(This is my first tilt at the windmill of communicating complexity in software development. I’m sure there will be more.)

Branch names

A colleague introduced me to a great idea in git: You can give a shit about feature branch names. (That loud thunk you heard from the West Coast a month and a half ago was me facepalming.)

At my company, we associate tickets with branches by prefixing each branch with the ticket name. There are reasons for this, but basically it’s just part of the company’s development zeitgeist. So if you know that a ticket called FOO-1337 is the 1337th ticket created by (or for) the FooBar team, you’ll recognize that foo-1337 is the feature branch associated with that ticket.

That’s great and all, but it doesn’t tell you what’s in the branch you just merged into yours. It works fine in the short term, because you’ve watched FOO-1337 crawl across the Kanban board in our stand-ups, but it makes feature archaeology (let alone cross-team communication) a pain in the ass.

My colleague’s solution is to add that information to branch names. The first time I was included on a code review for foo-1337-add-flame-to-blue-widgets, I felt shame that I’d never even thought to do so.

“Oh, but there’s so much more typing!” You shouldn’t be afraid of a little typing practice.

It’s not like we’d never done tricks with branch names before; we’d just written branch names for our own benefit. I’ve created plenty of branches like:


which were perfectly clear to me. Probably not to you.

But now if I’m asked to review your pull request for FOO-1337, which merges foo-1337-add-flame-to-blue-widgets into foo-qa, I don’t need to pull up the ticket to remember (or discover) what you were working on, and even if I do I’m already primed to think in terms of widgets, particularly blue ones on fire.

Crucially, nobody’s been inconvenienced by this extra information. My colleague didn’t have to expend much effort to come up with his branch name. I didn’t have to dig it out of a ticket or a wiki page; it was right there, the first place I looked when I saw that I’d been invited to a code review. Nobody emailed the team or spammed a chatroom. It’s not a magical methodology, but it’s an improvement at the margin.

Commit messages

Like any decent tool, once you’ve used it you start to find other applications. As with branch names, our commit messages follow a pattern formed by one part tooling and three parts “we’ve just done it this way for a while”: ^FOO-1138:.*$

In practice, that means a lot of:

FOO-1138: Starting
FOO-1138: Added features
FOO-1138: Fixed a test
FOO-1138: Done

Real helpful, right? How about I write something like this instead:

FOO-1138: Carving out a path for cheese quality on red widgets
FOO-1138: Hacked in red-white marbled widget Emmentaler path
FOO-1138: Acceptance tests for Mornay sauce now fail correctly
FOO-1138: Handling Doritos flavour dust properly, ready for review

It’s not perfect documentation of what, why, and how I changed the codebase in each commit, but it’s better than nothing. Certainly it’s better than trying to figure out intent from a set of out-of-context diffs when you’re merging in the last three commits and have to resolve conflicts.

Incidentally, this is another good reason to “commit early, commit often”.

Code pre-review

But why stop there? When I commit my last changes and raise a pull request, I could just sit back and wait for the accolades to roll in… or I could run through my PR myself and be the first person to comment on each file.

This gives me the opportunity to revisit parts of my code changes that I haven’t seen in a little while, which usually sends me back to my local branch three or four times and generates another commit or two as I fix my shit before anyone notices it’s broken. It also lets me

  • Explain why I did that thing with a lambda instead of the obvious-seeming library call that doesn’t quite work
  • Give the reader early warning of files that read best in a side-by-side (or unified) diff, or files whose only diffs are trivial renames or other automatic refactorings
  • Point the reader to a wiki page where we’ve laid out the design we’re hoping to achieve over the course of a few tickets
  • Point the reader to another wiki page where we’ve untangled the behaviour of this shit-pot legacy type we need to keep around for that one integration, which is why I’ve done these terrible things with bare objects
  • Brag about the subtle, years-old bug I fixed by replacing this XML string with a Maybe-ish microtype

Generalizing: It’s all right where you have to look

The unifying factor for all of the above, and all the great other ways you and I are going to go forth and improve our work, is that nobody has to go looking for this information.

  • If I want to know what your branch is for, it’s right in the branch name, which is right in front of me.
  • If I want to know what your commit did, it’s right in your commit message, which is right in front of me.
  • If I want to know why you pulled out an interface for this service class rather than just make it static, it’s right there in your pull-request comment, which is right in front of me.

If I have to go look up an email thread, or a comment on a feature ticket, or a wiki page, or diffs for a commit, chances are I’m not going to do it unless it’s really important. Chances are I’m going to resent having to do it if it turns out to be important and nobody called it out as such. I don’t want to have to pull these answers out of you when I realize I need them, and you don’t want to be interrupted by me trying to do that, either.

But while this is a push model, it’s not a very intrusive one. You’re not fire-hosing an email thread with “HAY GUISE THIS IS WHAT I DID IN MY LATEST COMMIT Y’ALL”, and nobody’s cracking a whip over you to maintain an exhaustive wiki-doc of your design decisions. People who aren’t looking for your added little lagniappes aren’t going to be bothered by them.

Generalizing: This isn’t “foo–; // add one to foo”

None of these artifacts is persistent. Yes, that silly Voltron joke in your latest commit message might get stored by the git server until time_t wraps around, but odds are it’s going to be in the public eye for no more than a day or two. Your dignity will probably survive.

A comment you leave on a pull request is visible only to people reading that PR, and again, it’s only likely to be relevant for a day or two. Anyone who has to up that merge might find it helpful, but it’s not going to influence anyone else’s perception of the code when they merge in your changes.

Basically, these nuggets of information stay in a narrow context, where they’re appropriate. Compare that to code comments like:

    foo--; // Add one to foo <abc Jan/1993>

Who’s this abc character, and why was he trying to increment foo in 1993? That’s shit that your version-control system should be remembering for you.

Antipattern: Commit police considered harmful

Do I really have to point this out? Trying to make people seed their code reviews with comments or name their feature branches informatively is doomed to fail. Every once in a while I’ll commit a changeset where I did nothing but clean up formatting in the files I’m about to change, and it looks like this in the log:

FOO-2525: Cleanup

That’s basically indistinguishable from an exasperated dev working around some stupid “all commit messages must have a comment explaining what work was done” edict.

Besides which, you’re much better off with a team of devs who look at a suggestion like “leave little breadcrumbs where you can” and think “wow, that could be really helpful” than with a team of devs who respond with “fuck you, that’s not my job” and need to be thumbscrewed into compliance.

And while I’m at it

My company maintains a large corporate wiki, because of course we do. Wiki doc combines the worst qualities of the push and pull models I handwaved at above – it’s effortful to write, effortful to find, and often effortful to read – but this particular wiki has on its frontpage a list of the dozen or so most recent page edits. Those edits are listed with no more info than “who done it” and “what page did they do it to”, along with a link to a wiki diff.

When I’m between tasks, or just need a five minute break from pounding my head against AutoMapper, I like to browse that stream of edits. If nothing else, it gives me a hint as to what else is going on in the company, and every once in a while I find something useful for whatever problem I’m working on at the moment. If I’m implementing flames for blue widgets and I see that the VP Product has changed the “Widget Combustibility Roadmap” page, well, that catches my attention.

If we devs start adding little nuggets of information to our own event streams, we can start to leverage the same effect. It’s a simple matter for me to have a quick look at the commits my team members – hell, probably the whole company – have made over the last half hour, or day, or whatever. If those commits have informative messages attached to helpful branch names, so much the better.

(I think it’s helpful, if not strongly indicated, for developers to maintain that level of situational awareness… but that’s another blog post.)