Python, one of the most popular programming languages in the world, has created everything from Netflix’s recommendation algorithm to the software that controls self-driving cars. But what is Python, and what is it used for, exactly? Here’s a primer on how Python is used by programmers, data scientists, and people who just want to get stuff done.
Python is a computer programming language often used to build websites and software, automate tasks, and conduct data analysis. Python is a general purpose language, meaning it can be used to create a variety of different programs and isn’t specialized to tackle any specific problems. This versatility, along with its beginner-friendliness, has made it one of the most-used programming languages today—a survey conducted by industry analyst firm RedMonk found that it was the most popular programming language among developers in 2020 .
Python’s growth in popularity is rooted in a number of factors. Here’s a deeper look at what makes it so versatile and easy to use for coders.
It has relatively short syntax that mimics natural language, allowing coders to complete tasks with fewer lines of code. This makes it quicker to build projects, and faster to improve on them.
Python can be used for many different tasks, like web development and machine learning.
It has a low learning curve, making it popular for entry-level coders.
It’s open source, making it free to use and distribute, even for commercial purposes.
Python’s archive of modules and libraries—bundles of code that third-party users have created which expand Python’s capabilities—is vast and growing.
Python has a large community that continuously contributes to Python’s pool of modules and libraries, and acts as a helpful resource for other programmers. The vast support community means that if coders run into a stumbling block, finding a solution is relatively easy; somebody is bound to have run into the same problem before.
It can synthesize different programming languages into one system, combining separate modules to work together.
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Python is commonly used for developing websites and software, task automation, data analysis, and data visualization. Since it’s relatively easy to learn, Python has been adopted by many non-programmers such as accountants and scientists, and can also be used in a variety of everyday tasks, like organizing finances.
Charles R. Severance, author of Python for Everybody and professor of the Coursera course of the same name, opens the first chapter of his book lauding the benefits of programming for those within and without the professional coding world. “Writing programs,” he writes, “is a very creative and rewarding activity. You can write programs for many reasons, ranging from making your living to solving a difficult data analysis problem to having fun to helping someone else solve a problem.”
Here’s a closer look at some of the common ways Python is used.
Python is often used to develop the back end of a website or application—the parts that a user doesn’t see. Python’s role in web development can include sending data to and from servers, processing data and communicating with databases, URL routing, and ensuring security. Python offers several frameworks for web development; commonly used ones include Django and Flask.
Some web development jobs that use Python include back end engineers, full stack engineers, Python developers, software engineers, and DevOps engineers.
Python has become a staple in data science, allowing data analysts and other professionals to use the language to create data visualizations, conduct machine learning, manipulate and analyze data, and complete other data-related tasks.
Python can build a wide range of different data visualizations, like line and bar graphs, pie charts, histograms, and 3D plots. Python also has a number of libraries that enable coders to use Python for machine learning ends, like TensorFlow and Keras.
Many professionals that rely heavily on data analysis use Python, like business intelligence analysts or operations analysts.
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Python is often used to automate what can otherwise be monotonous or time-consuming tasks. Writing code used to build these automated processes is called scripting. In the coding world, automation can be used to check for errors across multiple files, convert files, execute simple math, and remove duplicates in data.
Python can even be used by relative beginners to automate simple tasks on the computer—such as renaming files, finding and downloading online content, or sending reminder emails or texts at desired intervals.
Python is used in software development to aid in tasks like build control, bug tracking, and testing. With Python, software developers can automate testing in new products or features. Some Python tools used for software testing include Green and Requestium.
Python doesn’t need to belong solely to the programmers and data scientists. Learning Python can open new possibilities for those in less data-heavy professions, like journalists, small business owners, or social media marketers. Python can also enable any non-programmer to simplify certain tasks in their lives.
Build Python programs to comb through Twitter data, keep track of stock market prices, send yourself text reminders, or automatically send welcome emails to new customers of your small business.
Python’s simple and intuitive syntax, ubiquity, and practical applications have made it a popular language to learn for beginners. Consider a few factors before you start learning.
Python was first released in 1991 and has had several versions released since. Python 2.0 was released in 2000, and Python 3.0 in 2008.
Python 3 is considered more up-to-date and has overtaken Python 2 in popularity. JetBrains, a software development company, found that 93 percent of surveyed Python users worked with Python 3, and seven percent with Python 2. Python 2 is still used in some circles; the most common uses include system administration and DevOps (a.k.a. infrastructure configuration) .
Beginners starting today are more likely to find resources, libraries, and modules that support Python 3.
Learning the basics of Python can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on what you want to learn and how frequently you learn. But since Python has so many uses—and tools to support those uses—you can spend years learning its different applications.
Online courses can be several hours long, or several months. The average full-time coding bootcamp in 2020 lasted 14 weeks, according to a report released by Course Report, though some were as short as six weeks and as long as 28 weeks .
Knowing what tasks you want to accomplish and whether you want to use Python in a professional capacity can determine how long your Python journey will be.
“It is a lot easier to be a professional programmer today than it was 20 years ago,” says Severance. “You don't need a bachelor's degree or years of experience to get your start in programming. With the increasing popularity of Python, you can gain the necessary skills to begin writing software as part of your job in a few months.”
1. RedMonk. "The RedMonk Programming Language Rankings: January 2020, https://redmonk.com/sogrady/2020/02/28/language-rankings-1-20/." Accessed March 29, 2021.
2. JetBrains. "Python Programming - The State of Developer Ecosystem in 2020, https://www.jetbrains.com/lp/devecosystem-2020/python/." Accessed March 29, 2021.
3. Course Report. "Coding Bootcamps in 2020, https://www.coursereport.com/2020-guide-to-coding-bootcamps-by-course-report.pdf." Accessed March 29, 2021.