Setting up your computer for the best Python application development experience.

Here is a project set-up workflow that takes the hassle out setting up your python project, and lets you get straight to buiilding your next great app.

10 minute read


So you've done a few python tutorials and you're ready to get your hands dirty, and start building your own projects. Well, my friend, you have come to the right place. This is the next step in your journey to learn programming, and I can assure you that it a step in the right direction. After this, you will have a solid workflow for setting up your own personal projects, which is truly where the real learning begins.

This post assumes you have nothing installed, and you are setting up from scratch. I personally develop on macOS and Linux machines, but I will endavour to touch on the Windows equivalent of this process wherever available.

Enough talk, lets jump in.

Get the Job Done - Python.

The python programming language has a somewhat weird history. There are two main versions of Python, Python 2 and Python 3. It goes without saying that Python 2 is the OG, and you will probably still find a lot of code written in this version. It is advised however, that if you are just starting out, you do not bother with this version as it is no longer supported.

The main differences between the python versions are in the syntax, which means that code written with python 2 syntax do not work in python 3. However, once you get a good grasp of Python 3, you will find that you understand Python 2 code whenever you encounter them in the wild.

I learned on Python 3 a couple of years ago now, and I can tell you that Python 3 (on 3.8.5 at the point of this writing) is very mature. The point of all of this talk is that this setup tutorial is for Python 3, and I cannot say that any of this works for Python 2 - not that you should be trying to set up Python 2 anyway.

Which Version? - asdf

As I said there are two main versions of Python, Python 2, and Python 3. There are however, what are called releases of Python 3 which you can recognise by looking at the version numbers 3.X.Y. The number corresponding to the Y in the version number is a minor release, and that corresponding to the X is the major release. You can always check the release notes on the main python website for the differences between the versions.

You might be thinking,

"I'll only need a single version",


"I'll just use the latest version".

It is not that straightforward my friend, as some libraries, you might require may only be compatible with an earlier version of Python, and in some cases, some functionality is only available in a newer version of Python.

Asdf is a command-line interface tool that enables you manage multiple versions of programming languages. It works for many programming languages, a list of which you can find here, but I will be taking us through setting it up for Python.

Say you want to write an application that you want to package using PyInstaller, which only works properly up to Python 3.6 (at the moment of writing), then you can easily set the project up to use Python 3.6 with a single command in your terminal.

Unfortunately, asdf is not available on Windows. However, if you are using the Windows Subsystem for Linux for your development, you might be able to follow along (I have not tested this). On Windows, you just have to download and install the python version you want to use from the python website.

Break the garden walls - macOS.

Developing on a Mac is a ton of fun, and while Apple has kept the OS very closed, many very smart people have figured out ways to make developing on a Mac almost as easy as developing on Linux (tbh macOS is really just a very refined Linux distribution).

Macs do not come with a package manager by default unlike pretty much every linux distribution, however we have Homebrew to the rescue. The merits of Homebrew warrant a-whole-nother article, but for the sake of avoiding too much digression, I'll pop the command for installing Homebrew below, and you can go to the Homebrew website to read about the elite lifestyle having a package manager on your mac affords.

Paste the following command in your terminal and press enter, and you should have Homebrew installed. Restart your terminal to to activate it.

/bin/bash -c "$(curl -fsSL

You might also want to configure terminal shell completions for Homebrew, so check this page for instructions on doing that.

Side Note

You can install Python and other languages using homebrew, but asdf helps you manage, and easily activate versions.

With Homebrew installed, you want to make sure you have the required dependencies for asdf installed namely curl and git. Though on macOS curl usually comes pre-installed. So it is

brew install coreutils curl git

and then all that is left is to run

brew install asdf

congratulations you have installed asdf.

Now for it to work you need to have your terminal run the asdf activation script every time you open a new terminal window. If you are using macOS 10.15 Catalina and after, the default shell is zsh. Before Catalina, the default is bash. In either case you want to add the following command to your .bashrc or .zshrc file. Commands in this file are ran whenever you open a new terminal window.

To open your zshrc file, enter the following in the terminal

nano ~/.zshrc


nano ~/.bashrc

to open your bashrc file.

Scroll to the bottom of the file, and enter the following

. $(brew --prefix asdf)/

What this does is that it enables you to use the programming language managed by asdf by default, and sets up asdf.

