Understanding the Power of Git Commit Messages
Git commit messages are often overlooked and undervalued in the development process. However, when used effectively, they can be one of the most powerful tools for documenting a codebase over its lifetime. In this blog post, we will explore the importance of well-crafted commit messages and how they contribute to the collective knowledge of a development team. We will use a real-life example from the Government Digital Service (GDS) to illustrate the impact of a thoughtful commit message.
At GDS, the practice of coding in the open allows for the sharing of examples like this outside of the organization. This particular commit message, titled “Convert template to US-ASCII to fix error,” was authored by Dan Carley and has become a widely shared example of the potential of commit messages. While the commit itself may seem trivial, the message provides valuable insights into the reasoning behind the change.
One of the key elements of a good commit message is explaining not just what has changed, but also why. In this case, the commit message explicitly states that the change was made to resolve a parsing error in a specific tool. This level of detail is crucial for future developers who may encounter similar issues and need to understand the context of the fix.
The commit message goes even further by providing the error message that inspired the change. This allows anyone else facing the same error to search through the codebase using tools like git log or GitHub’s commit search. By doing so, they can discover who previously encountered the problem, when it was addressed, and how it was resolved. This type of information preservation is invaluable as it ensures that knowledge is not lost as team members move on or leave the organization.
But the commit message doesn’t stop at explaining the problem and its resolution. It dives into the process of investigating and fixing the issue, providing a detailed account of the steps taken. This level of documentation not only helps future developers understand the journey the codebase has taken but also serves as a valuable resource for learning. By reading the commit message, team members can gain insights into the Unix toolset and learn useful tips and tricks.
Furthermore, the commit message adds a human touch by conveying the author’s frustration at spending an hour tracking down the bug and their satisfaction at resolving it. This personal context reminds us that behind every change is a human being making decisions based on the available information at the time. It fosters empathy and understanding within the team, contributing to a collective mental model of the codebase.
While this commit message may be an extreme example, it highlights the importance of explaining the context behind a change, facilitating learning, and enhancing the team’s understanding of the codebase. It’s not realistic to expect every commit message to have this level of detail, especially for smaller changes. However, it serves as a powerful example of the potential impact of commit messages when utilized effectively.
If you’re interested in exploring the benefits of good commit messages further and discovering tools that can help structure your changes around them, we recommend diving into the following resources:
- Resource 1
- Resource 2
- Resource 3
Commit messages may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of development, but they hold immense potential for improving collaboration, knowledge sharing, and codebase understanding. Let’s embrace the power of well-crafted commit messages and unlock their true value in our development workflows.
My favourite Git commit (2019)