Why you should hang in there and learn git


A friend of mine was (is) struggling with learning git. I know what it's like. I was there. My progression was Source Safe -> CVS -> Subversion -> Perforce -> Mercurial -> Git. I found it frustrating at first and I didn't get it. Now that I do get (mostly?) get it can't imagine switching back. So if your frustrated learning git. You can understand why it has to be so hard compared to what you're used to and you don't get the point. You feel like git adds nothing to what you're used to and it's just stupid then I hope this will help if only a little.

First off, an analogy. Imagine some one was working with a flat file system, no folders. They somehow have been able to get work done for years. You come along and say “You should switch to this new hierarchical file system. It has folders and allows you to organize better”. And they’re like “WTF would I need folders for? I’ve been working just fine for years with a flat file system. I just want to get shit done. I don’t want to have to learn these crazy commands like cd and mkdir and rmdir. I don’t want to have to remember what folder I’m in and make sure I run commands in the correct folder. As it is things are simple. I type “rm filename” it gets deleted. Now I type “rm foldername” and I get an error. I then have to go read a manual on how to delete folders. I find out I can type “rmdir foldername” but I still get an error the folder is not empty. It’s effing making me insane. Why I can’t just do it like I’ve always done!”. And so it is with git.

One analogy with git is that a flat filesystem is 1 dimensional. A hierarchical file system is 2 dimensional. A filesystem with git is 3 dimensional. You switch in the 3rd dimension by changing branches with git checkout nameofbranch. If the branch does not exist yet (you want to create a new branch) then git checkout -b nameofnewbranch.

Git’s branches are effectively that 3rd dimension. They set your folder (and all folders below) to the state of the stuff committed to that branch.

What this enables is working on 5, 10, 20 things at once. Something I rarely did with cvs, svn, p4, or hg. Sure once in awhile I’d find some convoluted workflow to allow me to work on 2 things at once. Maybe they happened to be in totally unrelated parts of the code in which case it might not be too hard of I remembered to move the changed files for the other work before check in. Maybe I’d checkout the entire project in another folder so I'd have 2 or more copies of the project in separate folders on my hard drive. Or I’d backup all the files to another folder, checkout the latest, work on feature 2, check it back in, then copy my backedup folder back to my main work folder, and sync in the new changes or some other convoluted solution.

In git all that goes away. Because I have git style lightweight branches it becomes trivial to work on lots of different things and switch between them instantly. It’s that feature that I’d argue is the big difference. Look at most people’s local git repos and you’ll find they have 5, 10, 20 branches. One branch to work on bug ABC, another to work on bug DEF, another to update to docs, another to implement feature XYZ, another working on a longer term feature GHI, another to refactor the renderer, another to test out an experimental idea, etc. All of these branches are local to them only and have no effect on remote repos like github (unless they want them to).

If you’re used to not using git style lightweight branches and working on lots of things at once let me suggest it’s because all other VCSes suck in this area. You’ve been doing it so long that way you can’t even imagine it could be different. The same way in the hypothetical example above the guy with the flat filesystem can’t imagine why he’d ever need folders and is frustrated at having to remember what the current folder is, how to delete/rename a folder or how to move stuff between folders etc. All things he didn’t have to do with a flat system.

A big problem here is the word branch. Coming from cvs, svn, p4, and even hg the word "branch" means something heavy, something used to mark a release or a version. You probably rarely used them. I know I did. That's not what branches are in git. Branches in git are a fundamental part of the git workflow. If you're not using branches often you're probably missing out on what makes git different.

In other words, I expect you won’t get the point of git style branches. You’ve been living happily without them not knowing what you’re missing, content that you pretty much only ever work on one thing at a time or find convoluted workarounds in those rare cases you really have to. git removes all of that by making branching the normal thing to do and just like the person that’s used to a hierarchical file system could never go back to a flat file system, the person that’s used to git style branches and working on multiple things with ease would never go back to a VCS that’s only designed to work on one thing at a time which is pretty much all other systems. But, until you really get how freeing it is to be able to make lots of branches and work on multiple things you’ll keep doing it the old way and not realize what you’re missing. Which is basically way all anyone can really say is “stick it out and when you get it you’ll get it”.

Note: I get that p4 has some features for working on multiple things. I also get that hg added some extensions to work more like git. For hg in particular though, while they added after the fact optional features to make it more like git go through pretty much any hg tutorial and it won't teach you that workflow. It's not the norm AFAICT where as in git it is the norm. That difference in base is what really set the two apart.

Software Development is never simple
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