Look mum I'm a hacker - Linux

If you're developing on Linux, you (should) already know what your package manager is, and how to use it. Check the installation instructions page for the command which corresponds to the package manager on your distribution, but for 'aptitude' (Debian based distributions) you want to run the following command to install the dependencies required for asdf (git and curl).

sudo apt install curl git

Installing asdf on Linux is simply cloning from the git repository to your home folder. The command to clone from the latest branch (at the time of writing) is

git clone ~/.asdf --branch v0.8.0

You then need to add the following command to your .bashrc/.zshrc file depending on your shell. This runs the asdf activation script every time you open a new terminal.

If you are using a zsh framework plugin like oh my zsh! (which is also great by the way) then you have to configure using that plug in. Usually your .bashrc or .zshrc file is in the home folder. To open your zshrc file, enter in the terminal,

nano ~/.zshrc


nano ~/.bashrc

to open your bashrc file.

Scroll to the end of the file, and paste the following command.

. $HOME/.asdf/

CTRL + X to save, leave the name as it is, and press enter.

You have now successfully set up asdf.

Is it plugged in yet? - The Python Plugin

As I have mentioned before asdf is a version manager for your programming languages (among other things). Each language you install is a plugin. To install python as a plugin (on Linux and macOS) the command is

asdf plugin add python

When you have the python plugin installed, you can install any version you want (say python 3.6.5), by typing the command

asdf install python 3.6.5

to install the latest stable version of python, the command is

asdf install python latest

and to install the latest minor release of a major release (say the latest python 3.8 release) the command is

asdf install python latest:3.8

Now that you have a version (or two) of python installed, you can easily activate the version you want to use on a global level using the command (assuming Python 3.8.5 is a version you have installed),

asdf global python 3.8.5

And that's it. Type in the terminal

which python

to confirm the active version of python. Here is how it looks on the terminal.


As you can see I'm running a fresh install of macOS Catalina in a virtual machine to ensure that the steps I'm describing are not influenced by the configurations on my main computer. The procecess and responses look the same on linux. I have installed Python 3.8.5(the latest) using the zsh shell on macOS.

Side Note

If you are on Linux, you may encounter the error:

zipimport.ZipImportError: can't decompress data; zlib not available

This means that the library zlib, which is required for the python installation is not available on your machine. Run the following command, which includes zlib, and a bunch of other useful libraries to get past that error.

sudo apt-get install build-essential libsqlite3-dev sqlite3 bzip2 libbz2-dev zlib1g-dev libssl-dev openssl libgdbm-dev
liblzma-dev libreadline-dev libncursesw5-dev libffi-dev uuid-dev

A conducive environment - Virtualenv and Virtualenwrapper

Yes, so we have python on our computer. Not only that, we can install and activate any version of python by typing a few commands. Time to get started on that fancy new application?

Well not yet.

You see, while you are very free to get started, there are some habits that are best cultivated so that you develop an efficient workflow. After all the whole point of this post is to show you how to get that peak development experience.

Pretty much every python command you call, is part of a library of commands that have been written by others. Basically in programming (and life), you are almost always standing on the shoulder of giants, and when you 'git good', you can decide to become a giant yourself.

There are the core libraries, already included with every python installation, and there are external libraries you install as needed, to expand your python installation in order to do even cooler stuff. Examples of core libraries are pathlib, sys, math, which do not require any installs to be imported into your code. Some popular external libraries are numpy, matplotlib, pandas, which need to have been installed to your python version. External libraries are usually installed using

pip install amazing_external_library

As you work on multiple projects, you will find yourself installing a lot of external libraries, and some of them do not play well with each other. In some cases you want an older version of a library, or a newer version, or even a different version. However, if you continue to pip install all these libraries into your base python version, you may quickly run into issues.

A different scenerio is that you may be working with someone else, or even be working on different machines, and you may want to configure the development environment the exact same way for the project you are working on. Installing unrelated libraries may end up messing things up on the other machine, and it will be difficult to pin point the exact problem.

My point is, it is very good practice to set up virtual environments for every project you work on.

Virtualenv is that external python library that helps you create virtual environments. There is a core library called venv included with pyton versions above 3.3, but I recommend virtualenv.

FYI You can really only use virtualenv with python versions 3.4 and above. What it does is that it copies the base version of python to its own directory, and installs any external libraries to the same directory so they only work with that isolated copy of python.

