Contributing Part I: Getting Started

In this article, we're going to introduce Git and GitHub, and learn some basic commands that are useful when contributing to the Project Unicorn web site repository. If you're new to Git and GitHub, please read on. This will help you when you join and contribute to other Project Unicorn projects. Feel free to skip to the next part if you're already familiar with Git.

At the end of this guide, we'll have a local copy of the Project Unicorn web site repo which is updated to include a new author entry.

This is part 1 of the Project Unicorn Contributing Guide series that talks about Git and GitHub and some of the common commands for interacting with a repo such as the Project Unicorn web site repo.

The next part, Contributing Part II: Publishing Blog Posts, will talk about how to write and save a new blog post.


Before we start you need to ensure that you have the following installed on your machine:

Installing Node.js will also install npm. When you install Git on Windows, you are also provided with Git Bash. It is recommended to use this software when interacting with Git.

This guide will assume that you are using Git Bash if you are using Windows. If you have Linux or macOS, the default terminal will do.

To verify your installations, enter the following in your terminal:

node -v;npm -v;git --version

The output should look similar to the output below. It's alright if the versions don't match exactly but make sure the number before the first dot for each version is the same.

git version

Introducing Git and GitHub

Git, according to its website, is "a free and open source distributed version control system". In simpler terms, we can use this software to allow us to have a history of the changes made our code. There are more benefits of using Git and they are well documented all over the web. Here's one article but feel free to search around:

Why Git

GitHub, on the other hand, is a service that offers hosting for anyone's code that is monitored by Git. When Git is introduced to the code, we call it a repository (also called a "repo").

In addition to hosting code, it also has a bunch of collaboration tools for developers such as an issue tracker, project task board and more. We use GitHub to access a friendlier interface for when we are inspecting a Git repo.

Since we have the Project Unicorn web site repo hosted on GitHub you have to make sure you have an account on GitHub. Please refer to the following documentation:

Signing up for a new GitHub account

Git and the command line

If you are avoiding the command line, you can choose to use only the GitHub website to interact with your repos. It's possible to update your code with just the browser and GitHub's editor but it will be very difficult to produce concise entries to your history.

A better tool to use is a GUI client that offers more features for organizing your changes. The Git website provides a list of third-party GUI clients.

An even better tool is the command line. It can be scary to use especially if you have little experience with it, but it's what I recommend you to start with when learning Git. The command line is also what we're gonna use for this guide.

So why not use a GUI client? There's nothing wrong with GUI clients, they are useful, too. But they may not support specific Git functions or it might be awkward to perform certain tasks.

In addition to those issues, when you use one GUI client, you have to familiarize yourself with that client's layout and what it can and can't do. If you move on to another client, you'd have to learn again, and this time probably it has more features than your previous client. Of course, certain buttons and layouts may be similar across clients, but most of the time, they won't be.

If you learn Git through the command line, you'll be able to just open a terminal application, and fire up the command. No need to open another GUI client's manual or documentation website to find out what it can and can't do.

Hopefully, I've convinced you that using the command line to interact with Git is bueno.

Authenticate your Git

To be able to interact with a remote repository, such as the Project Unicorn web site's repository on GitHub, you have to setup authentication. Follow these guides from GitHub:

Set up git

Why is Git always asking for my password?


For this guide, your tasks are to:

  • Copy the code for the Project Unicorn web site repository
  • Update the list of author to include your information
  • Upload your changes to the repository hosted on GitHub

Cloning a repository

The first task is to get the Project Unicorn web site repository to your machine. We call this process cloning a repo. Type these command in your terminal:

git clone
cd pub
pwd # Outputs the path to our $PROJECT_ROOT

The first command will clone the repo to your machine. Git makes a directory inside the directory where you executed the git clone command and copies the repository there. The name of the directory will be the same as the remote repository's name by default.

