Getting Started 0: The Terminal

So you’re learning to code? There first think you should get familiar with is the Terminal and the command line. Let’s discuss some basics.

What is it?

I’ll keep my comments confined to OS X and Linux, since those are the environments I’m familiar with.

The Terminal is an application that provides you a window through which to enter commands into the Unix shell of your choice, most systems default to BASH.

On OS X you can find the Terminal App in Applications -> Utilities ->

on Linux Applications -> Terminal

Why bother?

You might be thinking: “This seems like a lot of work. Why can’t I just doing everything from the Desktop.”

Sure. You could, but you’ll be missing out on incredibly powerful tools and scripting capabilities. As your programming projects become more complex, you’ll need more tools. Local servers, file manipulation, automation, scripting, NodeJS, Git and a galaxy of other single purpose command line applications that you’ll weave into a efficient development environment. You’ll also eventually have to deploy your work on a server somewhere and likely the only interface available to you will be the command line.

At first it will take you more time to do things in the terminal and you’ll make mistakes, but think of it as and investment that will pay enormous dividends in the future. Also, if you’re planning to work as a developer or in any other technical role, you’ll be expected to know your way around.

Basic commands and tools

Let’s look at a few commands that may shed some light on what may initially feel like a very dark room.


Most terminal applications take a variety of flags and arguments. We’ll just cover the simple user cases here, but you can see everything that’s possible by using the man (manual) command. When in doubt, RTFM.

$ man pwd

Ctrl-C and Ctrl-Z

Many times per day, you will get stuck or want to exit a program you’ve started on the command line. These two key combos will do it. You’ll learn the difference as you go, but for now try either or both to get out of a running process and back to the command prompt.

Ctrl-C cancels or kills a job. Technically it causes an interrupt signal to be sent to the program telling it to abort what it is doing and exit immediately.

Ctrl-Z “puts a job on hold and returns you to the prompt, but does not kill the job.


Print Working Directory. Basically asks “where am I now?” For example I’m in my home directory here:

$ pwd

Use this command liberally to see what directory you’re working in.


List file and directory names. Basically, show me the contents of a directory.

$ ls
Applications    Dropbox    Pictures    Sites
Desktop         Library    Public      Documents               
Movies          Downloads  Music                   


Make a new directory.

$ mkdir test-directory

$ ls


Change directory. Specify the directory you want to work in

$ cd test-directory

$ pwd


touch is the equivalent of creating or opening a file and saving it without any actual changes. It’s often used to create new files.

$ touch file.txt

$ ls
file.txt       test-directory


Remove a file. Like FOREVER. Not put it in the trash, it’s gone.

$ rm file.txt

$ ls


Copy a file to another location. In this example, we’ll recreate file.txt, use cp to copy it into test-directory, then use ls to see that file.txt has been copied there.

$ touch file.txt 
$ cp file.txt test-directory
$ ls test-directory 


Move a file. Same as cp, but removes the original.

$ touch foo.txt

$ ls
file.txt    foo.txt    test-directory

$ mv foo.txt test-directory

$ ls
file.txt   test-directory

$ ls test-directory
file.txt foo.txt


Display a file’s contents on screen or concatenate files.

$ cat file.txt
Some text here...


Pipes let you pass the output of one command into another command as an argument. Let’s say you want your computer to say the contents of a directory out loud. You could pipe the output of ls to say or espeak on linux.

ls | say

Try it!

text editors

You can also use command line text editors like vi, vim, Emacs, nano and a million others.

This is a whole different lesson, but play around and see what’s there.

$ vi file.txt

Now what?

Now you get started playing around. Try to incorporate the command line in your day to day work. Instead of opening finder, try to do things in terminal. Copy files, look in directories, edit documents. The more you use it, the more it will become part of you and your power will grow.

Soon you will be invincible.