Summary and Setup

Make is a tool which can run commands to read files, process these files in some way, and write out the processed files. For example, in software development, Make is used to compile source code into executable programs or libraries, but Make can also be used to:

  • run analysis scripts on raw data files to get data files that summarize the raw data;
  • run visualization scripts on data files to produce plots; and to
  • parse and combine text files and plots to create papers.

Make is called a build tool - it builds data files, plots, papers, programs or libraries. It can also update existing files if desired.

Make tracks the dependencies between the files it creates and the files used to create these. If one of the original files (e.g. a data file) is changed, then Make knows to recreate, or update, the files that depend upon this file (e.g. a plot).

There are now many build tools available, all of which are based on the same concepts as Make.


In this lesson we use make from the Unix Shell. Some previous experience with using the shell to list directories, create, copy, remove and list files and directories, and run simple scripts is necessary.


In order to follow this lesson, you will need to download some files. Please follow instructions on the setup page.


You need to download some files to follow this lesson:

  1. Download

  2. Move into a directory which you can access via your bash shell.

  3. Open a Bash shell window.

  4. Navigate to the directory where you downloaded the file.

  5. Unpack

$ unzip
  1. Change into the make-lesson directory:
$ cd make-lesson


You also need to have the following software installed on your computer to follow this lesson:

GNU Make


Make is a standard tool on most Linux systems and should already be available. Check if you already have Make installed by typing make -v into a terminal.

One exception is Debian, and you should install Make from the terminal using sudo apt-get install make.


You will need to have Xcode installed (download from the Apple website). Check if you already have Make installed by typing make -v into a terminal.


Use the Software Carpentry Windows installer.


Python2 or Python3, Numpy and Matplotlib are required. They can be installed separately, but the easiest approach is to install Anaconda which includes all of the necessary python software.