So one of my first tasks in my new job is getting a code base into readiness from its state as “works on the original developer’s laptop”. And, naturally, this process is hindered by the fact that it is a Python codebase and I’m a Ruby guy. Still this is software development 101 – release management – and I do know how to do that.

A python requirements.txt file is the equivalent of a Ruby Gemfile – an ASCII text file that identifies the libraries to load into an application.

Here’s an example of a Gemfile:

gem 'rails', '~> 6'
gem 'puma', '~> 3.11'
gem 'mysql2', '>= 0.4.4', '< 0.6.0'
gem 'bootsnap', '>= 1.1.0', require: false    

And here’s a Python requirements.txt file:


The syntax is different but they are clearly the same type of thing – a package name and a version number. The reason that the version number is important is that this locks a package down to a specific version number. I’ll write later why this is so damn important these days but for now please accept that it is (its a security thing).

So the questions become:

  • How do you know what package names to put there?
  • How do you know what version number to use?

The first one is easy – you look for lines at the start of your Python program that begin like this:

  import iso8601
  import ujson as json
  import zstandard as zstd
  import numpy as np
  from fire import Fire

Do I understand the difference between it beginning with “from” and “import”? Nope. Nor do I need to at this point.

So my first entry in this requirements.txt file might be:


My guess was that Python would either give me an error message that helped me or let me know what was going on when I gave a crazy version number. This is done with a command line like this:

pip install -r requirements.txt

Here’s what happened:

Collecting zstandard==9999 (from -r requirements.txt (line 17))
  ERROR: Could not find a version that satisfies the requirement zstandard==9999 
  (from -r requirements.txt (line 17)) (from versions: 0.0.1, 0.1, 0.2, 0.2.1, 0.2.2,
     0.3.0, 0.3.1, 0.3.2, 0.3.3, 0.4.0, 0.5.0, 0.5.1, 0.5.2, 0.6.0, 0.7.0, 0.8.0, 
     0.8.1, 0.8.2, 0.9.0, 0.9.1, 0.10.0, 0.10.1, 0.10.2, 0.11.0, 0.11.1)
ERROR: No matching distribution found for zstandard==9999 (from -r requirements.txt 
  (line 17))

And that tells us that 0.11.1 is a valid version number so our requirements line becomes:


The final trick is to build this up one dependency at a time. That way you resolve everything as you go instead of N conflicts all at once.

In closing there are also some standard libraries that follow the same from / import calls but don’t actually need to be in requirements.txt. Here are some seeming examples:

import re 
from sys import stdin

My best advice here is play around with the 9999 trick and see if a version number appears. If it does then put it in requirements.txt and if not, well, kill it since then it is likely a Python built in.

And while I suspect there are more subtleties buried deep within Python’s requirements.txt facility, this is a pretty good stopping place.