TIP: You can provide the name of the directory you want the copy to be in by adding it to the last part of the clone command. For example:

git clone more-awesome-pub

Copies the repo to a newly created directory called more-awesome-pub.

The next commands aren't exactly related to Git itself. The cd pub command will allow you to move inside the directory that Git created when it cloned the repo to your machine, i.e. pub which is the same as the remote repository's name.

The cd command

The last command (pwd) will output the path to the current working directory. In this guide, we refer to the root of the Pub repository as $PROJECT_ROOT.

The pwd command

When this is done, you now have a copy of the Project Unicorn web site source code. This copy should include a directory called .git which is used by Git to keep track of the repo's change history and other information.

You should know that whatever changes you introduce in this copy on your machine will not auto-save to the repo hosted on GitHub. We'll learn more on how to update the remote repo using your cloned repo later.

In most Git tutorials, the command you're commonly taught first is git init. You use this command if you want Git to track a project you did earlier or if you are starting fresh and you want to introduce Git from the start:

git init

It doesn't matter if the directory has files already or if it's empty, the outcome is the same: it turns that directory into a repository. And don't worry if you accidentally inited an existing repo because it won't overwrite anything.

Checking the status

When you want to know what changes Git can see right now, you'd use the git status command:

$ git status

If you entered this while inside the Project Unicorn web site repository, you'd probably see this output:

On branch master
Your branch is up to date with 'origin/master'.

nothing to commit, working tree clean

This tells us that it does not see any changes. Try adding a dummy file called foo.txt and run git status again:

touch foo.txt
git status

The output would be:

On branch master
Your branch is up to date with 'origin/master'.

Untracked files:
(use "git add <file>..." to include in what will be committed)


nothing added to commit but untracked files present (use "git add" to track)

TIP: The touch command creates new but empty file(s) with the name(s) you provide it with, e.g. foo.txt. It can also be used to update an existing directory or file's last modified property.

The touch command

Git knows you introduced a new file but the file is untracked. It also provides instructions on what you can do with this new file. Don't worry for now on what some of these terms mean, we'll learn more about them later.

Remove this file and the output of git status will be the same as before:

$  rm ./foo.txt
$  git status
On branch master
Your branch is up to date with 'origin/master'.

nothing to commit, working tree clean

TIP: We can remove a file or directory using the rm command.

The rm Command

Branches in Git

Look at the last output of git status:

On branch master
Your branch is up to date with 'origin/master'.

nothing to commit, working tree clean

It tells us that we are on a branch called master. When we use Git for our projects, we would normally interact with at least one of these branches. The output also tells us that our branch is up to date with something called origin/master. This origin is what we call the remote repo hosted on GitHub.

When you create a new repo, Git will create a branch for you called master. When you run git status after cloning the pub repo, it tells you that you are "On branch master". The master branch is not a special branch. It's just the name that Git authors decided to use when creating a new repository. Same with origin as the default name for the remote repository when you clone repo.

Adding changes to Git, in some ways, is like saving it to a branch. For every save you do, Git tracks the changes, who made those changes, when they were made, along with some other information.

You're probably thinking: wow, so it's just like saving in a text editor like Notepad, then? Not exactly. When you are working in Notepad, it doesn't care what lines of code you removed or what parts you added but only that you changed the file. Whereas Git knows what specific line of code you changed, how it differs from the previous save, some metadata about changes, etc. and this is available for every save you do.

If you'd ever use Google Docs, you'd find that it has a feature called "Version History" to view the changes you made to a document. This is very similar to viewing a single branch in Git. Open one of your Google Docs files and you can inspect the specific additions and deletions performed for every version (assuming it has any). You can even check out an old version and branch off that version by making a copy of the document.

See what's changed in a file

Default branch

When you clone a repository, you're always in that repository's default branch. For the Project Unicorn web site repo, it's called master. On other repos, you might find the default branch to be called dev or something else. To determine the default branch you can refer to the GitHub web site for that repository.

