In-person meeting: install instructions update

We looked at the installation instructions for CodeRefinery workshops and tried to figure out how to improve them

April 04, 2024 - Richard Darst

This session of our 2024 February in-person meeting focused on the install instructions. By it's nature, it related to how we were going to teach the lessons (would we offer multiple paths? Would the second week be active or passive?)

The core problem

Using git and computational tools can be hard. It can be made even harder by the long steps needed to install the tools - which has to happen before we get contact with the learners.

But, not everything is hard. Many commercial tools are easy to use. For example, VS Code came up many times. VS Code is easy to install, and (on Windows) will automatically prompt you to install Git when needed. But it goes beyond that: VS Code provides some sort of out-of-the-box working authenciton to GitHub, even on Windows, that's based on SSO or OAuth, that "just works". There isn't any extra need for another page on setting this up. This kind of usability is what we need, though unfortunately this is often only present in these high-level tools (which we don't want to favor only one or the other).

So, what do we do? Keep up with our strategy of universal, low-level tools, or recommend some high-level that make installation (and use) easy?

What we did

For this session itself, most of it was discussion of both the tools and the idea above, trying to decide what to do. We had practically already decided to teach the 2024 March workshop this way:

  • Week 1: day 1 through GitHub web interface, day 2-3 has options for VS Code, command line, and maybe others (RStudio) (but day2-3 would only be demonstrated with VS Code).
  • Week 2: Would be all demo-based, we wouldn't expect any installation or exercises from users.

With this, for week 1, we could take advantage of VS Code's ease of use to handle the difficult setup (we could tell people "just install VS Code. It provides the terminal, Git authentication, and editor, all together". For Windows, Git had to be installed separately but that is fairly easy). We skipped requiring installing Conda and the conda environment and getting it working for week 2 (many things could go wrong here).

We made a blog post and posted about our ideas on social media to try to get feedback. We didn't get much.

As of mid-2024, this can be seen at our installation instructions.

Detailed notes

Below is pasted our raw detailed notes, for archival purposes.

Current state:

  • Mostly works (but every time needs updates)
  • There is much there, it's hard to know what to focus on depending on how you want to attend
  • VSCode and other editors mostly missing.



  • It would take ~1 day to go through all these and get set up.
  • For week 2, how to communicate "you don't have to do this."
    • Remove "what to do" table on the front page. Move install to-do list to the front page.
    • Install instructions should say "Week 1: do this [list]. Week 2: optional, [list]"
  • Can we do everything by docker/container? What if we containerize everything?

To do:

  • GitHub account: shorten
  • Shell and git:
    • Windows: vscode instead
    • MacOS: developer tools, or xcode
    • Linux: install package (use package manager)?
      • Fresh instaltions no Git
    • remove "set default branch (move it to lesson)"
    • check if two more windows settings are needed
  • SSH connection to GitHub: Add "VSCode" tab to install instructions
  • Remove git-bash from windows
  • Redo/change install verification videos
  • Post to CR chat/social media and ask "For [operating system x], what's the easiest way to get started with an editor and git. This is for a person new to scientific computing and doesn't have extensive command line experience. Usability is more important than perfection here. They should have git, authentication to clone/push/pull from github, edit files, and commit them."


We applied these ideas for our 2024 March workshop, and it worked out quite well. We were happy with both the lesson redesign, and the new install instructions. We didn't notice any major problems with the installation (and we seemed to get fewer live questions about problems with software installation, and more questions about the main topic. This was a big win).


CodeRefinery is a project within the Nordic e-Infrastructure Collaboration (NeIC). NeIC is an organisational unit under NordForsk.


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