Introduction: Error management

Sometimes, things go wrong. We have plenty of ways of expressing this in the English language:

When writing software, we tend to use error codes or exceptions.

Why should I care?

You should care because errors and unexpected things will happen.

When they do, you will need all the information you can to be able to understand what happened and fix potential bugs.

The same applies to users of your APIs. If you do not handle errors well, every time the API is misused, and users cannot understand what’s wrong, they’ll get frustrated very quickly. If you are lucky, they may go and try to find answers in the documentation but many of them will just quit.

Lastly, your end users need to know what yo do when error occurs. They want to know what happened and, more importantly, what they should do to fix it.

So, proper error handling is key. You sure don’t want your product to be
featured in the Daily WTF error’d series, do you?

Part One: Various Error Handling Techniques

Note: This section is mostly theoretical. If you want more concrete stuff, feel free to skip directly to part 2.

In Bash

When you are using bash, you usually run several extern commands, for instance:

cd project
git pull
pylint project

Each of these commands has a return code that you can access with a special variable called $?.

The return code is 0 when the command succeeds, and can take many other values when something goes wrong. As Tolstoy said:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

For instance, pytest as 6 different possible return codes:

  • 0 when all the tests passed
  • 1 when tests were collected and run but some of the tests failed
  • 2 when test execution was interrupted by the user
  • and more 1

There are two problems with this approach:

  • You have to check the return code all the time, otherwise the code will continue executing, ignoring previous errors. (You can fix this by calling set -e at the top of the script, though)
  • When something fails, the only information you have is a number. (And maybe the output, depending on how the script is written)

In C

When you write in C, you are supposed to check the returned value of every function you call.

Sometimes, it’s an integer. For instance:

int size = ...;
FILE* fp = ...;
char buff[size];
int n = fread(buff, size, 1, fp);
if (n < size) {
// Handle "short read"

Other times, you are getting a null pointer, and you have to check a special variable called errno:

FILE* fp = fopen("foo.cfg", "r");
if (!fp) {
if (errno == ENOENT) {
fprintf(stderr, "Could not find foo.cfgn");

Here, you don’t even have an error message anywhere, all you get in a number. (ENOENT is just a #define ENOENT 2)

Note: There’s tool called errno in moreutils&nbsp;that can help you if for some reason all you want to convert the value of errno to a human-readable message.

All of this means you have to carefully check the return code of all the functions you called.

If you’re using gcc, you can trigger a warning when the caller does not check the returned value like so:

/* in foo.h */
int foo() __attribute__((warn_unused_result));

/* in foo.c */
foo();// triggers a warning

but then people can ignore the warning …

In Go

In Go, functions can return several values.

Functions that may fail are supposed to return a Error object along the result, like so:

file, err := os.Open("foo.cfg")
if err != nil {
// Do something with file

Contrary to C it’s harder to ignore the return value.

You can use something like:

file, _ := os.Open("foo.cfg");

but there are linters which will forbid you to do that.

Unlike C, you can add all sorts of metada to your error.

All you need is to declare a custom struct and implement an Error method:

type InvalidConfigError struct {
Path string;
Details string

func (e *InvalidConfig) Error() string {
return fmt.Sprintf("%s: %s", e.Path, e.Details)

func readConf() (Config, error) {
// ...
file, errOpen := os.Open("foo.cfg");
if errOpen := nill {
return nil, &InvalidConfigError{"foo", "could not open file"};

parsed, errParse := parseYaml(file);
if errParse != nill {
return nil, &InvalidConfigError{"foo", "invalid YAML syntax"};

return parsed, nil;

Using it is a bit painful though, because you have to try and convert it:

func main() {
config, err := readConf();
if err != nil {
invalidConfig, ok := err.(*InvalidConfig)
// ok will be false if conversion fails
if ok {
fmt.Printf("%s:%s", invalidConfig.Path, invalidConfig.Details);
// Do someting with config ...

In Java

In Java you use exceptions instead, with the throw and catch keywords.

Like Go, you can create your own type of exceptions.

But there are two key differences:

  • In a catch block you can specify what kind of errors you wish to handle. For instance catch (FooException)&nbsp;will catch all exceptions that are an instance of the FooException class (maybe via inheritance)
  • They also came with a backtrace, which lists all the functions that were called when the exception occurred.

There’s a catch, though. Let’s look at this example:

public class Foo {

public static void readConf() {
FileInputStream fs = new FileInputStream("foo.cfg");

public static void main() {

If you try to compile that, you’ll get an error: error: unreported exception FileNotFoundException;
must be caught or declared to be thrown
FileInputStream fs = new FileInputStream("foo.cfg");

Java is telling you that you can choose to either:

  • Deal with the error right now
  • Or let the caller do it.

If no-one catches the exception in the chain of callers, the exception is called “uncaught” and the whole program terminates after printing the backtrace.