Viewing branches in your repository

Since we're focusing on learning Git through the command line, I'll provide you with some of the commands you can use to know what branch you're currently using. You already know the first command, i.e. git status. Run this immediately after cloning the repo.

Another command you can use is git branch:

$  git branch
* master

The one with the asterisk before it is the branch currently checked out.

Updating the default branch

If you've just cloned the repository and have been following along until now, this next part might seem unnecessary. But assume you cloned the repo and then took a long break just before this section and while you're taking a break, someone introduced changes to pub's default branch. How do we get those updates in our local repo?

To get the newly published changes in the remote repository's default branch, you can do a pull, which will download and merge the changes to your local repository's dev branch:

git pull

If your command is successful, you'd be presented with something similar to this output:

Updating bc1c558..4c7224b
 package-lock.json | 161 ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++------------------------
 package.json      |  12 ++--
 2 files changed, 96 insertions(+), 77 deletions(-)

You can see that it provided a summary of the changes that were added to your local repo. In this example. two files called package.json and package-lock.json were modified while you were taking a break. You'd most likely see a different list of files. And it's also possible that there aren't any changes introduced, to which you'll see:

$  git pull
Already up to date.

If you see any errors when you ran this command, you probably modified the same lines of the same file that is also modified on the remote repo. The following shows what you'd see if you changed something in package.json that conflicts with the remote repo's package.json:

error: Your local changes to the following files would be overwritten by merge:
Please commit your changes or stash them before you merge.
Updating bc1c558..4c7224b

The output tells us that Git aborted the operation and nothing was updated. It also provided us with a tip on how we can fix this error. We haven't discussed "committing" and "stashing" yet because those commands have their sections later in the guide.

Create your topic branch

Every team in Project Unicorn has different requirements. Your team lead is responsible for making sure the whole team will agree on whatever is needed for your project to fulfill these requirements, including the task of deciding the workflow for contributing to your respective repos.

This section will provide a brief discussion of one type of workflow that is similar to the GitHub flow and some of the common Git commands associated with it.

Understanding the GitHub flow

Let's say you're part of the Project Unicorn web site team, and I'm the lead. I assigned you the task of creating a blog post. From what we know already, all we need to do is write the blog post and save it to the master branch somehow. There's nothing wrong with this approach, especially if you're working on your own. But you're working with other developers so we'll have to find a way to make it so that the contributions won't be confusing.

You start by branching off the up-to-date default branch. Since the purpose of the changes you'll save to this branch is to create a new blog post, we can call this branch a topic branch.

TIP: According to the Git web site, a topic branch is "a short-lived branch that you create and use for a single particular feature or related work."

Git Branching Workflows

Make a new topic branch off the latest master branch by entering these commands in your terminal:

git checkout master
git pull
git checkout -b add-blog-post-project-foo-intro

The first command switches to pub's default branch which is called master. You only do this if, for some reason, you are in another branch.

Next, is to update the default branch, which was discussed in the previous section. Getting the latest changes to the default branch is important because it can help minimize conflicts when requesting a merge of your topic branch to the master branch later. It's especially true if your team is consistently merging new features and fixes to the default branch.

Finally, the last command creates a new branch called add-blog-post-project-foo-intro on your local Git repository, and immediately switches to that branch. This command is a combination of two commands:

git branch add-blog-post-project-foo-intro # creates the branch from master
git checkout add-blog-post-project-foo-intro # switches to this newly-created branch

TIP: You can switch back to the master branch by typing:

git checkout master

Your team could decide on a naming strategy for topic branches. If your's didn't decide on this, you should still try to give your topic branches descriptive names. For example, I used the branch name add-blog-post-project-foo-intro which tells me, at a glance, that this branch contains changes that add a new blog post for introducing the project called "foo".

Make a commit

To create a blog post in the Project Unicorn blog, you'll have to "register" as an author. We're not gonna write the blog post itself for now because this topic has its tutorial.

