James Mulholland



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How To Automate Basic Development Tasks with Bash

2019-02-28 • 7 minutes read

As a software engineer, I love automating things (or, rather, hate repeating things). One of the best ways you can save yourself some precious development time is by learning Bash. I’ve had a great ROI on learning the basics of Bash, so I wanted to share the 80% of stuff you need to get going and start making meaningful improvements to your development productivity.

Intro to Bash

If you're comfortable with what bash is, you can skip this section. If not, read on.

Bash is the language and prompt that you use when interacting with the Linux/macOS command line. If you've ever typed cd or mkdir, that's Bash.

From the command line, Bash is an interface to pretty much anything within your computer. You can access, move, and edit files; you can run and kill a series of commands; you can grab information about your system. When you realise that a command prompt used to be the only way people used to interact with computers, you'll realise how powerful Bash can be.

Although you'll most commonly interact with Bash through the command prompt, Bash's real power comes in when you start writing scripts. If you repeatedly do anything through the command line, it might be worth investigating whether you can express that activity with a Bash script.

Want to automatically update your local database with up to data from production, keep two files in sync or bundle multiple DevOps commands into one? All easy with Bash.

So now that we know what Bash is, let’s see how we can use it.

Bash In the command line

There’s loads you can do with Bash (check out this cheatsheet for a sample) but we’ll stick to the basics here. My goal here is to make you productive with the minimal effort, then let you go from there.

File and Directory Manipulation

A lot of what you’ll be doing in Bash is manipulating your filesystem. Before we start manipulating, however, let’s deal with navigation so we know where we are and how to get where we want to go. pwd Prints the Working Directory, that is, it tells us which repository we are in. You might also have the current directory shown to you in the command prompt.

My command line, showing the current working directory as `~/proj`

If you want to change directory, cd my-project will take you to the folder called my-project. If you’re unsure of what folders you can navigate to from the working directory are, type ls to list all the files and directories in the current directory. If you want to see hidden files too, type ls -a. The -a is an example of an option which you can pass to commands which allow you to modify their behaviour. You can also list within nested directories with ls -a some/nested/path.

Now we know where we are, let’s create a new file. touch foo.txt will create a text file named ‘foo’ in the current working directory. mkdir my-repo-name does the same thing but for repositories. If you want to make nested repositories, you’ll need mkdir -p my-repo-name.

Once you’ve created a file, you can copy it to a new location with cp file new/file/location/. If you want to move it, it’s the same thing but with mv instead of cp. mv is also used to rename files (what’s the difference between moving old-name.txt to new-name.txt and renaming old-name.txt to new-name.txt ?)

Finally, you can delete files with rm file.txt. If you need to recursively delete a repo and all the files within it, use rm -r folder-name.

Directing Output and Passing Data Around

You don’t want to just move files and edit their names, however, you also want to be able to edit their contents. Let’s create a new file, but this time, populate it with some text.

$ echo "node_modules" > .gitignore

echo outputs some text to the console. Rather than simply print “nodemodules”, however, we can _redirect the output to a file called .gitignore using >. > tells the prompt to take the output of the left hand side and put it in the contents of the file on the right hand side.

We can read the contents of .gitignore to check this has worked using cat. You should see the contents of .gitignore appear in your command line:

$ cat .gitignore

> is limited in that it can only add/replace the entire contents of a file. If you want to append something to a file you need >>. For example, let’s say you later remember you want to ignore not only node_modules, but also your built code, found in the dist directory. Adding dist to .gitignore is as easy as echo "dist" >> .gitignore.

One of the most useful things to know in Bash is the pipe command (|). Whereas > and >> redirect command outputs into files, | redirects output into other commands. This is super-useful when you need chain together multiple commands into one.

grep is a useful command line tool for searching through text and we’ll use to demonstrate the pipe command. When you pass in some data to grep, it can search through it for a given set of characters/pattern. Let’s say we’ve forgotten whether we added node_modules to our .gitignore earlier. We can search the .gitignore file for ‘node_modules’ using grep and it will print any lines in the searched file which contain a match.

