both started using Python in the past few years. Compared to other languages like R and Julia, Python simply has more users, more packages, and more support. Furthermore, the Python Developers Survey 2018 showed that over half of all Python users use Python for data analysis. So yes, if you’re a scientist, then you should start using Python!

To get started with Python, first make sure you have basic programming skills. It might be tempting to dive headfirst into coding some data analysis scripts, but your work will turn out much better if you learn the basics first. If you are new to programming, then start by reading Automate the Boring Stuff with Python by Al Sweigart. To learn specifically about data analysis with Python, read Python for Data Analysis by William McKinney. I’d also recommend reading additional books or taking some courses on specific tools and frameworks that you intend to use. Furthermore, I’d yield my advice to any peers in your scientific community who have recommendations.

I’m a software tester. How can I start learning Python for automation?

Python is a great language for test automation. If you are a manual tester who hasn’t done any programming before, focus on learning how to code before learning how to do automation. Follow the advice I gave above for newbies. Once you have basic Python skills, then learn pytest, the most popular and arguably the best test framework for Python. I recommend reading pytest Quick Start Guide by Bruno Oliveira or Python Testing with pytest by Brian Okken. If you want to learn about Test-Driven Development with a Django app, then check out the goat book by Harry Percival.

I’m a kid. Are there any good ways for me to learn Python?

Yes! Python is a great language for kids as well as adults. Its learning curve is low, but it still has tons of power. No Starch Press publishes a few Python books specifically for kids. Project kits from Adafruit and Raspberry Pi are another great way for kids to get their hands dirty with fun projects. If you want to learn by making games, check out Arcade Academy or PursuedPyBear. Many Python conferences also run “Young Coders” events that encourage kids to come and do things with Python.

Should I learn Python, JavaScript, Java, or another language?

Each programming language has advantages and disadvantages, but the main factor in choosing a language should be what you intend to develop. For example, Web app front-ends require JavaScript because browsers use JavaScript and not other languages. Java is popular all around for several applications like backend services and Android apps. C# is a mainstay for Microsoft .NET development. Python excels at backend web development, infrastructure, automation, and data science.

If you are new to programming and just want to start somewhere, I’d strongly recommend Python. Compared to other programming languages, it’s easy to learn. As you grow your skills, Python will grow with you because it has so many packages. You can also explore a variety of interest within the Python community because Python is popular in many domains. These days, you just can’t go wrong learning Python!

Should I learn Python 2 or 3?

Learn Python 3. Python 2 hit end of life on January 1, 2020. Some older projects may continue to use Python 2, but support for Python 2 is dead.

What tools should I use for coding in Python?

The most important tool for coding in any language is arguably the editor or IDE. These days, I use Visual Studio Code with the Python extension. VS Code feels lightweight, but it provides all the things I need as a developer: syntax highlighting, running and debugging, Git integration, and a terminal in the same window. VS Code is also fully customizable. JetBrains PyCharm is another great editor that I recommend. PyCharm a bit heavier than VS Code, but it also has richer features. Both are fantastic choices.

Virtual environments are indispensable part of Python development. They manage Python dependency packages locally per project rather than globally for an entire machine. Local package management is necessary when a user doesn’t have system-wide access or when a project needs a different package version than the one installed globally. To learn about virtual environments, take the venv tutorial in the official Python docs.

Source control is another vital part of programming. Using a source control system like Git maintains a history of your project. If you ever make a mistake, you can revert the code to its last known working state. Source control also makes it much easier for multiple people to work on the same project together simultaneously. Git is one of the most popular source control tools in use today. To learn more about Git, check out GitHub’s learning resources.

What Python books should I read?

Please check my suggestions above to know what Python books could be good for you.

What Python courses should I take online?

To be honest, I don’t have any specific Python courses to recommend. Most online courses are very similar. They include videos, transcripts, quizzes, and maybe even projects. If you want to take an online course, then I recommend finding one that looks good to you and giving it a try. I also recommend using multiple resources – either taking more than one course or reading more than one book. The second pass will reinforce the basics and also reveal new tidbits that the first pass may have missed.

Should I take a Python boot camp?

Boot camps are high-intensity programs that train people to become developers. Many boot camps focus on one main technology stack or skill, such as Web development with JavaScript or data science with Python. They can take weeks or months of full-time focus to complete, and they can be expensive.

Boot camp isn’t right for everyone. Most people go to boot camp in order to find a job after completing the program. They can be a great way to pivot your career if you seriously want to become a software developer but don’t want to go “back to school.” However, they may not be ideal if you just want to learn programming for fun or as a secondary skill.

Personally, I don’t have any boot camps to recommend, but I do know that most major US cities have boot camp programs. If you think boot camp is right for you, then check them out.

Should I go to a Python conference?

YES! Absolutely yes! People come to Python for the language, but they stay for the people. Python conferences are the best way to engage the Python community. They are places to learn and be inspired. You’ll also score tons of cool swag. Lives change at Python conferences.

The main Python conference is PyCon US. Thousands of people attend each year. However, there are several other Python conferences worldwide and regionally around the US. Personally, I’ve been to PyCon, PyOhio, PyGotham, PyCon Canada, PyCaribbean, PyTexas, PyCascades, DjangoCon, and PyData Carolinas. Try to find a regional conference near you if you can’t make it to PyCon.

What are common Python interview questions?

Most interviews I’ve taken focus more on general engineering skills rather than pure language trivia. Nevertheless, if you are pursuing a role that requires Python programming, then you should be prepared for some Python-oriented questions. Online articles like Toptal’s How to Hire a Great Python Developer and Interview Cake’s Python Interview Questions reveal things that a candidate should know about Python.

How much will it cost to use and learn Python?

It’s possible to learn and use Python for free! Python is an open source language. As long as you have a machine with Internet access, you can download Python for free and get rolling. There are tons of free learning resources online, too. Typically, you can learn the basics for free, but you might want to buy some books or courses for specific tools or frameworks.

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