Tips For Python


1 Introduction

Python (and its libraries) are enormous. It is used for system automation, web applications, big data, analytics, and security software. This article aims to show off some lesser-known tricks to put you on the path to faster development, easier debugging, and general fun.

As with every language, the real resource you get once you learn it isn’t a language-related superpower. It’s the ability to use the idioms, libraries, and shared knowledge of the Python community.

Exploring Standard Data Types

The Humble enumerate

Iterating over the contents of anything in Python is simple, just for foo in bar: and you’re off and running.

drinks = ["coffee", "tea", "milk", "water"]
for drink in drinks:
    print("thirsty for", drink)
#thirsty for coffee
#thirsty for tea
#thirsty for milk
#thirsty for water

But it’s common to also want the index of items as well as the items themselves. It’s common to see programmers use len() and range() to iterate over a list by index, but there’s an easier way.

drinks = ["coffee", "tea", "milk", "water"]
for index, drink in enumerate(drinks):
    print("Item {} is {}".format(index, drink))
#Item 0 is coffee
#Item 1 is tea
#Item 2 is milk
#Item 3 is water

The enumerate builtin yields both the index and the item itself.

A member of set

A surprising number of concepts can boil down to operations on a set. Need to make sure a list doesn’t has duplicates? Need to see what two lists have in common? Python comes with a set type to make these operations fast and readable.

# deduplicate a list *fast*
print(set(["ham", "eggs", "bacon", "ham"]))
# {'bacon', 'eggs', 'ham'}
# compare lists to find differences/similarities
# {} without "key":"value" pairs makes a set
menu = {"pancakes", "ham", "eggs", "bacon"}
new_menu = {"coffee", "ham", "eggs", "bacon", "bagels"}

new_items = new_menu.difference(menu)
print("Try our new", ", ".join(new_items))
# Try our new bagels, coffee

discontinued_items = menu.difference(new_menu)
print("Sorry, we no longer have", ", ".join(discontinued_items))
# Sorry, we no longer have pancakes
old_items = new_menu.intersection(menu)
print("Or get the same old", ", ".join(old_items))
# Or get the same old eggs, bacon, ham

full_menu = new_menu.union(menu)
print("At one time or another, we've served:", ", ".join(full_menu))
# At one time or another, we've served: coffee, ham, pancakes, bagels, bacon, eggs

The intersection function compares all the items and returns only the items both sets have in common. In this case, the breakfast staples of bacon, eggs, and ham.


When you don’t need to attach methods to a class, but still want the convenience offoo.prop, look no further than namedtuple. You define the fields ahead of time, then can instantiate a lightweight class that takes less memory than a full object.

LightObject = namedtuple('LightObject', ['shortname', 'otherprop'])
m = LightObject()
m.shortname = 'athing'
> Traceback (most recent call last):
> AttributeError: can't set attribute

You can’t set attributes of a namedtuple, just like you can’t change members of a tuple. You need to set attributes when you instantiate your namedtuple.

LightObject = namedtuple('LightObject', ['shortname', 'otherprop'])
n = LightObject(shortname='something', otherprop='something else')
n.shortname # something


It’s not uncommon to see logic like this in a Python app, where it’s expected that a key won’t exist initially.

login_times = {}
for t in logins:
    if login_times.get(t.username, None):
        login_times[t.username] = [t.datetime]

With defaultdict you can skip this logic by making any access to an undefined key return an empty list (or any other type).

login_times = collections.defaultdict(list)
for t in logins:

You can even use custom classes, given a callable to build the class.

from datetime import datetime
class Event(object):
    def __init__(self, t=None):
    if t is None:
        self.time =
        self.time = t

events = collections.defaultdict(Event)

for e in user_events:

To go beyond what defaultdict offers and to set nested keys as attributes, check outaddict

normal_dict = {
    'a': {
        'b': {
            'c': {
                'd': {
                    'e': 'really really nested dict'

from addict import Dict
addicted = Dict()
addicted.a.b.c.d.e = 'really really nested'
# {'a': {'b': {'c': {'d': {'e': 'really really nested'}}}}}

