Git Feature Branch Workflow

14 Jan 2014

Git is a powerful source code management system but it so flexible that it is easy to get into trouble unless you follow a procedure to keep yourself out of trouble. A workflow is set of guidelines to try to keep things simple and avoid pitfalls. If you don’t know where to start or you’re having trouble finding a rhythm, you could start with something like this.

Feature branches are practial in Git mostly because branches are so lightweight and easy to create. This workflow is based on the model presented in A successful Git branching model and for the purposes of this post, we’ll assume that the mainline branch for is called develop, to be consistent with the model in that article.

Feature Branches

All non-trivial develop work should be done in a feature branch. Why?

How To Use A Feature Branch

Choose Your Starting Point Wisely

Your starting point shouldn’t change during the short life of your feature branch so make it a good one.

Make Your Changes Without Merging

You know how to develop; go ahead and implement the feature. Pretend someone sent you a zip file of the source code and asked you to add the feature.

Test Your Changes

Once you’ve implemented the feature, you should test it completely enough that it would build successfully on the build server. Your branch was in this condition when you started, so if anything fails, it is related to something you did. That makes fixing any problems easier.

Choose Your End Point Wisely

Before your merge back to develop, make sure the head of develop builds successfully on the build server. If you try to merge with a broken build and you don’t fix problems because the build was already broken, you could merge hidden problems that will be hard to sort out.

Merge and Resolve Conflicts Locally

If there were no other intervening changes to develop, your branch would now be ready to become the new head. But there were other changes so you have to merge them. Check out develop and do a merge from your feature branch. We need a merge commit message so prevent a fast-forward merge. If there are no conflicts you have a clean merge. If you do have conflicts, resolve them. Don’t pollute your merge commit with any additional changes.

Write a Good Commit Message

The merge commit is the most important commit you are planning to push, so amend its commit message to contain a summary of all the changes you made. The editor will list all of the files you modified to help you remember changes you need to document. You can also use the log of individual commit messages in your feature branch. It can be also useful to use a difftool to compare the merge commit to the previous head.

Retest Your Merged Changes

Even though your changes were good before merging, and develop was good before you merged, the combined result might not be good. So you have to retest.

Add Fixups Locally So Your Branch Will Build on the Build Server

If your merge code doesn’t build or pass tests, then there was some unexpected interaction between the two branches. However, knowing that they passed separately will make the process of figuring out why they don’t pass together. Commit any need changes as fixups.

Code Review Your Work

You’ve merged your changes, resolved any conflicts, added any fixups and it builds and passes all tests. You are now in the perfect position to code review your work. Use a difftool to compare the previous head to your local head. Amend the merge commit message again to record that the change has been code reviewed and by whom.

Push To Integration

Double-check that you are on the develop branch, double-check the log show your merge commit and any fixups and then push the branch the team server.

In the unfortunate event that someone else pushed a change to develop while you were merging, fixing up, and code reviewing, you can fetch from the team server and then merge the team server head of develop into your local develop branch. This will create yet another merge commit, which has to be retested, but that is probably easier than going back and remerging your branch.

Delete Your Feature Branch

When you have merged your feature branch into develop, you can immediately delete your local branch and any pushed copy of that branch. This is because your merge commit has one parent that was the head of your feature branch. You feature branch, including all the micro-commits that were part of it are now accessible from the head of develop going backwards.

Other Guidelines

Keep the Feature Branch Clean

Resist the temptation to pull from develop into your feature branch. One rarely has to do this but it is tempting to do so because of habit. You want to “keep up” with develop.

Why not?

Phased Features and Reusing Feature Branches

If a feature is incomplete but the has reached a partial milestone and the branch still builds and passes all tests, you can consider merging your work so far into develop, resetting the feature branch to the head of develop, and then continuing to develop the next phase of the feature. This is advisable if others are blocked waiting for a partial implementation of your feature or if the number of modified files becomes unwieldy.

Unforeseen Dependencies

What if after your start your feature branch, you get stuck because you need a defect fix that is now in develop but not in your branch? One solution is to cherry-pick just the changes you need from the other branch, if possible. Another is to complete the feature enough so that it builds and passes all tests, and then merge your incomplete but stable branch with develop and continue. In any case, try to avoid cross-merging your branch with develop.

Merge was Time-Consuming and You Cannot Push Right Away

Part of this workflow is based on being able to amend local commits before pushing to develop. If the merge steps are time-consuming and you need to back up you work without pushing to develop proper, you can push to a temporary branch on the team server. If need be, you can force push as many times as you have to. Just remember to delete the pushed backup of your merge in progress when you finally push to develop itself.

Collaborating with Yourself or Other Developers

A feature branch can easily be used by the same developer from two different machines or by two different developers by pulling the feature branch from the team server with rebasing. If a backup push is rejected, the rebase just moves your unpushed commits to the end of the linear feature branch develop permitting you to push again.