Version Control & Its Importance
Managing file versions and meticulously reviewing code for errors can be a dull subject. In fact, it rarely makes the headlines — even in software development news when there are far more exciting trends to cover like AI or the latest Apple device hitting the market. Version control is important for all software development projects and is particularly vital at large businesses and enterprises. Enterprises have many stakeholders, distributed teams, strict processes and workflows, silo’ed organizations and hierarchical organization. All of those characteristics represent coordination and integration challenges when it comes to merging and deploying code.
Even more, companies within highly-regulated industries such as in banking and healthcare, with many rules and regulations, need a practical way to ensure that all standards are being met appropriately and risk is mitigated.
Before we dive into the details of version control, let’s clarify some common goals for software teams.
It’s not news to say that the daily operations of any software-creating organization must support the following items or values throughout the software development and delivery lifecycle.
Common Software Development Values
- Reusability– why do the same thing twice? Re-use of code is a common practice and makes building on existing assets simpler.
- Traceability– Audits are not just for fun, in many industries this is a legal matter. All activity must be traced and managers must be able to produce reports when needed. Traceability also makes debugging and identifying root cause easier. Additionally, this will help with feature re-use as developers can link requirements to implementation.
- Manageability– Can team leaders define and enforce workflows, review rules, create quality gates and enforce QA throughout the lifecycle?
- Efficiency– are we using the right resources for the job and are we minimizing time and efforts? This one is pretty self-explanatory.
- Collaboration– When teams work together quality tends to improve. We catch one another’s mistakes and can build on each other’s strengths.
- Learning– Organizations benefit when they invest in employees learning and growing. This is not only important for on-boarding new team members, but for the lifelong learning of seasoned members and the opportunity for workers to contribute not just to the bottom line but to the industry as a whole.
Tools and processes alone are not enough to accomplish the above and hence the adoption of Agile, Continuous Integration and DevOps. Believe it or not, all of these rely on a solid version control practice.
Version control is about keeping track of every change to software assets — tracking and managing the who, what and when. Version control is a first step needed to assure quality at the source, ensuring flow and pull value and focusing on process. All of these create value not just for the software teams, but ultimately for the customer.
Version control is a solution for managing and saving changes made to any manually created assets. It allows you to go back in time and easily roll back to previously working versions if changes are made to source code. Version control tools allow you to see who made changes, when and what exactly was changed.
Version control also makes experimenting easy and most importantly makes collaboration possible. Without version control, collaborating over source code would be a painful operation.
There are a number of perspectives on version control. For developers though, this is a daily enabler for work and collaboration to happen. It’s part of the daily job, one of the most-used tools. For management, the key value of version control is in IP security, risk management and time-to-market speed through Continuous Delivery where version control is a fundamental enabler.
Best Practices for Version Control Users
- Make small changes. In other words, commit early and commit often. Of course, be careful not to commit any unfinished work that could break the build.
- Don’t commit personal files. These could include application settings or SSH keys. Often these are committed accidently but cause problems later down the line when other team members are working on the same code.
- Update often and right before pushing to avoid merge conflicts.
- Verify your code change before pushing it to a repository; ensure it compiles and tests are passing.
- Pay close attention to commit messages as these will tell you why a change was made. Consider commit messages as a mini form of documentation for the change.
- Link code changes to work items. This will concretely link what was created to to why it was created or changed by providing traceability across requirements and code changes.
- No matter your background or preferences, be a team player and follow agreed conventions and workflows. Consistency is important and helps ensure quality making it easier for team members to pick up where you left off, to review your code, to debug, etc.