5 Programming Concepts for Data Scientists

 0 programming for data scientists

In a previous post I talked about maths you should know for data science, partly with programmers in mind who want to move towards data science.

Today I want to do the opposite.

I want to introduce some software development concepts that I think data scientists would benefit from, and which are maybe less talked about when discussing “what it takes” to be a data scientist.


Source Control


To be fair, I’ve seen more and more data science resources cover this topic, but it’s still worth a mention.

If you start programming without source control and then get introduced to it I guarantee you can’t go back. It feels positively prehistoric that once upon a time my version of source control was as sophisticated as “code_20160101.zip”, “code_20160104.zip” and so on (that’s just an example, I want to make it clear that I wasn’t still doing that in January 2016…).

The ability to go back to previous versions with near-zero effort, as well as keep a log of what you’ve changed between versions is essential for something as fundamentally experimental as the data science process.

Probably the most popular source control method these days is Git, specifically GitHub or BitBucket. There are others out there, such as subversion (using something like TortoiseSVN) or Microsoft’s proprietary (and expensive) Team Foundation Server.

You’re probably better off using Git. Having a GitHub portfolio is pretty handy.

If you don’t want to learn the console commands (obligatory related xkcd), don’t feel obliged to.

I use SourceTree and it’s pretty great.




I’ve touched on this topic before; I think data scientists should adopt a lazy, programmer’s mindset.

Automate everything you can.

Let the computer do the boring things while you do the hard thinking.

Have a script that automatically cleans your data, or even does some of your machine learning for you.




Using something like IPython to test out programming snippets in an interactive way is a great idea. However, when you need more reproducible code or just a bit more functionality than typing single commands, use an IDE (Integrated Development Environment).

The staple Python IDE is the Jupyter notebook environment, great for presentation and reproducibility, and therefore terrific for data science.

Spyder, Rodeo and PyCharm are all good alternatives.

At the very least use a text editor with syntax highlighting. Notepad++, Sublime Text, Atom or similar.


Relational Databases


One skill that is sometimes overlooked on data science courses is the use of SQL and relational databases. I might even do a separate post dedicated to this topic because I think it’s a useful skill to have.

Database design is an important aspect of creating a functioning application, so if you ever want to make your machine learning algorithm into a software product it’s worth knowing how best to design a backend database.

Codecademy do a SQL course (in fact it looks like they do multiple). I haven’t done them myself, but other Codecademy courses I’ve done were all excellent. My first SQL resource was w3schools, which is also worth a look.


D. R. Y. – Don’t Repeat Yourself


I’m not usually a fan of teaching people programming best practices when they’re starting out, and many people learning data science don’t have a programming background, but if there’s one concept that I’d recommend internalising it’s this.

Don’t repeat yourself.

If you have a few lines of code that do something that you’ll need to do over and over again, or you find yourself copying and pasting the same code snippet multiple times, make it into a function.

If you have a collection of related functions you call over and over again, make it into a class. At the very least move them into a separate file.

These sound like little things but they add up and make your code easier to read and more maintainable.


I hope you agree that data scientists can learn a lot of useful concepts from software development, even if they never end up having to build production-ready systems!


Footnote: This is the 23rd entry in my 30 day blog challenge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *