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6 best practices for Git version control

PostsSoftware development
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

August 18, 2023

Ever had someone move something without telling you? It’s disruptive and very, very annoying. In the realm of software development, it’s the same story — but on a larger, potentially more chaotic scale. Enter: Git version control. It’s your way of saying, ‘Here’s what I changed, here’s why I changed it, and here’s where you can find it.’ When you follow Git version control best practices, the whole team knows who did what, when, and why.

In this guide, we’ll run through best practices, helping you master version control and avoid those frustrating ‘missing item’ moments. 

Why Git version control is essential 

Git, as one of the most popular version control systems, gives you the tools you need to track progress, coordinate work, and manage changes over time. But without adopting the right practices, the benefits of Git quickly turn into a tangled mess.

Here’s why embracing Git version control best practices is more than just a good idea:

  1. Clarity and comprehensibility

By following best practices, your Git history becomes a clear, comprehensible narrative of your project’s evolution. It’s not just about remembering what was done, but understanding why it was done — aka the context surrounding the code.

  1. Efficiency and productivity

Proper Git usage can streamline your workflow. Things like Git aliases, Git hooks, and regular pruning of stale branches speed up common tasks, eliminate redundancies, and keep your repositories lean and efficient.

  1. Collaboration and coordination 

When everyone on your team follows the same set of practices, collaboration becomes smoother. The predictability resulting from a uniform Git practice means you spend less time resolving merge conflicts or untangling the goals of a particular commit or branch.

  1. Error management and recovery 

Mistakes happen. But with Git, a misplaced semicolon doesn’t have to turn into an hours-long debugging marathon. Using practices like regular commits and maintaining a clear history allows you to roll back changes or switch to different versions of your code with minimal disruption.

  1. Code quality and review

Git best practices can also improve code quality. Feature branching strategies and pull requests not only reduce the risk of introducing bugs into production code, they also facilitate code review and discussion.

Git version control best practices: the complete list 

Here are some essential rules to live by. 

1. Make incremental, small changes

Let’s start with the cornerstone of version control: incremental, small changes. It may sound elementary, but the impact of this simple practice on your workflow is profound.

  • The power of atomic commits

When we talk about making small changes, we’re referring to the concept of ‘atomic commits’. An atomic commit means that each commit you make should be a self-contained unit that delivers a single logical change to the codebase. This could be anything from fixing a bug, adding a feature, or even cleaning up the code. 

Why it matters: Atomic commits are like time capsules, each preserving a specific moment in your code’s history. They make your history easier to understand because each one has a clearly defined purpose. Plus, they’re easier to manage when you’re debugging or reverting changes since they focus on one thing only. 

  • Constructive commit messages

Small, logical changes are essential, but without a descriptive commit message, you’re only doing half the job. A good commit message succinctly describes the nature of the change and provides important context. 

How to do it: A commonly accepted practice is to phrase commit messages in the imperative mood, as if you’re giving a command. For example, use ‘Add user login’ instead of ‘Added user login’ or ‘Adds user login’. 

Your message should start with a short summary (50 characters or less) followed by a blank line and then a more detailed explanation if necessary. This structure makes it easier for others (and future you) to understand what happened and why.

Why it matters: Clear commit messages turn your commit history into a detailed story of your project rather than a jumble of cryptic changes. It’s particularly helpful in open-source projects where developers need to understand why changes were made without combing through the entire codebase.

2. Identify a branching strategy

A branching strategy is essentially a framework that defines how and why you should use branches in your project.

  • Choose a branching model

The choice of a branching model often depends on the size of your team and the nature of your project. Here are two popular strategies to consider:

Gitflow: This strategy involves having two main branches: `master` and `develop`. The `master` branch contains the stable code in production, while `develop` serves as an integration branch for features. Release branches, feature branches, and hotfix branches all play specific roles in this process.

GitHub Flow: This simplified workflow involves creating a new branch for each feature or fix, committing to it, opening a Pull Request (PR) for team review, and then merging it into the `master` branch once it’s ready. It’s straightforward and eliminates the need for multiple long-lived branches, making it ideal for continuous deployment environments.

Why it matters: A branching strategy offers a unified framework for your team to collaborate effectively. It gives structure, reduces conflicts, and ensures your main codebase remains clean and deployable.

  • The principle of branching

A branch in Git is essentially a pointer to a snapshot of your changes. When you want to add a new feature or fix a bug, simply create a new branch. This keeps your work isolated from the main codebase, so you experiment without breaking things.

Why it matters: Branching lets teams develop in parallel, without different branches interfering with each other. This makes it easy to switch between tasks, collaborate with other developers, and roll back changes if something doesn’t work out.

  • The power of naming conventions

Having a branching strategy is a good start, but without a solid naming convention, your branches turn into a confusing tangle. A clear naming convention makes it easy to identify the purpose of each branch at a glance. 

