Git, the safety net for your local work in progress

Just recently I gave a presentation on Git (the version control system, not the British pejorative). I introduced newbies to the Git world and the concepts behind it and demonstrated advanced users some lesser known Git features.

Additionally, I introduced my personal workflow when working on small scale features, let’s say the size of one commit to the main line. Some of my colleagues found this workflow to be particularly interesting, so I’d like to share it here and discuss its benefits and drawbacks.

Since I trust the reader’s competent knowledge of Git basics, I will not explain any git commands in this blog post.

Local workflow with merge --squash

Prerequisites

The workflow I’ll describe should only be applied to features that fulfill the following conditions:

  • Small feature/bugfix: one commit to main line
  • Up to one or a few days of work
  • More than 30 minutes of work

Before we proceed, please remember this important advice from the Pro Git book:

Do not rebase commits that exist outside your repository.

If you follow that guideline, you’ll be fine. If you don’t, people will hate you, and you’ll be scorned by friends and family.

This simple rule also applies to any operation which changes commit hashes, e.g. commit --amend, cherry-pick, etc.

So now that we know what to do in order to keep our friends and family at peace, let’s get started with my personal workflow for working locally.

The actual workflow

The basic (and simple) idea is to use a local, dedicated, temporary feature branch where you commit as often as you like until the feature is done. Then the result is merged into the main line as one commit without rebasing or any other major Git magic.

The important steps are printed in bold.
I’ll assume two things:

  1. The main line is called master
  2. The local branch is called my_feature

The workflow itself is fairly easy once you have used it yourself:

  • Create a local branch from the main line (called my_feature in this example)
    The branch’s name is for your eyes only, as it will remain local
  • Work on my_feature
  • Commit as often as you like
    The code does not even have to compile
    The commit messages are not important. They are, again, for your eyes only.
  • Finish feature (with a couple of commits) in my_feature
  • Merge newest additions from master into my_feature
    Don’t forget to pull beforehand
    Of course, you can do this in between as well
  • Resolve any conflicts
  • Checkout master
  • Squash your commits into one onto master with git merge --squash my_feature
    You’ll now have all the changes (*not* the commits!) from my_feature in the master's staging area (merge --squash doesn’t auto-commit)
  • Verify everything works as expected on master
  • Commit and write a decent commit message (which will get pushed)
  • Push
  • Delete my_feature
    This is important! Otherwise you might be tempted to continue using it even after merging the result into master.

Benefits

I use this workflow because of the following reasons:

  • Work in progress is kept separately in a single, dedicated, local branch
  • Switching tasks is easy, just commit the latest work and checkout a different branch to work on (git stash could be used but the stash can be deleted accidentally, e.g. git stash drop).
  • All of your work in progress is safely stored in Git
  • You cannot accidentally push a local-only branch which has no remote
  • Since the branch will not get pushed you can also change commits if you like (rewrite, reorder, delete, etc.)

Drawbacks

  • Git will not know that my_feature has been integrated into master
    This is why you should delete my_feature after you merge --squash and commit to master. At this point you know that everything has been merged.

Example

I am writing this blog as a single file which is version controlled in a local branch of a Git repository which also holds my presentation files. I have created a new branch for the work in progress and commit the text from time to time. However, in the end I want to have one commit for the blog entry, since I do not care how I got to the end result, I just want to save in between.

So here are my commits in my local branch blog:

$ git log --oneline --decorate
53a53dd (HEAD, blog) Some last modifications
3c494d9 Add conclusion, remove more TODOs
f20e47b Remove TODOs
bebcc78 Benefits and Drawbacks
843b6e9 Finished workflow section
e3aa37c Some minor corrections
b47eec4 Add example
92009c7 Until benefits
7ee81bc First draft of blog

After the git merge --squash blog on branch master, as you can see, there is only one new file in the staging area:

$ git status
On branch master
Your branch is up-to-date with 'origin/master'.
Changes to be committed:
  (use "git reset HEAD <file>..." to unstage)

    new file:   blog/blog.mdown

After committing the finished blog my history looks this way:

$ git log --oneline --decorate --graph --all
* 2281abe (HEAD, master) Git blog entry about 'merge --squash'
| * 2cca283 (blog) Updated example
| * 53a53dd Some last modifications
| * 3c494d9 Add conclusion, remove more TODOs
| * f20e47b Remove TODOs
| * bebcc78 Benefits and Drawbacks
| * 843b6e9 Finished workflow section
| * e3aa37c Some minor corrections
| * b47eec4 Add example
| * 92009c7 Until benefits
| * 7ee81bc First draft of blog
|/  
* 25690aa (origin/master) Add PDF for latest version

The blog commits (7ee81bc through to 2cca283) have been squashed into commit 2281abe on master.

Conclusion

If used responsibly, Git’s capabilities in rewriting history can be very helpful. The local merge --squash workflow can safely store work-in-progress and hence protect your work from accidental modification or loss (this does not apply to git stash for example, since you can always drop the stash).
As always, you don’t have to use this feature, Git just makes it possible for those who want to. So go ahead and try! It certainly changed the way I work locally.

Author: Christian Guggenmos
Tags: git, workflow
Categories: git, development
Monitoring-Workshop 2017 12./13.9. Düsseldorf