$ grep node_modules .gitignore

We can rewrite this to use two commands, threaded together with a pipe:

$ cat .gitignore | grep node_modules

This command tells Bash to take the output of .gitignore and pass it as an argument to the grep search for ‘node_modules’. If you've ever used a .then(callback) in JavaScript, it's a little bit like that.

Although it doesn’t necessarily make sense to use a pipe in this instance, | can be incredibly useful when you have more dynamic data being passed around, or longer chains going on.

One last command to know before we move onto writing a Bash script is &&. && is super-easy to grok: all it does is run one command after another.

$ echo "hello" && echo "world"

Creating a Bash Script

Now we’ve got the basics mastered, time to write a script. We’re going to be making a script that sets up a new web project folder, including creating some basic files, initialising git and initialising yarn.

Creating a basic Bash Script

Let’s start by creating a new .sh (Bash) file.

touch new-proj.sh

Open up the newly created file (e.g. if you like to use VSCode, type code new-proj.sh) and then type in the following:

echo "Making a new project"

#!/bin/bash tells the computer that this is a Bash file and that you can run it even if it doesn’t end in .sh (we’ll get to that later).

Save your file. You’ve created your first Bash script!

Let’s run it. To do this, all we need to do is type ./new-proj.sh (./ stands for the current directory).

$ ./new-proj.sh
permission denied: ./new-proj.sh

Oh no! Error! The permissions when you create a new Bash script are a little weird. To allow your account to run the script, we need to modify these permissions. Do that with the following command:

$ chmod u+x new-proj.sh

And try again:

$ ./new-proj.sh
Making a new project


Of course, we want to be able to do a little more than just print a statement. Time to add some more useful functionality. I’ll put in some comments to stub out what we’ll be doing in our script. In Bash, comments start with #.

echo "Making a new project"
# make a new folder
# make index.js, index.html and style.css files
# initialise git
# initialise yarn

Making a new folder is easy; we learnt how to do it with the mkdir command earlier. But what do we call the folder we want to make? Presumably you don’t want every project you make to have the same folder name.

This is where we can introduce parameters. The parameters to a bash script can be accessed in the order they were passed in using $1, $2, …, $n where n is the position of the argument that was passed in. So, if we want to call ./new-proj.sh my-proj to create a folder called my proj, we’ll need to add the following to the script:

# ...
# make a new folder with the name of the first param
mkdir $1
# ...

Running the script will now make a directory for us with the specified name.

$ ./new-proj.sh testRepo

What if we want to reuse this variable? Wouldn’t it be nice to have it named at the top of the file so we don’t have to wonder what $1 means?


The above line will create a variable named DIRNAME which we can then access throughout the rest of the script with $DIRNAME. Much more readable.

echo "Making repo named $DIRNAME"
mkdir $DIRNAME

Now we can make some files…

# make index.js, index.html and style.css files
touch $DIRNAME/index.html
touch $DIRNAME/style.css
touch $DIRNAME/index.js

…and initialise git, including adding a .gitignore file

# initialise git
git init $DIRNAME
echo "node_modules" > $DIRNAME/.gitignore
echo "dist" >> $DIRNAME/.gitignore

…and jump into the new directory to initialise yarn.

# initiaise yarn, answering 'yes' to all Qs
yarn init --quiet --yes

Great, you have a new project folder set up for you at just a few characters’ notice.

Adding Options

Not all projects are the same, however. What if we don’t always want JavaScript or Git in the project? This is where options come in.

This section gets a little bit more fiddly than above as Bash’s syntax isn’t always the most readable, but I’ll explain everything as clearly as possible so that there’s no magic going on.

The first thing we need to do is set some variables according to whether certain flags are passed. i.e. ./new-proj.sh -j -g newProj will set $JS and $GIT to true, whereas ./new-proj.sh. newProj will have both those variable set to false.