On the $PROJECT_ROOT, there's a directory called content and inside this directory is a file called author.yaml. Open the file in a text editor and add yourself as an author entry. You can use the following snippet as a reference. The id can be the same as your GitHub username.

- id: janedoe
  name: Jane Doe
  github: janedoe

Save this file and run git status on your terminal:

$  git status
On branch master
Your branch is up to date with 'origin/master'.

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:   content/author.yaml

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

The status command outputs a summary of the changes that were introduced. In this case, author.yaml is not staged and it also indicates that it was modified. "Modified" files are changed files that the repo knows about but are not yet marked to be included in the next commit.

NOTE: Remember our earlier outputs when we added the foo.txt file? Git told us that foo.txt is "untracked". "Untracked" files are files that are new to the repo. Git sees them but it's not part of the repo just yet.

After knowing what file(s) are introduced and/or modified, we can now proceed to stage them. When we stage files, we're just preparing what goes into the next commit. When you work on larger features, you'll probably end up creating or modifying a lot of files. Some changes are highly related to each other and it is encouraged to group them for the next commit. Doing this improves the repo's presentation of its history.

Since your author entry is all the change that is introduced in this step, we can use the git add command to stage all the changes:

git add .

NOTE: Don't forget to include the dot (.) after git add!

You can also choose to include only a subset of changed files in your commit by providing the paths to these files instead of the dot (.). The snippet below contains files for example repository (foo):

$  git status
On branch master
Your branch is up to date with 'origin/master'.

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:   a.txt

Untracked files:
  (use "git add <file>..." to include in what will be committed)


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

If we want to group the changes in the files, a.txt and dir/b.txt:

git add a.txt dir/b.txt

Going back to our pub repo, we don't have another file so our command looks like this:

git add content/author.yaml

You can also pick specific lines, to include by appending a --patch flag to the command. You'll then be provided an interactive interface.

I won't discuss each option of the interactive interface but you can, of course, read them if you like.

$  git add --patch
diff --git a/content/author.yaml b/content/author.yaml
index a8f54cd..46fb4cc 100644
--- a/content/author.yaml
+++ b/content/author.yaml
@@ -8,3 +8,7 @@
   bio: Core Team Member at Project Unicorn
   github: roymoran
   avatar: ./assets/rmoran.jpeg
+- id: janedoe
+  name: Jane Doe
+  github: janedoe
Stage this hunk [y,n,q,a,d,e,?]?

When you're done staging changes, check the status again and verify that the content/author.yaml is staged:

$  git status
On branch master
Your branch is up to date with 'origin/master'.

Changes to be committed:
  (use "git reset HEAD <file>..." to unstage)

        modified:   content/author.yaml

Finally, run git commit -m "Your message" to save the change your local repo. You can also add a message body by appending another -m "Description".

Similar to how we name our branches, we'd want our commit messages to be readable at a glance. The soft limit for commit message titles is 50 characters. The excess characters will become part of the commit message body.

Quick tip on how to write commit titles: It forms a complete sentence when inserted in this phrase:

If applied, this commit will your message title here

The contents of the commit message body supplements the title. Most devs advise that it should contain why the changes were introduced instead of what changes were introduced. Don't think too much about this for now, you'll develop your commit message style with enough practice.

Your command should be similar to the snippet below. You can leave out the commit message body.

git commit -m "Add a new author entry: Jane Doe" -m "This change adds Jane Doe as a new author"

Publishing your branch

We're now going to publish our topic branch to the remote repo even if the blog post we're working on is not yet completed. Publishing the branch is simply uploading it to the remote repository. We do this so other members can inspect your changes. We don't expect them to review it just yet, but it's nice to let them know of your progress. And if you're having issues, you can ask someone to take a look at your branch so they can study your changes.

To publish your topic branch, run this command:

git push -u origin add-blog-post-project-foo-intro

This will create a remote version of your topic branch on origin. And because of the -u flag, it also sets up your local topic branch to track this new remote branch. This means, when someone else pushes a commit to your branch, Git will tell you about those changes when you run git status so you can pull them to your local repo.