Because Java is Java, you have to be explicit about it, like so:

public void readConf() throws FileNotFoundException {
FileInputStream fs = new FileInputStream("foo.cfg");

public static void main(String[] args) throws FileNotFoundException {

This is a bit painful, so there are Java programmers who prefer only using “unchecked” errors so that they don’t have to declare explicitly what each method can throw.

/* This error is unchecked because it inherits RuntimeException */
class FooException extends RuntimeException {
private string path;
private string details;
// ...

public static void readConf() {
try {
FileInputStream fs = new FileInputStream("foo.cfg");
catch (FileNotFoundException e) {
throw new FooException("foo.cfg", "file not found");

// Look Ma, no 'throws' declaration!
public static void main(String[] args) {

Note how we have to wrap the FileNotFoundException and re-throw our own error.

In other languages

I could have talked about functional languages, where you use a sophisticated type system:

type alias Person = { name : String , age : Maybe Int }

canBuyAlcohol user =
case user.age of
Nothing -> false
Just age -> (age >= 21)

or about Javascript, where you can handle errors in callbacks:

const prom = new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
if (ok) {
} else {

but there’s so different than Python that I don’t have much to say about them.

In Python

With Python, you usually use try and except.

But the nice thing is that you you have a lot of flexibility:

  • You can use errno like in C:
except OSError as e:
if e.errno == errno.ENOENT:
sys.stderr.write("File not found")

although in Python3 you would rather do:

except FileNotFoundError:
 print("File not found", file=sys.stderr)
  • You can use tuples as return values like in Go:
def run_cmd(cmd):
result =, stdout=subprocess.PIPE)
rc = result.returncode
out = result.stdout

return (rc == 0, out.decode().strip())

ok, out = run_cmd(["git", "rev-parse", "--abbrev-ref", "@{u}"])
if ok:
print("You are tracking", out)
print("You are not tracking any branch")

You can also pass callbacks to deal with errors:

def try_something(on_error=None);
except Error as e:

def log_error(e):


Custom exceptions

In Python2, exceptions used to always have a string attribute named .message.

That’s because it was possible to raise errors for which the constructor only took one argument, using a special syntax like this:

# Only works in Python2!

def foo():
raise Exception, "Oh noes!"
# calls Exception("Oh noes")

cacth Exception, e:

In Python3, the special syntax is gone, and all exceptions now have a argsattribute, which is just a tuple of any type.

This means that when you create you own type of exception, you will need to call super().__init__()&nbsp;so that the args attribute is properly set, like so:

class InvalidConfigError(RuntimeError)
def __init__(self, path, details):
self.path = path
self.details = details
super().__init__(path, details)

def __str__(self):
return f"{self.path}: {self.details}"

def read_config(path):
except FileNotFoundError:
raise InvalidConfigError(path, "not found")

except YAMLError:
raise InvalidConfigError(path, "invalid YAML syntax")

def main():
except InvalidConfigError as e:

Assert and exit

Note that there are other ways for a Python program to terminate other that an uncaught exception.

For instance, you can use sys.exit(42)&nbsp;to force an exit with the given error code.

Because it’s common to display a message to stderr when you exit with a non-zero code, you can use sys.exit(“<a message here>”)&nbsp;to display an error message and immediately exit afterwards.

You can also use assertions, like so:

def foo(self):
assert, "Calling foo() when is empty"

However sys.exit()&nbsp;and assert are using exceptions under the hood, namely SystemExit and AssertionError. (The only difference being that sys.exit()&nbsp;does not print a backtrace).

So you can catch both assertions failures and sys.exit calls as usual:

except SystemExit as e:
 print("script failed with", e.code)

So, given all this flexibility, what’s the best way to handle errors in Python?

Part Two: A Concrete Example


I’m going to use tsrc&nbsp;as an example.

The code samples are taken from its source code (and sometimes simplified a bit for the purpose of this article).

In a nutshell,&nbsp;tsrc is a command line tool that helps you deal with multiple repositories and also contains some functionality to interact with GitLab.

There are about 2000 lines of Python code in this project, and it’s used in three different ways:

  • The production code: what is executed when you type tsrc command
  • The tests: what is executed when automatic tests run
  • A library: we have C.I scripts written in Python that re-use some of tsrc code. (For instance, to reset all the repositories to the correct branch when trying to build a pull request)

Our goal is to find a way to properly handle errors in these three contexts.

Hierarchy of errors

A somewhat established practice among Python programmers is to define a base class for all exceptions raised by their own project.

Usually the class name ends up in “Error”.&nbsp;tsrc does not deviate from this route:

# in tsrc/

class Error():
def __init__(self, *args):
super().__init__(self, *args)
self.message = " ".join(str(x) for x in args)

def __str__(self):
return self.message

Things to note here:

  • We define a __str__ method so that errors look nice when printed. This will matter a lot when we’ll tackle error reporting
  • The base class is called Error. It’s already in a tsrc.errorsnamespace, so there’s no need for a name with a prefix like TsrcError.&nbsp;2

Next, we have a few custom classes inheriting from tscr.Error:

class GitCommandError(tsrc.Error):
def __init__(self, working_path, cmd, *, output=None):

class GitLabError(tsrc.Error):
def __init__(self, status_code, message):

Note how each error is constructed with a specific set of attributes.