This snippet is way easier to write than it would be with the standard dict, but what about defaultdict? Seems like it would be easy enough.

from collections import defaultdict
default = defaultdict(dict)
default['a']['b']['c']['d']['e'] = 'really really nested dict' # fails

That looks ok, but it will actually throw a KeyError exception because default['a'] is a dict, not a defaultdict. Let’s make a defaultdict that defaults to defaulted dictionaries (say that a couple times fast).

If you just need a defaulted counter, you can use the collections.Counter class which provides some convenience functions like most_common.

Control Flow

When learning control structures in Python, it’s common to go over for, while, if-elif-else, and try-except. Properly used, those few control structures can handle most every case. There’s a reason equivalents exist in almost every language you run across. Python also offers some additions to the basic structures that aren’t often used, but can make your code more readable and easier to maintain.

Great Exceptations

Exceptions as flow control is a common pattern when dealing with databases, sockets, files, or any resource that is likely to fail. With the standard try and exceptsomething simple like working with a database might look like this.

    # get API data
    data = db.find(id='foo') # may raise exception
    # manipulate the data
    # save it again
    db.commit() # may raise exception
except Exception:
    # log the failure


Can you spot the problem here? There are two possible exceptions that will trigger the same except block. Meaning that failure to find the data (or to connect to find the data) would cause a rollback attempt. This almost definitely isn’t what we want, because a failure at that point wouldn’t have even begun a transaction yet. A rollback also probably isn’t the right response to a connection failure, so let’s break these cases apart.

First, we’ll handle finding the data.

    # get API data
    data = db.find(id='foo') # may raise exception
except Exception:
    # log the failure and bail out
    log.warn("Could not retrieve FOO")

# manipulate the data

Now that the data retrieval has its own try-except we can take whatever action makes sense if we don’t have any data to work with. It’s not likely our code will do anything useful without data, so we’ll just exit the function. Instead of exiting you could also make a default object, retry the query, or kill the entire program.

Now let’s wrap the commit so it fails gracefully as well.

    db.commit() # may raise exception
except Exception:
    log.warn("Failure committing transaction, rolling back")
else:"Saved the new FOO")

We’ve actually added two clauses here. First, let’s look at the else, which runs if no exception occurs. In our example, all it does is log that the transaction succeeded, but you could put more interesting actions in as needed. One potential use would be to fire off a background job or notification.

The finally clause is there to make it clear that the db.close() will always run. Looking back, we can see that all the code related to persisting our data ended up in a nice logical grouping at the same indentation level. Editing this code later, it will be easy for us to see that all these lines are tied to the commit.

Context and Control

We’ve seen control flow using exceptions before. In general, the steps are something like:

  1. Attempt to acquire a resource (file, network connection, whatever)
  2. If it fails, clean up anything left behind
  3. Otherwise, perform actions on the resource
  4. Log what happened
  5. Program complete

With that in mind, let’s take a second look at the database example from the last section. We used try-except-finally to make sure that any transaction we began was either committed or rolled back.

    # attempt to acquire a resource
except Exception:
    # If it fails, clean up anything left behind
    log.warn("Failure committing transaction, rolling back")
    # If it works, perform actions
    # In this case, we just log success"Saved the new FOO")
    # Clean up
# Program complete

Our previous example mapped to the steps above almost exactly. But how much of this logic ever changes? Not very much.

