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Pull Requests

A tool for collaboration

I have just begun really using github for my organization at work, and because of that I am learning some of the features of github that I had previously ignored, or been oblivious of.

One of the biggest parts of collaborating on github is the pull request. Everything on github goes through pull requests. Fortunately github has provided a number of great nicities to make it easier. I thought it might be a good idea to cover the standard workflow that makes github work so well.



Understanding the workflow that git expects you to use is paramount to collaborating well on code. So first things first, you’ll need to have git installed, obviously. for the purposes of this we’ll also need github, luckily github offers a number of tools that will help you get up and running. Here you’ll be able to sign up for an account if you don’t already have one. The installer for the github client on Windows and OSX include git, so that is probably easiest way to get up and running.

Once you are up and running with git, you need to identify the project you’d like to contribute to. I have taken the liberty of starting an Organization on github with a very plain repo, just a few ruby files. You are welcome to use that repo as a guinea pig during this process. Link

The first step is to fork the repo on github. Unfortunately github doesn’t yet support pull requests from repositories that weren’t forked on github. Github’s article on forking a repo is much better than anything I would give you, so you should read that.


The next step is clone your fork to create a local working copy. To do this lets jump into the command line.

$ git clone git@github.com:KyleChamberlin/LearningGitWorkflow.git
Cloning into 'LearningGitWorkflow'...
remote: Counting objects: 3, done.
remote: Compressing objects: 100% (2/2), done.
remote: Total 3 (delta 0), reused 3 (delta 0)
Receiving objects: 100% (3/3), done.
Checking connectivity... done.

Now that we have a working copy on our drive, lets move into that directory,

$ cd LearningGitWorkflow

Here we could make our changes just like this, and everything would work as expected, however if we really want to take advantage of the power of pull requests, we should first create a feature branch.


The reason we want to create a branch for each feature/pull request we wish to make is that we can compartmentalize our changes to the master source. This allows you to make changes to different part of the source that aren’t really related, and have them in seperate pull requests. I will explain how this is so powerful later.

In order to create a local branch for the feature we are going to add, or the bug we wish to fix, we can issue the following command

$ git branch newFeature

Now it is important to note that this simply creates the branch to work on, however your working copy is still on the master branch. Before you begin working on your feature you need to checkout the branch you want to work on.

$ git checkout newFeature
Switched to branch 'newFeature'

Now we are ready to make our changes. I should note that you can accomplish the same thing in a single command, which is typically what I do. you would do that like this,

$ git checkout -b newFeature

That command will both create the branch and check it out.

Making Changes


If you are new to git, or version control in general, committing, and staging changes can seem tedious, or unnecessary. Let me tell you, it is neither. In fact, it is pretty much the best thing you’ll learn to do. I can’t over state how important committing early and often is. That is not to say that you should commit after every line of code, but when you make a change, like add a function or method, or refactor a variable, commit. The fewer changes in a commit, the easier it is to track your changes. If you find that you’ve made a mistake, or broken a test, you can always rollback to a previous commit. All that said, let’s cover how to stage your commits.


Once you have made a change, really any change, it is time to begin staging files. To begin let’s check the status of our repo:

$ git status
On branch newFeature
Changes not staged for commit:
  (use "git add <file>..." to update what will be committed)
  (use "git checkout -- <file>..." to discard changes in working directory)

       modified:  README.md

no changes added to commit (use "git add" and/or "git commit -a")

There is a lot of information in that output, and git generally is very expressive and will try to help you along. so lets parse the information that we are getting here.

Git tells us that we have made a change, but that change wont be included in the next commit. This can be confusing when you are starting out, I know it was for me. This is however a nice feature, git lets your pick and choose the changes to include in each commit. You see, when you are collaborating on a project, you want your commits to read like a story of the steps from the original status (when you branched) to the finished status. The collaborators will want to review your changes, and a clean commit history will help others follow your changes.

So we will want to stage the files for inclusion that are part of the change we made. In the example I am using that means I need to add the README.md file so I can commit the changes that I made. In order to do that we simply need to follow the directions git gave us.