How to do it: The most common naming strategies include feature branches (e.g.,`feature/add-login-button`), bugfix branches (e.g., `bugfix/login-button-alignment`), or release branches (e.g., `release/v1.2.0`). The key is to stick with a naming convention that suits your team’s workflow and be consistent.

Why it matters: A thoughtful naming convention gives your team insight into what’s being worked on, who’s working on it, and the nature of the work. This boosts communication, organization, and facilitates automated processes that might rely on your naming scheme.

  • Regularly merge and prune

After identifying a branching strategy, make sure you keep your repository tidy. Regularly merging branches and pruning old ones prevents your repo from getting cluttered.

How to do it: After you’ve merged your feature or fix branch into the mainline, delete the branch. Do this locally with `Git branch -d <branchname>` and on the remote with `Git push origin –delete <branchname>`. 

Why it matters: Regular pruning keeps your list of branches manageable and relevant. It also reduces the chance of working on outdated code and makes your repository more navigable.

3. Don’t break builds

Preserving a stable, working state in your project’s mainline is critical in a development workflow. A broken build can stall the entire team’s progress, so it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that changes pushed to the mainline don’t break the build.

  • The rule of green build

A ‘green build’ is a term used in Continuous Integration (CI) to denote a state where the latest version of the code successfully compiles and passes all tests. One of the cardinal rules in a Git workflow is to always keep the mainline in a green build state.

How to do it: Before pushing your changes to the mainline, make sure your code compiles and all tests pass in your branch. This includes making sure it’s complete. No half-done code please! 

Why it matters: By keeping the build green, you ensure everyone on the team can pull the latest version of the code at any time and expect it to function correctly. This allows for smoother collaboration and aids in identifying and resolving issues promptly.

  • Review changes thoroughly

To avoid breaking the build, each change needs to be thoroughly reviewed and tested.

How to do it: Beyond automated testing, human review is a crucial part of this process. The practice of reviewing pull requests, as mentioned earlier, becomes crucial here. Consider the potential impact on the build during the review process.

Why it matters: Comprehensive review practices not only improve the quality of your code, but they also protect the stability of your mainline. This means fewer surprises and disruptions and a more efficient, reliable development process.

4. Do reviews before committing to a shared repository

With Git, the process of reviewing code is systematic, collaborative, and most importantly, efficient. By weaving code reviews into your Git practices, you’re doing more than catching bugs — you’re fostering a culture of knowledge sharing and mutual learning.

  • Embrace pull request reviews

Pull request reviews are a fundamental aspect of a Git workflow. Before you commit any changes to the shared repository, review and approve them through a pull request.

How to do it: Once you’ve finished working on a feature or a fix in your branch, push your branch to the remote repository and create a pull request. Wait for a teammate to review and approve your changes before merging them into the mainline.

Why it matters: This ensures that at least one other person has checked your changes, reducing the chance of bugs making it into the mainline. It also promotes knowledge sharing, as more than one person will understand each part of the codebase.

  • Give constructive feedback

As important as it is to open pull requests, it’s equally important to actively participate in reviewing others’ code.

How to do it: When reviewing a PR, be thorough and constructive with your feedback. Look for potential bugs, but also consider broader issues like architecture, performance, and design. Ask questions if something is unclear, suggest improvements, and always maintain a positive, respectful tone.

Why it matters: A good code review is a learning opportunity for both the author and the reviewer. It encourages collaborative knowledge sharing, and ultimately leads to a codebase that’s easier to maintain. 

  • Use draft pull requests for early feedback

As well as giving feedback in general, you’ll want a process in place for sharing/receiving early thoughts. If you’re working on a larger feature or fix that requires multiple commits, you can use draft pull requests to get feedback on your work in progress.

How to do it: After pushing your changes to the remote repository, open a pull request and mark it as a draft. This shows your team you’re seeking feedback, but the changes aren’t ready for merging just yet.

Why it matters: Early feedback helps you spot potential issues sooner, while keeping everyone on the same page from project start to finish. 

  • Embrace continuous integration 

Continuous Integration (CI) tools can be a valuable ally in code review. CI tools can automatically build and test your project each time you push changes, providing immediate feedback.

How to do it: Use continuous integration to automatically build and test your project each time there’s a repository change. Then, link the results of this test to all your pull requests to give reviewers that all-important insight into the impact of your changes.

Why it matters: Automated testing increases your code’s reliability, saves time in the review process, and gives you confidence that your changes aren’t introducing new bugs.

5. Make sure every commit is traceable

Being able to trace each commit back to its author is a must. A traceable commit history not only aids in debugging and understanding the code evolution but also fosters accountability in a shared codebase.

  • Ensure accurate author information

Every commit in Git has author information attached to it. Keeping this information accurate is the first step toward traceability.