Just about every time we save data, we’ll do these exact same steps. We could pull this logic into a method, or we could use a context manager.

db = db_library.connect("fakesql://")
# as a function

# context manager
with transaction("fakesql://") as db:
    # retrieve data here
    # modify data here

A context manager makes it easy to protect some block by setting up resources (context) that the block needs at runtime. In our example, we need a database transaction that will be:

  1. Connected to a database
  2. Started at the beginning of the block
  3. Committed or rolled back at the end of the block
  4. Cleaned up at the end of the block

Let’s build a context manager that will hide all this database setup for us. Thecontextmanager interface is simple. The object is required to have a __enter__()method to set up whatever context is needed and a __exit__(exc_type, exc_val, exc_tb) method that will be called at the end of the block. If there was no exception, then all three of the exc_* arguments will be None.

The __enter__ method will be pretty simple, so let’s start with that.

class DatabaseTransaction(object):
    def __init__(self, connection_info):
        self.conn = db_library.connect(connection_info)

    def __enter__(self):
        return self.conn

The __enter__ method actually does nothing except return the database connection, which we can use inside the block to retrieve or save data. The __init__ method is where the connection is actually made, and if it fails the block won’t run at all.

Now let’s define how the transaction will be finished in the __exit__ method. This has a lot more to it, since it has to handle any exceptions thrown in the block and close out the transaction.

    def __exit__(self, exc_type, exc_val, exc_tb):
        if exc_type is not None:

        except Exception:

Now we can use our DatabaseTransaction as the context manager for our block of actions. Under the hood, the __enter__ and __exit__ methods will run and handle setting up the database connection and tear it down when we’re through.

# context manager
with DatabaseTransaction("fakesql://") as db:
    # retrieve data here
    # modify data here

To improve our (primitive) transaction manager, we could add handling for different exception types. Even in its current state, this hides a ton of complexity that you don’t need to be worrying about every time you pull in something from the database.


Introduced in Python 2, generators are a simple way to implement an iterator that doesn’t hold all its values at once. Typically a function in Python starts its execution, does some operations, and returns the result (or nothing).

Generators are different.

def my_generator(v):
    yield 'first ' + v
    yield 'second ' + v
    yield 'third ' + v

# <generator object my_generator at 0x....>

Instead of return we use the yield keyword, which is what makes a generator special. When calling my_generator('thing') instead of getting the result of the function we get a generator object, which can be used anywhere you could use a list or other iterable.

Most often, you’ll use generators as part of a loop as below. The loop will continue until the generator stops yielding values.

for value in my_generator('thing'):
    print value

# first thing
# second thing
# third thing

gen = my_generator('thing')
# 'first thing'
# 'second thing'
# 'third thing'
# raises StopIteration exception

After being instantiated, a generator doesn’t do anything until it is asked for a value. It will execute until the first yield and pass that value to the caller, then wait (saving its state) until another value is requested.

Now let’s make a generator that’s a bit more useful than just giving back 3 hard-coded items. The classic generator example is an endless fibonacci generator, so let’s give that a try. It will start at 1 and give the sum of the prior two numbers for as long as you ask it to.

def fib_generator():
    a = 0
    b = 1
    while True:
        yield a
        a, b = b, a + b

A while True loop in a function would normally be something to avoid because the function would never return, but for a generator it’s fine as long as there’s a yield in the loop. We do need to be careful to have an end condition when we use this generator, because it will happily add numbers forever.

Now let’s use our generator to calculate the first fibonacci number that’s greater than 10,000.

min = 10000
for number in fib_generator():
    if number > min:
        print(number, "is the first fibonacci number over", min)

That was pretty easy, and we can make that number as large as we want and it will still (eventually) come up with the first number larger than X in the fibonacci sequence.

Let’s try out a more practical example. Paginating APIs is common practice to limit usage and avoid sending 50 megabytes of JSON (!!!) to a mobile device. First, we’ll define the API we’re using and then we’ll write a generator around it to hide the paging from our code.

The API we’re using is called Scream, a place where users can argue about restaurants they’ve eaten at or want to eat at. Their API for searching is pretty simple, and looks like this.