If a git command fails, you’ll need to know about working directory, the exact command that was run and the output of the command (if you captured it).

And it’s the same with the GitLabError: you’ll want to know about the HTTP status code and the content of the response when a request to the GitLab API fails.

When to throw

Let’s look at a specific example: the tsrc sync command.

It’s a command that synchronizes all the repositories of the current workspace.

While writing the implementation of this command, there are errors we can expect to happen:

  • The network is down, so all calls to git fetch fail
  • Some of the repositories are dirty, so calls to git merge fail
  • and so on.

And they are errors we don’t&nbsp;expect to happen:

  • A SyntaxError
  • An IndexError because we used my_list[3]&nbsp;and the list only has two elements
  • An AssertionError because we triggered an assert failure
  • An error in a third-party library we forgot to catch

So here’s the rule we’ve followed in tsrc:&nbsp;every time&nbsp;an error occurs that we expect, we throw a derived class of tsrc.Error.

So for instance, instead of letting CalledProcessError un-caught when we run git commands, we make sure to use our own GitCommandError class:

def run_git(working_dir, *cmd):

process =, cwd=working_dir)

if process.returncode != 0:
raise GitCommandError(working_dir, cmd)

It means that exceptions raised in tsrc are not “exceptional”, in the sense they can occur even during “normal” usage.

It also means that if an error that does not&nbsp;inherit from tscr.Error is raised, there’s probably a bug in our production code.

The main() wrapper

The distinction between “expected” and “unexpected” errors is made clear in the
main()&nbsp;entry point of tsrc:

def main_func():
""" Deals with command-line arguments
and calls appropriate functions

def main():
except tsrc.Error as e:
# "expected" failure, display it and exit
if e.message:
print("Error:", e.message)

if __name__ == "__main__":

Thus the program can terminates in the following ways:

  • A tscr.Error instance has been raised and un-caught: display its message if it’s not empty and exit with non-zero return code.
  • An other kind of exception has been raised and we did not caught it: let the program crash.
  • Someone called sys.exit(): just terminates as the caller expects it.

Thus, as long as we take care of how we construct the instances of the tsrc.Error classes we raise, the end user will have a nice error message telling him what happened.

For instance:

def load_manifest();
raise tsrc.Error("Invalid manifest file ...")

def main_sync():
$ tsrc sync
Error: Invalid manifest file

Note how the backtrace will be hidden.

On the other hand, if we have an other kind of exception raised, a backtrace will&nbsp;get printed and that will allow us to investigate the bug.

Error handling in CI scripts

We can use exactly the same technique when writing CI code.

In our case, the consumers of our script will be the developers reading the output of the pipeline, trying to figure out why there merge request was denied.

So it’s crucial we handle errors correctly.

The good news is that we also&nbsp;have “expected” failures such has the code failing to compile, or the tests failing, and we have “unexpected” failures such as the network going down, or the script itself being buggy.

Hence we can re-use the same technique, where notify()&nbsp;is the function that takes care of telling the developer about the outcome of the build (via an e-mail, or with a comment on the merge request):

class BuildFailed(CIError):

class TestsFailed(CIError):

def notify(message):

def ci():

def main():
except BuildFailed:
notify("build failed")
except TestsFailed:
notify("tests failed")
except Exception as e:
notify("build scripts may be broken! Ask help from a build farm guru")
notify("Pipeline suceeded. Congrats")

Note: this has nothing to do with tsrc itself, but I thought it was a good idea to tell you about CI scripts, too 🙂

Using tsrc as a library

Since we have such a nice error hierarchy, and that every type of error contains easily accessible information as attributes of the class, callers of tsrc functions have a lot of liberty when trying to handle errors.

They can do very fine-grained error handling, like this:

push_action = tsrc.PushAction()
except tsrc.GitLabError as error:
if error.status_code == 405:
# GitLab denied the merge request

They can catch only tsrc.Error errors (since other types indicate a bug), and re-raised their own type:

push_action = tsrc.PushAction()
except tsrc.Error as error:
raise FooError()

Or they can just ignore errors entirely and let callers of their code dealing with the errors.

Testing error handling

Since the type, the error message, and the attributes of our exceptions is so important, we ought to test them.

With pytest we can write code like this:

import pytest

def test_reading_config_file():
with pytest.raises(InvalidConfigError) as e:
assert e.value.path == "nosuchfile"

Note that pytest returns an ExceptionInfo instance wrapping the original exception, so we have to use the .value attribute.&nbsp;3

We can also check the return code of the various commands like so:

def test_sync_with_errors(tsrc_cli):
# Arrange a workspace where a branch has diverged

# Call the sync script:
with pytest.raises(SystemExit) as e:

# Ensure it has failed
assert e.value.code != 0


Good error handling is quite easy in Python once you apply the techniques I have described here.

They all look quite simple, but it took me quite some time to discover them, so I hope you’ll find them useful.


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