I don’t like Notebooks

– Joel Grus

Notebooks are the junk food of programming environments — addictive and easy to consume, but if you eat it all the time you’ll end up morbidly obese.

– Iskander Yusof

Jupyter notebooks are pretty much the first tool a data scientist pulls off the shelf when approaching a new problem. And with good reason. There’s nothing like the immediate feedback you get when you press shift-enter and your code is evaluated. Plus, you can see your graphs right there next to your code! What’s not to love?

Well, quite a lot.

I’m a data scientist, but I very rarely use Jupyter notebooks. Here’s why, and why I think you shouldn’t use them either if you want to be the most effective data scientist you can be.

They encourage polluting the global namespace

The best feature of notebooks is that they provide instant feedback: just press shift-enter.

This is also their worst feature.

In order to get that instant feedback, I find myself writing code in the global namespace, instead of writing functions. This is generally considered bad practice in Python development. The reason for that is that it’s very hard to reason about the effect of running a sequence of cells. They’re all modifying the global namespace, which means your notebook is effectively a horribly large state machine.

It also leads to my next two objections…

They discourage effective code reuse

The best way to reuse code in Python is through functions and classes. In notebooks, the temptation is to reuse code through cells instead. Because you’re using the global namespace, you are relying on cells being executed in a particular order. In order to reuse code in cells, you would have to set some global variable then run the right cell. Keeping track of what needs to be run and in what order then becomes a problem, and also leads to…

They harm reproducibility

If you always run your notebook in a linear order from start to finish then reproducibility shouldn’t be an issue. Someone else can take your notebook, run it in order, and get the same results.

However (see above) this means that you typically won’t have great code reuse. It also somewhat defeats one of the benefits of using a notebook, which is that you can run it in whatever order you like.

If you don’t always run it linearly then someone else running your notebook may well run it in a different order too, and it’s hard to make sure they will then get the same (or at least valid) results.

You care about reproducibility right? You’re a data scientist.

They don’t play nicely with source control

If you’re a professional data scientist you probably work in a team. That means you need to collaborate. And collaborating with notebooks is… rubbish. Generally it means saving the notebook and sending it to someone.

Of course you can put notebooks into source control. As long as no-one else is editing it at the same time, in which case, good luck trying to merge with their changes.

What about testing?

There’s nothing like a few well written unit tests to find bugs in your code. And there’s many a time when I’ve spent ten minutes waiting for an experiment to run only to find it breaks half-way through. If I’d had a quick test I could run first I wouldn’t have had to wait.

Unfortunately it’s not just hard but nigh-on impossible to write unit tests for notebook cells. Again, if you actually write functions in notebooks you can do it, but then you lose the nice interactivity property.

They’re not PyCharm

So if you shouldn’t use notebooks, what should you use?

I haven’t found anything better than PyCharm. It effortlessly translates my thoughts into code. Ok, maybe it’s not quite that easy, but it does have some amazing features that are sorely missed whenever I’m forced to use a notebook:

  • Proper code completion (not the rubbish you get when you press tab in a notebook).
  • Automatic renaming of variables
  • Search the entire codebase for a function or class
  • Refactor to extract a method or function

…amongst many other things.

But what about the joy of pressing shift-enter? I need my dopamine hit!

If you really need the interactive-ness notebooks, you can pay for the professional edition, which has a “scientific mode”. This includes the ability to view matplotlib graphs and pandas dataframes. You can even run notebooks from within PyCharm if you really want to.

But you don’t want to, do you?

(Want to discuss your own specific data problems? Book a free consultation with us – we’re here to help!)

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