Shell Quickstart

In 2013 I worked at NET-A-PORTER, where we ran a year-long graduate program. Participants did three-month rotations with four teams, getting experience with different parts of our business. I volunteered to run a workshop introducing them to shell programming, and later adapted the material into this blog post1.

This is the Unix philosophy: write programs that do one thing, and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.

—Doug McIlroy

Look through /bin and /usr/bin on any Unix system and you'll find hundreds of little tools you can glue together to accomplish complex tasks. If you are serious about becoming a confident command-line jockey, it is a good idea to skim the man pages for all the commands covered in those directories. You don't have to memorise them, but read enough to understand what each program does.

To whet your appetite, I'll introduce you to some of my favourite shell commands. But first, let's start by quickly covering how one can string programs together. A Unix program generally has one input stream and two output streams, known respectively as:

stdout and stderr are usually connected to the terminal that invokes the program. Sometimes there's a command-line switch to redirect output to a file instead. stdin is usually connected to the keyboard, though often programs will read input from any files given as command line arguments. Here are some examples:


Some programs don't have switches to decide where to read from, or a way to name files for their output. Transcribing input from a file as input to your program is hardly ideal. Neither would transcribing output from the terminal and into an output file. Your friendly shell can help. We can ask the shell to redirect the input, output or error streams for a program to or from files. We use the following symbols to do that:

  • < redirect stdin
  • > redirect stdout
  • 2> redirect stderr

Here are some examples. (In some cases, these examples just show variants of the above. That is intentional. There's more than one way to skin a cat.)

  • Download a file and dump its content into a file

    curl -L > primes.txt
  • .. again, but redirect progress/errors to a different file

    curl -L > primes.txt 2> primes.err
  • Redirect standard input

    cat < primes.err
  • Concatenate two files, dump the result in a third

    cat primes.txt primes.err > foo


With input and output redirection and judicious use of temporary files you should now be able to chain simple programs together into ad-hoc bigger ones. However, it's not convenient. In Unix you can use a pipe (|) to redirect a program's output directly to another program's input. Some examples:

  • Count combined characters/words/lines in two files

    cat primes.err primes.txt | wc
  • Count stuff in OUTPUT from a previous wc:

    wc primes.txt | wc

You can, of course, combine pipes and input/output redirection:

  • Direct stderr to a file, count lines in stdout

    curl -L 2> errors.txt | wc -l
  • Meaningless (but valid) use of pipes and redirection…

    wc < primes.txt | wc | wc > foo


We'll be using the file you've already downloaded a few times now in these exercises. It contains a list of UK Prime Ministers, 1 line per year. You'll need the following commands:

  • curl: transfer data to or from URLs
  • wc: counts characters/words/lines
  • sort: sorts its input
  • uniq: removes duplicate lines from its input
  • head & tail: return the first/last N lines from a file/stream

Some of the exercises requires you to invoke these commands with command-line switches to alter their basic behaviour. You will have to use the man command to read about which switches are available and what they do. For example, man sort will bring up sort's manual page.

OK. Ready? Go:

  • Download primes.txt if you haven't already
  • Count the total number of lines in primes.txt
    • Answer: 289 (290 including final newline)
  • Count the number of unique prime ministers
    • Answer: 53
  • Count the prime ministers that served more than one year
    • Answer: 40
  • Count the prime ministers that served only 1 year
    • Answer: 13
  • Return the 3 prime ministers with highest number of years, in ascending order
    • Answer: Jenkinson, Pitt, Walpole
    • (Returning additional information in each line is OK)
  • As the previous, but return the primes in position 2, 3 & 4 in descending order
    • Answer: Pitt, Jenkinson, Gladstone
    • (Returning additional information in each line is OK)


As NET-A-PORTER's tech blog is no longer available, I obtained the original from the internet archive for re-posting here.

Posted 14 December 2020 Copyright © Stig Brautaset