Take a minute to read through this code, then we’ll go through it step-by-step.

while [[ $# -gt 0 ]]  # while number of args ($#) > (-gt) 0
do                    # do everything between here and 'done'
case $1 in # start of switch statement, switching on next parameter
  -j | --javascript ) # if next var is -j or --javascript
    JS=true           # set the $JS variable to true
    shift             # shift the position of the arguments by 1
  -g | --git ) # if next var = -g or --git
    GIT=true   # set the $GIT variable to true
    shift      # shift the position of the arguments along by 1
    DIRNAME=$1 # set any other param as the directory name
    shift      # shift the position of the arguments along by 1
esac; # end switch statement (case backwards)
done  # end while loop

What we have here is a loop which loops over each passed-in parameter and then checks via a switch statement if that parameter matches either the Git or JavaScript options. If it does, a corresponding variable is set to true. If it doesn’t, we set that param as the directory name (* means ‘anything else’).

The shift command is a slightly strange one. It tells the computer to shift all the arguments being passed along by one position. This allows the loop to step through each passed in parameter in turn. You can read more about switch here.

The loop keeps running while the condition inside [[ ]] is true. $# is the number of arguments, decreasing by one each loop thanks to the shift commands and -gt is the greater-than operator (\<).

It’s also worth pointing out that the catch-all statement at the end where we set DIRNAME isn’t completely idiot-proof. If we run ./new-proj.sh projA projB the script will only run for projB. You could throw this as an error (see below) or create multiple repos but we’ll just bear this in mind for now.

Error Catching

What we do want to check though, is that at least one directory name has been passed. This snippet checks to see if the $DIRNAME variable is set and throws an error if it isn’t.

# exit if directory name isn't set
if [ -z ${DIRNAME+x} ]; then
  echo "ERROR: Could not find a directory name"
  exit 1

exit 0 signals the completion of the program. Exiting with any other number is an error. So all exit 1 tells us is that the program failed.


To clean our code up a bit, let’s create some functions to extract the JavaScript and Git setup logic.

setup-git() {
  echo "Setting up Git"
  if [[ $1 = true ]]; then # first param is $JS's value
    # add JS relevant lines to .gitignore
    echo "node_modules" >> $DIRNAME/.gitignore
    echo "dist" >> $DIRNAME/.gitignore
  git init --quiet $DIRNAME
setup-js() {
  echo "Setting up JavaScript"
  # create index.js
  touch "$DIRNAME"/index.js
  # change working directory to our passed in directoyr name
  # init package.json and yarn, auto-answer yes to all Qs
  yarn init --silent --yes
  # jump back to level above
  cd ..

All this does is wrap our code from before in an executable, named block. setup-js takes no params, whereas the first param of setup-git is the value of $JS which we can use to create js-relevant lines in .gitignore.

Our final step is to run these functions, conditional on the value of our $JS and $GIT variables.

if [ "$JS" = true ]; then

if [ "$GIT" = true ]; then
  setup-git "$JS"

That’s it! You can find the completed script as a gist here.

./new-proj.sh -g -j myProj will create a new project folder with git and javascript setup, ./new-proj.sh myProj will create a new project folder with just a css and html file (and any other combo you like). A nice, reusable and flexible Bash script.

Making the Script Runnable from Anywhere

The one final step is to make sure we can run this script from anywhere; at the moment we have to either be in the same directory as the script or manually type in a long path to get to it.

There’s a quick solution: all we have to do is copy the script to a globally executable location. usr/local/bin fits this description so let’s copy the script there, cutting off that awkward .sh (remember us adding #!/bin/bash at the top of the file so we don’t need .sh?).

$ cp new-proj.sh /usr/local/bin/new-proj

Now you can create new projects from anywhere on your system!


Have any questions? Reach out to me on Twitter.

Epistemic Effort: Medium: I knew everything needed to write this post beforehand but had to think about a good example that was beginner friendly and re-world enough to be useful/make sense.