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What is Python: A Beginner’s Guide

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WHAT IS PYTHON?: AN INTRODUCTION

Python is one of the most popular and user-friendly programming languages out there. As a developer who’s learned a number of programming languages, Python is one of my favorites due to its simplicity and power. Whether I’m rapidly prototyping a new idea or developing a robust piece of software to run in production, Python is usually my language of choice.

The Python programming language is ideal for folks first learning to program. It abstracts away many of the more complicated elements of computer programming that can trip up beginners, and this simplicity gets you up and running much more quickly!

For instance, the classic “Hello world” program (it just prints out the words “Hello World!”) looks like this in C:

However, to understand everything that’s going on, you need to understand what #include means (am I excluding anyone?), how to declare a function, why there’s an “f” appended to the word “print,” etc., etc.

In Python, the same program looks like this:

Not only is this an easier starting point, but as the complexity of your Python programming grows, this simplicity will make sure you’re spending more time writing awesome code and less time tracking down bugs! 

Since Python is popular and open source, there’s a thriving community of Python developers online with extensive forums and documentation for whenever you need help. No matter what your issue is, the answer is usually only a quick Google search away.

If you’re new to programming or just looking to add another language to your arsenal, I would highly encourage you to join our community.

What is Python?

Named after the classic British comedy troupe Monty Python, Python is a general-purpose, interpreted, object-oriented, high-level programming language with dynamic semantics. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so let’s break it down.

General-Purpose

Python is a general-purpose language which means it can be used for a wide variety of development tasks. Unlike a domain-specific language that can only be used for specific types of applications (think JavaScript and HTML/CSS for web development), a general-purpose language like Python can be used for:

Web applications – Popular frameworks like Django and Flask are written in Python.

Desktop applications – The Dropbox client is written in Python.

Scientific and numeric computing – Python is the top choice for data science and machine learning.

Cybersecurity – Python is excellent for data analysis, writing system scripts that interact with an operating system, and communicating over network sockets.

Interpreted

Python is an interpreted language, meaning Python code must be run using the Python interpreter.

Traditional programming languages like C/C++ are compiled, meaning that before it can be run, the human-readable code is passed into a compiler (special program) to generate machine code — a series of bytes providing specific instructions to specific types of processors. However, Python is different. Since it’s an interpreted programming language, each line of human-readable code is passed to an interpreter that converts it to machine code at run time.

In other words, instead of having to go through the sometimes complicated and lengthy process of compiling your code before running it, you just point the Python interpreter at your code, and you’re off!

Part of what makes an interpreted language great is how portable it is. Compiled languages must be compiled for the specific type of computer they’re run on (i.e. think your phone vs. your laptop). For Python, as long as you’ve installed the interpreter for your computer, the exact same code will run almost anywhere!

Object-Oriented

Python is an Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) language which means that all of its elements are broken down into things called objects. Objects are very useful for software architecture and often make it simpler to write large, complicated applications. 

High-Level

Python is a high-level language which really just means that it’s simpler and more intuitive for a human to use. Low-level languages such as C/C++ require a much more detailed understanding of how a computer works. With a high-level language, many of these details are abstracted away to make your life easier.

For instance, say you have a list of three numbers — 1, 2, and 3 — and you want to append the number 4 to that list. In C, you have to worry about how the computer uses memory, understands different types of variables (i.e. an integer vs. a string), and keeps track of what you’re doing.

Implementing this in C code is rather complicated:

However, implementing this in Python code is much simpler:

Since a list in Python is an object, you don’t need to specifically define what the data structure looks like or explain to the computer what it means to append the number 4. You just say “list.append(4)”, and you’re good.

Under the hood, the computer is still doing all of those complicated things, but as a developer, you don’t have to worry about them! Not only does that make your code easier to read, understand, and debug, but it means you can develop more complicated programs much faster.

Dynamic Semantics

Python uses dynamic semantics, meaning that its variables are dynamic objects. Essentially, it’s just another aspect of Python being a high-level programming language.

In the list example above, a low-level language like C requires you to statically define the type of a variable. So if you define an integer x, set x = 3, and then set x = “pants”, the computer will get very confused. However, if you use Python to set x = 3, Python knows x is an integer. If you then set x = “pants”, Python knows that x is now a string.

In other words, Python lets you assign variables in a way that makes more sense to you than it does to the computer. It’s just another way that Python programming is intuitive.

It also gives you the ability to do something like create a list where different elements have different types like the list [1, 2, “three”, “four”]. Defining that in a language like C would be a nightmare, but in Python, that’s all there is to it.

It’s Popular. Like, Super Popular.