    "results": [
        {"name": "Coffee Spot",
         "screams": 99
        {"name": "Corner Coffee",
         "screams": 403
        {"name": "Coffee Moose",
         "screams": 31
    "more": true,
    "_next": ""

Neat! They embedded the link to the next page in the API response so it’ll be extremely easy to get the next page when it’s time. We can also leave off the page number to just get the first page. To get the data, we’ll use the always-handy requestslibrary and wrap it in a generator to display our search results.

The generator will handle pagination and have limited retry logic, and will work something like:

  1. Receive search term
  2. Query the scream-about-food API
  3. Try again if the API fails
  4. Yield the results from the page it gets one at a time
  5. Get the next page if there is one
  6. Exit when there are no more results

Easy enough. To start with, we’ll implement the generator without retries to keep the code simple.

import requests

api_url = "{term}"

def infinite_search(term):
    url = api_url.format(term)
    while True:
        data = requests.get(url).json()

        for place in data['results']:
            yield place

        # end if we've gone through all the results
        if not data['more']: break

        url = data['_next']

When you create a generator, you only need to pass in search terms and the generator will build the query and get results as long as they exist. There are (of course) some rough edges here. Exceptions aren’t handled at all, and if the API fails or returns unexpected JSON the generator will raise an exception.

Despite these rough spots, we can still use it to find out what number our restaurant is in the search results for the term “coffee”.

# pass a number to start at as the second argument if you don't want
# zero-indexing
for number, result in enumerate(infinite_search("coffee"), 1):
    if result['name'] == "The Coffee Stain":
        print("Our restaurant, The Coffee Stain is number ", number)
print("Our restaurant, The Coffee Stain didnt't show up at all! :(")

The generator handles iterating over each page of search results, so all we have to do is use the enumerate builtin from earlier in the article to keep track of the number of results and print them when we find our shop.

As an exercise, go ahead and add a counter to the infinite_search generator so we can write code like this instead.

for result in infinite_search("coffee"):
    if result['name'] == "The Coffee Stain":
        print("Our restaurant, The Coffee Stain is number ", result['number'])
print("Our restaurant, The Coffee Stain didn't show up at all! :(")

If you write Python 3, you already use generators when you use the standard library. Calls like dict.items() now return generators instead of lists. To get this behavior in Python 2 dict.iteritems() was added, but isn’t as frequently used.

Python 2 and 3 compatibility

Moving from Python 2 to Python 3 can be an undertaking for any codebase (or any developer) but it’s possible to write code that runs in both. Support for Python 2.7 will continue until 2020, but it’s unlikely that many new features will be backported. For now, it’s recommended to support Python 2.7 and 3+ unless it’s feasible for you to drop Python 2 support entirely.

For a comprehensive guide on supporting both versions, see the Porting Python 2 Code guide from

Let’s look over the most common things you’ll run into when trying to write compatible code, and how to use __future__ to work around them.

Just about every developer who has switched from Python 2 to 3 has typed the wrongprint statement. Fortunately, you can standardize on using print as a function (Python 3 style) instead of a keyword by just importing print_function.

print "hello"  # Python 2
print("hello") # Python 3

from __future__ import print_function
print("hello") # Python 2
print("hello") # Python 3

Divided Over Division

The default behavior for division in Python also changed between 2 and 3. In Python 2, dividing integers would perform integer-only division, chopping off any trailing decimals. This wasn’t what most users expected, so it was changed in Python 3 to use floating point division even when dividing integers.

print(1 / 3) # Python 2
# 0
print(1 / 3) # Python 3
# 0.3333333333333333
print(1 // 3) # Python 3
# 0

This sort of behavior change brings in a bunch of subtle bugs when writing code to run in both major versions. Again, we’re saved by the __future__ module. Importingdivision makes these behaviors identical in both versions.

from __future__ import division
print(1 / 3)# Python 2
# 0.3333333333333333
print(1 // 3)# Python 2
# 0
print(1 / 3) # Python 3
# 0.3333333333333333
print(1 // 3)# Python 3
# 0


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