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General Advice

If you're an MIT student taking 6.101 or just someone picking up programming, welcome! These pieces of advice will help you as you start to work on more complicated projects and sharpen your software development skills.

Google is your friend

Before we get started, it's important to say that, when trying to learn new programming tools and languages, Google is your friend. Experienced programers often use Google to understand functions that they're using or error messages that they receive, and you can too!1

StackOverflow is a Q&A service that you'll commonly see if you google programming questions. There's a good chance that what you want to know has already been asked by someone, so definitely click these links if they come up in your search!

Classes at MIT will generally let you look up programming questions you have or error messages you run into as you debug your code, as long as you don't look up the problem or algorithm you're solving directly or copy someone else's code. Some classes will even let you copy-and-paste code snippets from the internet if you cite them. Don't take this as official advice, though, and make sure to read the collaboration policy for the class you're taking carefully!

Play with your IDE

As a software developer (and yes, taking a 6.101 does make you a developer!), you'll probably use an Integrated Development Environment, called an IDE, to write code. An IDE is like your software toolbox, and understanding how to use your tools and how they can help you will make you a more productive developer. So whether that's the Python IDLE, Spyder, VSCode, or PyCharm, you should play around with your IDE a little to better understand how it works.

If you're unsure of what IDE to use, I'd personally recommend VSCode or PyCharm. Both are popular, open-source IDEs with a large community of Python developers around them. Both have helpful features like linting, automatic code formatting, and debugging.

I would also recommend against using Python's built-in IDLE editor. While IDLE is helpful when getting started with Python, the kind of code you'll write in 6.101 will be complex enough that you will likely get a significant benefit from using an IDE that can spot errors in your code before they happen and debug your code for you.

Find the Debugger

The debugger is a feature in many IDEs that allows you to step through your code line-by-line and inspect all of the variables in the frame at each point. Learning how to use your IDE's debugger can help you inspect the behavior of your programs in a more precise way than print statements. While you don't have to use it for 6.101 (and many students get by fine with print statements!), you might want to learn about it to help you find issues in your code quicker. When you're debugging, there's a few main things you'll want to do:

  • place breakpoints: A breakpoint is a place in your code you tell the debugger to stop, so you can inspect what the code is doing before it runs that line. You can usually create one by clicking next to a line number, and you'll see a red dot next to the line number where the debugger will stop.
  • look at the variables: The variables when the code is frozen will be shown in the debugger panel. Check them out to see if they're what you expect them to be at that point.
  • stepping your code: "Stepping" your code lets you run your code line-by-line and see how they change over time. You can usually also "resume" your code, and the debugger will resume running your code until it hits another breakpoint. This can be handy if you are trying to see if a bug occurs between iterations of a for loop, or calls to a function.

To learn about the debugger in the following IDEs, follow these guides:

Play with the Python Console

Sometimes, you might want to see how a certain feature behaves in Python. Maybe you want to create a simple function to test its behavior. I highly encourage you to crack open the Python console to try these out. The Python console, also known as a REPL, lets you run one line of Python at a time. You can open it by running python3 in your terminal, and some IDEs have a Python console built in, like the one in PyCharm or in Spyder.

IPython is handy!

IPython, which stands for "Interactive Python", is a version of the Python REPL that is a little more friendly to use. It contains syntax highlighting and code completion that you might be used to in an IDE. To install it, just run:

$ pip3 install ipython

Then you can run ipython in your terminal, and you should see something like this:

Python 3.11.1 (v3.11.1:a7a450f84a, Dec  6 2022, 15:24:06) [Clang 13.0.0 (clang-1300.0.29.30)]
Type 'copyright', 'credits' or 'license' for more information
IPython 8.5.0 -- An enhanced Interactive Python. Type '?' for help.

In [1]:

To learn more about IPython, you can follow this tutorial, though you can mostly just use it as a better version of the Python REPL.

  1. At Google, there's a completely internal version of Google Search and StackOverflow, so that programmers working on non-public code can still ask and answer each other's questions! It's pretty cool!