Being so powerful, flexible, and user-friendly, the Python language has become incredibly popular. This popularity is important for a few reasons.

Python Programming is in Demand

If you’re looking for a new skill to help you land your next job, learning Python is a great move. Because of its versatility, Python is used by many top tech companies. Netflix, Uber, Pinterest, Instagram, and Spotify all build their applications using Python. It’s also a favorite programming language of folks in data science and machine learning, so if you’re interested in going into those fields, learning Python is a good first step. With all of the folks using Python, it’s a programming language that will still be just as relevant years from now.

Dedicated Community

Python developers have tons of support online. It’s open source with extensive documentation, and there are tons of articles and forum posts dedicated to it. As a professional developer, I rely on this community everyday to get my code up and running as quickly and easily as possible.

There are also numerous Python libraries readily available online! If you ever need more functionality, someone on the internet has likely already written a library to do just that. All you have to do is download it, write the line “import <library>”, and off you go. Part of Python’s popularity in data science and machine learning is the widespread use of its libraries such as NumPy, Pandas, SciPy, and TensorFlow.

Conclusion

Python is a great way to start programming and a great tool for experienced developers. It’s powerful, user-friendly, and enables you to spend more time writing badass code and less time debugging it. With all of the libraries available, it will do almost anything you want it to.

Final answer to the question “What is Python”? Awesome. Python is awesome.

Three Big Reasons Why You Should Learn Python

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As a data scientist, my work is contingent on knowing and using Python. What I like about Python, and why I rely on it so much, is that it’s simple to read and understand, and it’s versatile. From cleaning, querying, and analyzing data, to developing models and visualizing results, I conduct all these activities using Python. 

I also teach data science in Python. My students learn Python to build machine learning models but I’m always excited to hear of the other ways they’ve leveraged the programming language. One of my students told me they used it to web-scrape online basketball statistics just so they could analyze the data to win an argument with friends. Another student decided to expand on her knowledge of Python by learning Django, a popular framework, which she uses to build web apps for small businesses. 

Before taking the plunge into data science, we all had fundamental questions (and concerns) about learning Python. If this sounds like you, don’t worry. Before I started learning Python, I spent several months convincing myself to start. Now that I’ve learned, my only regret was not starting sooner.

If you’re interested in learning Python, I want to share my biggest reasons for why you should. Two of these reasons are inherent to Python; one of them is a benefit of Python that I experienced first-hand, and some of the examples I discuss come from things I have researched. My goal is to give you enough information to help make an educated decision about learning Python, and I really hope that you choose to learn.

1. Python is easy to learn. 

Long before I learned Python, I struggled to learn another object-oriented programming language in high school: Java. From that experience, I realized that there’s a difference between learning to program, and learning a programming language. I felt like I was learning to program, but what made Java difficult to learn was how verbose it was: the syntax was difficult for me to memorize, and it requires a lot of code to be able to do anything.

Comparatively, Python was much easier to learn and is much simpler to code. Python is known as a readable programming language; its syntax was designed to be interpretable and concise, and has inspired many other coding languages. This bodes well for first-timers and those who are new to programming. And, since it typically requires fewer lines of code to perform the same operation in Python than in other languages, it’s much faster to write and complete scripts. In the long run, this saves developers time, which can then be used to further improve their Python. 

One observation I’ve made of Python is that it’s always improving. There have been noticeably more updates to the language in the last 5-10 years than in prior decades, and the updates have often been significant. For example, later versions of Python 3 typically benchmark faster completion times on common tasks than when carried out in Python 2. Every release in Python 3 has come with more built-in functions, meaning “base” Python is becoming more and more capable and versatile.

Learning is not an individual process; often you will end up learning a lot from “peers.” According to various sources, Python has one of the largest and most active online communities of learners and practitioners. It’s the most popular programming language to learn; it’s one of the most popular programming languages for current developers; and among data scientists, it’s the second most common language known and used. All of this translates into thousands of online posts, articles (like this one!), and resources to help you learn.

Speaking of online learning, Python is also tremendously convenient to learn. To learn the fundamentals of Python, there are a lot of learning tools out there — books, online tutorials, videos, bootcamps — I’ve tried them all. They each have their merits but ultimately having options makes it easier to learn. Once you start learning, the resources don’t stop. There are dozens of really good tutorials, code visualizers, infographics, podcasts, and even apps. With all of these resources at your disposal, there’s really no reason why you can’t learn!

2. Python is versatile.

Python’s popularity is also tied to its usability and versatility. According to O’Reilly, the technology and business training company, the most common use cases for python are data science, data analysis, and software engineering. Other use cases for Python include statistical computing, data visualization, web development, machine learning, deep learning, artificial intelligence, web scraping, data engineering, game and mobile app development, process automation, and IoT. 

