NICHOLAS J. MATIASZ, Ph.D.

A workflow for Git and GitHub

Although version control is useful for all software development, team-based development particularly highlights the need for tools like Git and GitHub. Team-based development can get complicated, though, when each teammate has unique preferences for version control tools and workflows. To improve my own software development—some of which involves a team of developers—I’ve studied best practices for Git and GitHub to choose a version control workflow for my research. In this post, I present the Git/GitHub workflow that I currently use, and I share my impressions from using it daily. In my experience, this workflow offers a sweet spot with respect to the time it requires and the benefit it delivers. This workflow makes me more productive, and—when done right—it blurs the line between version control and project management. Essential parts of developers’ work, version control tools and workflows should be included in all computer science curricula.

Git/GitHub workflow

  1. On GitHub, create an issue (e.g., #17) for a specific feature, bugfix, etc.
  2. git checkout master
  3. git pull
  4. git checkout -b <branch_name> (e.g., 17_fix_login_form )
  5. Commit code with descriptive commit messages.
  6. git push origin <branch_name>
  7. On GitHub, create a pull request.
  8. In the pull request’s description, write “Resolves #<issue_number>.”
  9. On GitHub, merge the pull request.

Notes

This workflow improves some psychological aspects of programming. By creating an issue on GitHub before you start to code, you are forced to articulate every planned task—an absolute requirement for technical work. As one benefit of this strategy, when you create an issue, you define a clear scope for your work. Defining a clear scope helps you to avoid straying from your goal while you code. As I navigate through a repository, I’m sometimes guilty of thinking, “Oh, hey—that’s broken, too.” A few minutes later, I’m changing some CSS when I originally intended to fix a database query. Before writing any code, you also benefit from describing your plan in words. If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain language, you shouldn’t start to code.

To help you convey your ideas, GitHub’s interface allows you to paste images and code snippets into each description box. I often use this feature because a picture or code snippet will sometimes remind me of a task faster than words alone. Github’s text fields can also parse GitHub Flavored Markdown, a simple syntax for styling your text (e.g., with bold or italics).

Note that I like to start each branch name with its corresponding issue’s number. This way, I immediately know every branch’s goal, even if I haven’t worked on it for a while. Similarly, writing “Resolves #<issue_number>” in each pull request’s description explicitly ties the pull request to its issue. This latter method has a convenient side effect: GitHub will automatically close the issue once you merge the pull request.

Following this workflow yields an elaborate history of your development activity. Such a history removes part of the burden of having to remember where everything is in your codebase. Here’s an example: One of my projects uses JavaScript for zooming on an SVG element in HTML. Some time ago, I created a branch and pull request to adjust the minimum and maximum levels of zoom allowed for this element. If, months or even years later, I want to change these zoom levels, I don’t have to spend time figuring out how I first did it. I can just search my repository with the term “zoom,” and GitHub will direct me to the exact commit that recorded the change. GitHub’s intuitive visualizations of changes between commits will even direct me to the exact line(s) of the file that I changed. This situation happens frequently; my workflow helps me to avoid the frustration of solving the same problem twice.

Now that I’ve used this workflow for a while, it feels taboo for me to switch to a new task on an existing branch. I prefer not to muddy my commit logs. If I want to switch tasks, I need to create a new branch. But I can’t name my branch until I know the issue number. And I won’t know the issue number until I create an issue. For those (hopefully fleeting) moments of laziness that developers know well, motivation is built right into this workflow. To follow it is to perform hygienic version control techniques.

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