Getting started with Python - it's time to shave the yak

Posted in: digital skills, information, maths and statistics, resilience

Struggling to get Python going on your computer? Here are some tips to point you in the right direction. You might even learn how to shave a yak on the way.

So you want to use Python for a project. Maybe for data: visualising, wrangling or analysing. Or, perhaps you're interested in teaching yourself a bit of the language. You've got the ideas, the tutorials... But the problem is, how do you get Python running on your computer?

Now it's time to get first hand experience of the programming term, 'yak shaving'.

Yak shaving - noun

"Any apparently useless activity which, by allowing you to overcome intermediate difficulties, allows you to solve a larger problem."

The apparently useless activity blocking you from using Python is getting it going on your machine in the first place. It's frustrating since you want to learn Python, not spend ages going through tutorials and advice on the internet.

Most guides assume some knowledge of the command line - a method of controlling a computer using text input rather than point and click graphical user interface. But using the command line can be intimidating and worrying. It isn't very safe to copy and paste commands from the internet into the command line on your computer without knowing what they do.

Luckily, the best way to get started for most people is quite straightforward.

Anaconda is probably the right choice

Anaconda is something called a package manager. It looks after all of the software Python needs to run, and importantly keeps the Python you play with separate from an Python already in use by your computer - you may have found that Python is already on your computer, that's because software you have already installed needs to use it. But messing about with this can cause problems for that other software. You want a separate version which is for you to use.

Anaconda also has a focus on statistics and scientific computing, so it probably comes with the stuff you want to use: Pandas, NumPy, Matplotlib, SciPy and Jupyter Notebooks for example. It comes with a nice 'point and click' user interface and you can install it for free from the Anaconda website.

Use Miniconda if space is an issue

Since Anaconda comes with 'batteries included' it takes up a fair bit of hard drive space (about 5GB). If this is an issue, you can install a lightweight version of the same package manager called Miniconda (requires 400MB). However, using Miniconda requires the command line. But, after learning a few simple commands you can get Python going in no time.

Anaconda Navigator window on a computer
Anaconda Navigator - point and click
Command line window on a computer
The command line - text only

You don't have to do this alone

If you need help shaving your yak, then no problem, come along to the MASH drop-in and we will be happy to help you get Python running on your machine.

Posted in: digital skills, information, maths and statistics, resilience

Get help at the MASH drop-in


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response