You only need to add the -u flag on your first push. For succeeding pushes, you can just git push (without passing the other arguments).

We're not gonna introduce any more changes to the topic branch for this article.

Keeping your topic branch up-to-date

There will be times when you are working on your topic branch, and some new changes are merged into the master branch. It's recommended to pull these changes to your topic branch as soon as you can, to minimize conflicts once you are ready to request a merge of your topic branch to master.

This will not be a problem with our task right now, assuming you're the only one who's working on your blog post. But consider a dev who's tasked with implementing a page component. They might be working on their features and then a bug on the app was discovered and immediately patched on the master branch. Let's say the patch changes the signature of some method or the values of some constants. If they continue committing to their branches without incorporating the fix, their implementation might not work on the master branch.

Try to update the topic branch by entering these commands (it won't do anything if no one pushed commits to that remote master branch):

git checkout master
git pull
git checkout add-blog-post-project-foo-intro
git merge master

This updates the default branch, and then switch to your topic branch to merge the updates.


WARNING: Do not use the commands below if your branch is public!

git checkout add-blog-post-project-foo-intro
git pull --rebase origin master

Check out your topic branch first, and then run the next command. This will add new commits from the master branch to your local topic branch.

Rebasing is somewhat a controversial topic. Some would argue that you should never rebase because it alters the history of your repo. Other think it's alright because you end up with a prettier version of the history. You can read more about it online and make a decision yourself. If you're new to Git you'll get by with just merge. Once you're comfortable with Git, definitely try to use rebase in your projects.

Don't Be Scared of git rebase

Resolving merge conflicts

You may encounter conflicts when merging changes from the default branch to your topic branch. These conflicts happen when a specific part of the code is changed in both branches. Consider the following example:

In our blogpost task, we modified the author.yaml file and committed it to our topic branch. But then another author entry was pushed to the author.yaml on the origin/master branch. You update your local default branch and try to merge it to your topic branch but you're presented with the following:

$  git merge master
Auto-merging author.yaml
CONFLICT (content): Merge conflict in author.yaml
Automatic merge failed; fix conflicts and then commit the result.

The merge failed and Git tells you to fix it. When you open author.yaml in your editor, you now see some weird symbols that were added by Git:

<<<<<<< HEAD
- id: janedoe
  name: Jane Doe
  github: janedoe
- id: johndoe
  name: John Doe
  github: johndoe
>>>>>>> master

The first section starts after the <<<<<<< HEAD separator up to the ======= separator and the code inside are the changes made in the HEAD of the current branch (add-blog-post-project-foo-intro). The other section (from ======= to >>>>>>> master) are the changes in the master branch (the one you want to merge into your topic branch).

To resolve this conflict, you have to choose which modification you want to retain. You have to remove the separators and include code that you want. You can chose one or both sections to include, or something different. In our case, we'll accept both changes.

# ...
- id: janedoe
  name: Jane Doe
  github: janedoe
- id: johndoe
  name: John Doe
  github: johndoe

After doing this, you can now commit the changes.

git commit -m "Fix merge conflicts"

To view the history as a graph you can run git log. The git log command can be passed some arguments to customize the appearance of its output.

$  git log --pretty=format:\"%h %ad | %s%d [%an]\" --graph --date=short
*   5a8ee67 | Fix merge conflicts (HEAD -> master)
| * 8709301 | Add a new author entry: Jane Doe (add-blog-post-project-foo-intro)
* | 0918286 | Add a new author entry: John Doe
* d483bbf | Fix #123 (we started here)


Rebasing master to add-blog-post-project-foo-intro with conflicts would have a similar process for resolution, but the resulting history graph will be different.

What's next?

The next part, Contributing Part II: Publishing Blog Posts, will talk about how to write and save a new blog post on the Project Unicorn blog.

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