How to do it: Configure Git with your correct user name and email address using the `Git config` command. This sets your personal identity used for all commits you create.

Why it matters: Accurate author information allows anyone examining the commit history to identify who made each change. This is crucial when there are issues or someone needs more context.

  • Link commits to issues

To add another layer of traceability, link your commits to specific issues or tasks in your project management tool.

How to do it: Include issue or task identifiers in your commit messages. For example: ‘Add search functionality (ref 123)’. Most project management tools automatically link these commits back to the issue, providing even more context for each change.

Why it matters: This gives a direct connection between the in-progress tasks and the code changes. It adds a higher level of organization and traceability to your project, making it easier to understand the why behind each commit.

  • Maintain a clean, linear history

Keeping a clean, linear Git history further aids traceability.

How to do it: Avoid unnecessary merge commits and prefer rebasing over merging when updating your feature branches. Use `Git commit –amend` and interactive rebase (`Git rebase -i`) to clean up your local commits before sharing them.

Why it matters: A clean Git history is much easier to follow and understand. This makes it easier to trace changes and understand the evolution of your codebase.

6. Protect your assets

Keep sensitive information and valuable code safe. Taking steps to protect your assets is not just good practice; it’s essential for maintaining the security of your project. 

  • Keep sensitive information out

Never, ever store passwords, API keys, or other sensitive information in your Git repositories.

How to do it: Use the environment variables or configuration files included in your `.Gitignore` to manage sensitive information. This way, these details are accessible to your code, but they’re kept out of your Git history.

Why it matters: Once you’ve committed sensitive information, it becomes part of your Git history and can be difficult to completely remove. By keeping it out of your repository, you’re ensuring it won’t be exposed if your codebase is shared or made public.

  • Use .Gitignore

A well-configured `.Gitignore` file is essential for keeping unnecessary or sensitive files out of your Git repository.

How to do it: Create a `.Gitignore` file in your project’s root directory and list any files or directories that should not be tracked by Git. This typically includes compiled files, logs, and environment configuration files.

Why it matters: By using `.Gitignore`, you keep your repository clean and focused only on the source files that matter. This also prevents accidental commits of sensitive or irrelevant files.

  • Implement access control

Controlling who can read from and write to your Git repository will help keep your assets safe.

How to do it: Use a Git hosting service that provides access control features. This allows you to manage who can access your repository and what permissions they have.

Why it matters: Access control helps prevent unauthorized access to your code and gives you control over who can make changes.

Beyond the basics of version control best practices

Once you’ve mastered the fundamental best practices, it’s time to delve into the more advanced techniques. Elevate your Git game and become a true version control maestro. 

Harness the power of interactive rebase

Interactive rebase is a powerful Git feature that lets you modify your commit history, making it more understandable and meaningful.

How to do it: Use `Git rebase -i` to squash related commits together, fix up commit messages, reorder commits, and more. Always exercise caution when rebasing, as it rewrites commit history, and be sure not to rebase shared commits.

Why it matters: An understandable, meaningful commit history is easier to navigate, debug, and review. This gives you a codebase that’s easier to maintain, plus smoother collaboration between the team. 

Master advanced Git log

The `Git log` command is a window into your commit history. Understanding its advanced uses can give you insights into your project’s evolution.

How to do it: Use flags and arguments with `Git log` to customize the output. For example, `Git log –oneline` gives a concise view of your commit history, while `Git log –graph –decorate –all` shows a graphical representation of your branches and commits.

Why it matters: A thorough understanding of your project’s history helps you track down bugs and gain insights into your development patterns.

Implement Git hooks for automation

Git hooks let you automate tasks in your Git workflow, like enforcing a commit message format or running tests before commits.

How to do it: Write scripts for the actions you want to automate and save them in the `.Git/hooks` directory of your Git repository. Make sure to make your scripts executable.

Why it matters: Automating parts of your workflow can significantly improve efficiency and consistency. Git hooks can help enforce project standards and prevent common mistakes before they happen.

Tools for managing version control best practices 

While Git is a powerful tool on its own, integrating it with other project management tools like Backlog will take your productivity to stratospheric heights. 

  • Collaborate better: Performing code reviews within your project management tool helps to centralize your processes, making it easier for your team to track, review, and discuss changes. This fosters better communication, collaboration, and, ultimately, better code.
  • Make Git Agile: Backlog offers various Agile features like boards for Kanban or Scrum and burndown charts for sprints. Integrating Git with these features provides a more holistic view of your project.
  • Keep everything in one place: Keep track of code changes with Backlog’s version control feature, which lets you organize, discuss, and track all work in one central hub. 

Integrating Git with a project management tool like Backlog allows you to leverage the strengths of both. This symbiotic relationship gives you added transparency, collaborative superpowers, and, ultimately, drives productivity, bringing harmony to your development cycle and firing up your team’s effectiveness. Give it a try today!



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