06 April 2011

Core Goals of Version Control

After having a couple of years of experience with Git, I was finally able to clearly articulate the core value that version control brings to software development. This article will be written with a bias toward Git, but I've at least tried to express the core value in abstract terms.

The value is expressible in 4 goals.

Core Goals
  1. Capture source artifacts
  2. Isolate stable codelines from WIP
  3. Enable concurrent WIP
  4. Make it easy to leave sensible history behind
WIP = Work In Progress

The continuous delivery crowd says that WIP should be basically zero. I think that there is space for a fairly short development pipeline (3-5d) that can free developers up to capture ideas and then wrangle them into shape in a second or third pass.

Capture Source Artifacts

As a developer, I feel happy when I can push a save button when I've taken a small step -- and then never have think about it again. I also feel happy when I can save, even if I'm based on a slightly out-of-date base. I also feel happy when I don't have to worry about binary vs. text -- as long as its a true source file of a reasonable size.

I feel happiest when I don't have to be distracted by superfluous concerns, and can focus on the task at hand and save the results easily.

Main Point: A good version control system makes it easy to capture source artifacts.

Isolate Stable Codelines From WIP

Software is hard to get right, and once things get stable, the only way to keep them there is to avoid making risky changes. But stability is always balanced against the common desire for enhancement and restructuring.

A typical bug fix is one or two isolated commits that fix a specific problem. Most version control systems more or less support cherry-picking a small change over into another codeline.

I feel happy when I'm able to easily take an isolated series of commits from the development codeline into a stable one, even if the fix turns out to be a little larger than a couple commits.

Main Point: A good version control system makes it easy to cherry-pick changes, and even longer patch sequences, from one codeline to another with easy reconciliation of overlapping edits.

Enable Concurrent WIP

For software developed by a team larger than 2-3 people, it is useful to be able to work in parallel with each other, even on the same feature. Sometimes you can arrange your work so as not to overlap at all, but there are real situations where you want to track someone else's development within the fairly short development pipeline (3-5d) before things have gotten stable.

I feel happy when I don't have to catch people up on what I've been doing, and when they don't have to catch me up on what they've been doing, and we can get to the point easily and quickly. I also feel happy when we can leap-frog each other with ideas and real implementation.

Main Point: A good version control system makes it easy to track other team members' work, and easy to tentatively integrate with that work.

Make It Easy To Leave Sensible History Behind

After stepping away from a piece of software, it is easy to lose context and forget the concerns that shaped the development of that software. It doesn't take long. For me, about 2 weeks is enough for me to start forgetting details and motivations.

Of course, it is important to leave a properly structured artifact behind. Proper naming means a lot; proper factoring is important. Once you comprehend the structure, it is possible to change things without introducing big problems.

But often, full comprehension isn't practical, and a flat 2D view of the artifact is insufficient for reasoning about the thing itself. Often, it is often very useful to be able to get a vector on where the software came from, and interpolate from that vector where it was headed.

The creative process is messy, filled with double steps and backtracking. Don't confuse me with all the noise. Give me a history that, given all the knowledge you had when it got stable, at least looks well-reasoned.

I feel happy when I'm able to take an easy editing pass following capture/review that lets me intentionally craft history as an email to the future about the vector of change that is inherent in a certain patch sequence. I also feel very happy to not have to think about this during the creative, messy, focus-draining capture/review pass.

Main Point: A good version control system includes tools to both: 1) enable the developers to easily leave behind meaningful history, and 2) extract focused history for all or part of a piece of software.

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