How To Use Git for Beginners

Codecademy Team
Get started with Git and GitHub

Prerequisites: Command Line
Versions: Git 2.35.3

Introduction

Git is a version control system used for tracking changes to files over a period of time. Understanding Git is a fundamental skill for all developers as it is the modern standard in the software development industry for tracking and coordinating work within a dev team.

Getting started

To get started, we will first check that Git is installed in our system by running the following command:

git --version
git version 2.35.3

If not installed, we can install Git by following the instructions on the Git website according to our operating system.

Git workflow

Before using Git, it will be helpful to have an overview of a straightforward Git workflow.

A Git project generally has the following:

  • A working directory (or working tree) where project files are created, edited, and deleted on the computer.
  • A staging area that contains the changes made to files in the working directory ready to be committed.
  • A repository, also known as the repo, where changes are saved by Git as different versions of the project.

A local repo is created either when a remote repo is cloned onto our local machine, or when a project is created on a local machine and initialized as a Git repo. Remote repos are commonly hosted on providers like GitHub, GitLab, or Bitbucket.

The steps commonly taken in a Git workflow include the following:

  1. Initializing Git in the working directory.
  2. Working on files in the working directory, then adding these to the staging area.
  3. Commmiting the changes from the staging area into the repo.

Let’s unpack each of these steps.

Initializing Git

To turn a working directory into a Git project, we navigate to the directory in the terminal/command prompt and run the following command:

git init

This initializes a local Git repo by creating a special .git folder inside a project. This is required in order for any changes to be tracked and pushed to the repo. This step might look like this:

Image of git init command being run

When git init is run while in the Git Tutorial directory, an empty Git repo is created inside of that directory. The repo is currently empty because at this point, Git doesn’t know which files it should track. Any untracked files can be viewed using the following command:

git status

This will display untracked files in red and will show some useful output confirming that nothing has been added.

In the example shown below, if git status is run in the Git Tutorial folder, which contains a file called learning-git.txt. The output would look like this:

Image of git status command being run for untracked files

The output will begin with On branch main which will be mentioned later. One of the files listed is one called .DS_Store that is automatically created by Mac OS X. This file contains information about system configurations that typically is not committed as part of the Git workflow. To make sure certain files are not included in commits, a file called .gitignore should be made in the working directory.

Ignoring changes in Git

The .gitignore file is a special file that generally lives in the root of the repo. It contains a list of files and directories that are excluded from being tracked or committed by Git. This may include log files, particular modules, or (for Mac users) files like .DS_Store. It is recommended that these files be added to .gitignore before anything is committed.

With .gitignore made and the .DS_Store file added, running git status will show the following output:

Image of git status command being run with gitignore file added

Updating the staging area

In order for Git to start tracking changes, files need to be added to the staging area. This can be done with the git add command:

git add <filename>

The <filename> is the name and extension of the file to be added to the staging area. Multiple files can also be added by name with the following syntax:

git add <filename1> <filename2> <filename3>

If all files in the working directory need to be tracked, this syntax can be used, which should be run at the root directory:

git add .

Another command we can use to stage all changes is:

git add -A

Once a file has been added, git status can be run in the terminal/command prompt to check that the file is in the staging area. Git will show the changed files to be committed in green text:

Image of git status command being run after file in staging area

Unstaging a file

There may be times where a file has been incorrectly added to the staging area. This can be undone with the git reset command. While the file is removed from the staging area, the changes within it remain unaffected.

In the case where all files need to be unstaged, the command git reset can be run without additional arguments.

As of version 2.24, there is an alternative syntax for unstaging files in Git:

git restore --staged <filename>

The <filename> is the name of the file to be unstaged.

Committing changes

Commits are an important step in the workflow and is generally one of the last steps. They are regarded as snapshots of a project at a particular time. At this stage, changes in the staging area are saved inside the local repo. This is achieved with the git commit command followed by the -m flag to include a short message explaining the changes. When run, the command will look like this:

git commit -m "Add title and description to intro file"

There are general conventions for writing a commit message including:

  • Making sure they are no more than 50 characters long.
  • Writing them in the imperative or present tense.

Messages should always be clear and informative to others who may go back to confirm what changes were made.