It also includes all the core tools such as pip, and setuptools, so the virtual environment works just as your base python installation would work. When you are done with it, you can simply delete the virtual environment, and it will delete any libraries you installed with it.

For your next project, you do the exact same thing, and libraries aren't interfering with each other. Super neat.

Install virtualenv to your active python version using pip

pip install virtualenv

Virtualenvwrapper is an extension to virtual env, which supercharges it and makes it easier to use. It organises all your virtual environments in one place, makes it easier to associate projects with virtual environments, and it also makes it easier to create, and delete virtual environments. Read the docs for more info.

Install virtualenvwrapper to your current python version using pip

pip install virtualenvwrapper

The thing to remember when using asdf with virtual env wrapper is that you want to have both tools installed in whatever python version you are using to create your virtual environment.

Take for instance if you have python 3.8.5 and Python 3.6.5 installed, you want to run the previous pip commands with each python version activated.

The reason for this is because virtualenv will create a virtual environment based on the python version used for running the command, so you cannot create a Python 3.8.5 virtual environment by running virtualenv with Python 3.6.5.

After installing virtualenv and virtualenvwrapper, enter the following at the bottom of your .bashrc or .zshrc file

export WORKON_HOME=~/.virtualenvs
. $(asdf where python $(asdf current python))/bin/

Important Note

The above command is broken on asdf version 0.8 and above. Instead, you should enter the following at the bottom of your .bashrc or .zshrc file

export WORKON_HOME=~/.virtualenvs
. $(asdf where python)/bin/

This will only really work if you have declared a global python version as mentioned above. The command is asdf global python 3.8.5 where 3.8.5 is the python version I want to use.

The first line tells the shell that all your virtual environments will be located at ~/.virtualenvs. You can change virtualenvs to whatever you want, but I'd say the name is apt.

The second line tells the shell to run the virtualenvwrapper extensions located at <pythonversion>/bin/, but this way, it uses the virtualenvwrapper script for the currently active python version.

Close and reopen your terminal window, and virtualenvwrapper should be activated. Enter the command below to have asdf properly recognise the newly installed tools.

asdf reshim

And that's pretty much it. Virtualenv and virtualenvwrapper are ready to go. The process above is pretty much the same for macOS and Linux.

Outside looking in - Windows

Okay I have not forgotten about our esteemed windows users. Here I will assume that you already have Python installed. Virtualenvwrapper has been ported to windows, and it is called virtualenvwrapper-win. It works pretty much the same way the Linux and macOS versions work. Run the commands

pip install virtualenv
pip install virtualenvwrapper-win

to install the tools to your python version.

Side Note

Using python on windows 10, if you have not added the location of your python install to the system path variable, you might have to write the commands as

py -m pip install virtualenv
py -m pip install virtualenvwrapper-win

I very much recommend however, that you add the location of your python installation to the system path variable so you avoid stories that touch.

It's smooth sailing from here baby - A workflow

Now that you have asdf with virtualenv and virtualenvwrapper installed, here's a simple workflow when you want to create a new project. The workflow is the same on Windows, however, the commands are slightly different.

For the windows commands I am assuming your are in your home folder on the command prompt.

Create the project folder. Below is how you do it on the command line, or just use your file explorer like a normal person.

mkdir -p ~/Dev/myfancyproject
mkdir \Dev\myfancyproject

You do have to change your working directory to the folder you just created. And that command is

cd ~/Dev/myfancyproject
cd \Dev\myfancyproject

Activate the python version you want to use for this project (Python 3.8.5 in my case).

asdf global python 3.8.5

Create a virtual environment for the project and associate it with the directory where the project lives.

mkvirtualenv -a $(pwd) myfancyprojectenv
mkvirtualenv -a %cd% myfancyprojectenv

This tells it to create a virtual environment called myfancyprojectenv and associate it with the current working directory.

Create the python file where your fancy code will be written.

echo .

And that's it, you are ready to open in a text editor of your choice and create magic. Here is how it looks like after running the command on macOS. It looks the same on windows and Linux.


Fun Tidbit

If you type the following command from any directory in your terminal after creating the virtual environment this way, it will take you to the associated directory, and activate the virtual environment. Works the same on Windows, macOS and Linux.

workon myfancyproject

Pretty neat if I do say so myself.

If you made it this far, I'm very impressed. Please let me know how you got on, or if you had any issues. I'll be happy to help. In future posts I'll be talking about developing GUI applications using Python and Qt.

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