To get into any of these use cases would require another post. Regardless, you might be wondering what allows Python to be such a versatile programming language? A lot of it has to do with the various frameworks and libraries that have been built for Python. 

Libraries are collections of functions and methods (reusable and executable code) with specific intents; and frameworks more or less are collections of libraries. If you ask any Python developer, they can name at least a half-dozen libraries they use. For example, I often use NumPy, Pandas, and Scikit-learn — the holy trinity for data scientists — to perform math and scientific operations, manipulate and analyze data, and build and train models, respectively. Many Python-based web developers will name Django as one of their preferred frameworks for building web applications.  

While it’s true that libraries are written for most programming languages and not just Python, Python’s usability, readability, and popularity encourage the development of more libraries, which in turn makes Python even more popular and user-friendly for existing developers and newcomers. When you learn Python, you won’t just be learning base Python, you’ll be learning to use at least a library or two.

3. Python developers are in demand.

Many people learn to program to enhance their current capability; others to change their careers. I started off as one of the former but became the latter. Before data science, I built digital ad campaigns and a lot of my work was automatable. My only problem was that I didn’t know how to code. Although I eventually learned how, in the process of learning Python for my work, I was presented with different job opportunities where I could use Python, and learned about different companies who were looking for people experienced in Python. And so I made a switch.

There are a lot of Python-related roles in prominent industries. According to ActiveState, the industries with the most need for Python are insurance, retail banking, aerospace, finance, business services, hardware, healthcare, consulting services, info-tech (think: Google), and software development. From my own experience, I would add media, marketing, and advertising to that list.

Why so many? As these industries modernized, companies within them have been collecting and using data at an increasing rate. Their data needs have become more varied and sophisticated, and in turn, their need for people capable of managing, analyzing, and operationalizing data has increased. In the future, there will be very few roles that won’t be engaged in data, which is why learning Python now is more important than ever — it’s one way to bullet-proof your career and your job prospects.

A lot of top tech companies value Python programmers. For instance, to say that Google “uses” Python is an understatement. Among Google engineers, It’s a commonly used language for development and research, and Google’s even released their own Python style guide. Google engineers have developed several libraries for the benefit of the Python community including Tensorflow, a popular open-source machine learning library. YouTube uses Python to administer video, access data, and in various other ways. Python’s creator Guido van Rossum, a Dutch programmer, was hired by Google to improve their QA protocols. And most importantly, the organization continues to recruit and hire more people skilled in Python. Other notable tech companies who frequently hire for Python talent include Dropbox, Quora, Mozilla, Hewlett-Packard, Qualcomm, IBM, and Cisco. 

Lastly, with demand often comes reward. Companies looking to hire people skilled in Python often pay top dollar or the promise of increased salary potential. 

Conclusion

In summary, there are lots of reasons to learn Python. It’s easy to learn, there are many ways to learn it, and once you do, there’s a lot you can do with it. From my experience, Python programming is a rewarding skill that can benefit you in your current role, and will certainly benefit you in future ones. Even if Python doesn’t end up being the last programming language you learn, it should certainly be your first.

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The Skills and Tools Every Data Scientist Must Master

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Photo by WOC in Tech.

“Data scientist” is one of today’s hottest jobs.

In fact, Glassdoor calls it the best job of 2017, with a median base salary of $110,000. This fact shouldn’t be big news. In 2011, McKinsey predicted there would be a shortage of 1.5 million managers and analysts “with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.” Today, there are more than 38,000 data scientist positions listed on Glassdoor.com.

It makes perfect sense that this job is both new and popular, since every move you make online is actively creating data somewhere for something. Someone has to make sense of that data and discover trends in the data to see if the data is useful. That is the job of the data scientist. But how does the data scientist go about the job? Here are the three skills and three tools that every data scientist should master.

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What Is Machine Learning?

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As a fan of the show Mad Men and its wonderful anachronisms, I had a good chuckle over Sterling Cooper & Partners’ season 6 acquisition of the IBM System 360. Without spoiling much for anyone who hasn’t seen it, the firm attempts to step up its data research game by bringing in a computer mainframe so mammoth it takes over the entire employee lounge, and seems so alien and imposing that one staffer worries it might actually be reading his thoughts.

The introduction of the IBM 360 50 years ago was actually revolutionary, and it helped pave the way for the modern computing systems we use today. And I’m sure that generations of ad men believed it was an effective tool for winning accounts and selling more soap. But in terms of capabilities, it probably did less than a first-generation iPod shuffle.

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