Feeling scared of the command line? You’re not alone. We have this image of developers staring intently at a black screen with white or green text flashing across as they wildly enter incomprehensible commands to hack into the corporate mainframe (no doubt while guzzling soda and wiping neon orange Cheetos dust off their keyboard).
That black screen or window is the command line interface (CLI), where you’re able to enter commands that your computer will run for you. While there’s no need for you to reenact the scene above, working with the command line is a critical skill for you to learn as a developer. The command line is like our base of operations, from which we can launch other programs and interact with them. It has a syntax of its own to learn, but since you’ll be entering the same commands dozens of times, you’ll quickly pick up the commands you need most.
In this introductory lesson to the command line, you’ll learn how to navigate around your computer and how to manipulate files and directories (also known as folders) directly from the comfort of the command line. You’ll soon see that this isn’t as difficult as you may think. The commands you will learn in this lesson are very straightforward, so don’t be intimidated by the prospect of using the command line for the first time.
Open a terminal on your computer.
- Linux: open the programs menu and search for “Terminal”. You can also open the terminal by pressing
CTRL + ALT + T on your keyboard.
- MacOS: Open your Applications > Utilities folder and find “Terminal”.
Before we do anything, take a look at the following text:
This is a terminal command because it begins with a
$ is saying “Hey! Enter what follows in your terminal.” This means that we must exclude the
$ when entering any command. In the example above, we would only enter
whoami in our terminal. This is a common indicator so make sure that you aren’t entering
$ before a command. Now that you are aware of what
$ does, take your terminal for a test run! Make sure your terminal is open, type the command mentioned above, and press enter on your keyboard.
It returns your username. Cool!
You will be making heavy use of the command line throughout this curriculum, and the upcoming installations project will require you to install many different software programs using the command line. Additionally, you will primarily be using Git within the command line (more on this later). As part of the bigger picture, you may well be using the command line on a daily basis in your career as a software developer, making it an indispensable skill in your toolset.
By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do the following:
Note: Many of these resources assume you’re using a Mac or Linux environment. If you did our previous installation lesson, you should already have Linux installed in dual-boot or a virtual machine. Or, you might be using MacOS. If you don’t have MacOS, or any version of Linux installed, please return to the operating system installation guide.
touchcommand. Open your terminal and enter
lis a lowercase
lswill show you the files and folders in the current directory (or will show nothing if the current directory is empty). Create a file called
test.txtby entering this in your terminal:
touch test.txt. Now enter
lsonce again. You should see
test.txtlisted in the output. You can also create more than one file at once using the
touch index.html script.js style.cssand press the enter. Then enter
lsonce more. You should see the files in the output. Here is a small way that the terminal reveals its power. How long would it have taken to create all three of those files with your mouse? Thanks, terminal.
There’s something important that you need to know about programmers. Programmers are lazy. Like, really lazy. If they are forced to do something over and over again, odds are good that they’ll figure out a way to automate it instead. The good news is that you get to benefit from the many shortcuts they’ve created along the way. It’s time to learn how to use the command line like a pro (which is to say, in a really lazy way).
First, you might have already noticed that copying and pasting inside the command line doesn’t work the way that you’d expect. When you’re inside the command line, you’ll need to use
Cmd+C) to copy and
Cmd+V) to paste. For example, to copy and paste commands from your browser into the command line, you’ll highlight the command text and use
Ctrl+C as usual and then paste it in your terminal using
Ctrl+Shift+V. Test it out!
Second, you need to learn about tab completion. Seriously, this tip will save you so much time and frustration. Let’s say that you’re in the command line and that you need to move into a folder that’s far away, something like
Tab, the command line will automatically complete commands that you’ve started typing once there’s only one option. For example, it’s pretty common to have a
Documents folder and a
Downloads folder in the home directory. If you’ve typed
cd D and then press
Tab, the command line will let you know that it’s not sure which one you want by showing you the different options that match what you’ve typed so far:
$ cd D
$ cd D
But once you’ve typed in a little bit more, it will complete the name for you, making it possible to write out the full file path above by typing as little as
cd Doc[tab]O[tab]f[tab]j[tab]cal[tab] (depending on what other folders exist on your computer). Test it out, and get comfortable with how this works. You’re gonna love it.
Third, there’s a really handy shortcut for opening everything within a project directory:
. Once you’ve installed a text editor, you can use this shortcut to open up an entire project and all of its files in one go. This shortcut is also commonly used with Git (which is covered in detail later on) with commands like
git add . to add all of the files inside of a directory into Git’s staging area. For example, if you have VS Code installed, you can
cd into the project directory and then type
code . (with the period) to open up all of the project files. See the next section of this lesson for a more detailed example.
On Windows and Linux, you can open VSCode from the command line by typing
code, and you can open folders or files by adding the name of the location after it:
MacOS can do this too, but you need to set it up. After installing VSCode, launch it any way you’re comfortable with. Once it’s running, open the Command palette with
CMD + Shift + P. In the little dialog that appears, type
shell command. One of the choices that appears will be
Shell Command: Install 'code' command in PATH. Select that option, and restart the terminal if you have it open.
In this exercise, you will practice creating files and directories and deleting them. You’ll need to enter the commands for this exercise in your terminal. If you can’t recall how to open a terminal, scroll up for a reminder.
test.txt. Hint: use the
That’s it–you’re done with command line basics! If you commit to doing most things from the command line from here on out, these commands will become second nature to you. Moving and copying files is much more efficiently done through the command line, even if it feels like more of a hassle at this point.
This section contains helpful links to other content. It isn’t required, so consider it supplemental material for if you want to dive deeper into something.
This section contains questions for you to check your understanding of this lesson. If you’re having trouble answering the questions below on your own, review the material above to find the answer.
cdon its own navigate you to?
cd ..navigate you to?