A commit history can be viewed with git log, which will display a list of commits in chronological order (starting with the most recent), along with information such as:

  • The author of the commit.
  • The date and time.
  • The commit message.

Undoing a commit

In the situation where the last commit needs to be undone, the git reset command can again be used, with some modifications.

Generally, the most recently made commit on the current branch is called the HEAD commit. To find out which commit this is, the command git log can be executed in the terminal. This will display information about the most recent commit, including a unique 40 character SHA hash, which Git uses like an id to identify revisions in the repo. git log also outputs the SHA of all previous commits.

To undo the immediately previous commit, the following command can be run:

git reset --soft HEAD~1

This will repoint the current HEAD commit to the one immediately before it. The --soft flag ensures that any changes made to the files are preserved.

If the rewind needs to go beyond the most recent commit, the command git reset SHA, where SHA is the first 7 characters of the SHA of the commit, can be used.

Git branching

Branches are a core feature in Git. They allow for new updates and features to be developed and tested without disrupting the main branch of the project. Previously, the output from running git status referred to being on branch main.

The main branch usually refers to the default branch that serves as the base of a project. In Git, the default branch name is master, which was also originally the case in GitHub. However, this was renamed in GitHub for the reasons outlined here. The main take away though is that both master and main are used as default branch names.

The idea of Git branches is that different branches can be created and worked on, and changes can be merged into the main branch. Branches are in effect an independent line for the adding/staging/committing process, forked from the main branch. Once on a branch, commits are recorded in that branch’s history and when ready a branch (including the changes made on that branch) can be merged i.e. combined into main.

A new branch can be made with the following command:

git branch <name-of-new-branch>

Switching between branches can be done with the git checkout command:

git checkout <name-of-the-branch>

It is also possible to create and switch into a new branch with one command:

git checkout -b <name-of-new-branch>

Once on a new branch, files in the working directory can be worked on as usual, and changes can be added and committed. Those changes will however only be committed to the current branch and will not affect anything on main.

Merging

Merging combines multiple commits into one history and is generally used to join or combine two branches. So, when ready for work on a branch to be merged into main, the command git merge branch-name is used, where branch-name is the name of the branch to be merged into the main branch. This command is most often used when working on a project with others (more on this below).

Once a branch has been merged, it is no longer needed so can be deleted with:

git branch -d <branch-name>

This will only delete the branch once it has been merged into the main branch. Replacing the -d flag with -D will force-delete the branch.

Collaboration

When collaborating with others on a project, it is generally the case that a shared remote Git repo will exist so that multiple people can work on the same project from different locations. Today, there is a wide range of providers of remote repos.

GitHub

One of the most popular and well-known providers is GitHub. It utilizes Git version control for project creation and collaboration between teams. Using GitHub can feel like a skill in and of itself.

Workflow

When working with others, the following steps are generally taken:

  1. Create a remote repo with a provider like GitHub.
  2. Combine (pulling) changes from a remote repo into a local branch
  3. Clone the remote repo to a local repo, which copies everything in the remote to a local copy of the Git project.
  4. Create a new local branch forked from main to work on the new feature or fix.
  5. Add and commit changes.
  6. Push changes to the remote and create a pull request for the changes to be reviewed by other team members.
  7. Merge the local branch with main once the changes have been approved by team members.

Let’s take a closer look at steps 2 and 5.

Updating branches

To keep the local repo up to date with the remote repo, changes can be fetched and merged from the remote and integrated into the local branch. This can be done in two stages using git fetch and git merge or in one step with git pull.

The git fetch command downloads files and commits from a remote repo into the local repo. It is used to see what changes have been made to the remote before they are merged into the local repo. To merge changes into the local repo after running git fetch, the git merge command can be run next. The following syntax shows three primary ways git fetch is used, along with git merge used afterwards:

git fetch <remote-name>

git fetch <remote-name> <branch-name>

git fetch --all

git merge origin <local-branch>

Fetching all branches from the remote can be achieved by including the <remote-name>. Alternatively, a specific branch can be fetched by adding a <branch-name>. Lastly, all registered remotes and their associated branches can be gotten with the --all flag. While git fetch does not automatically merge changes into the remote repo, it is useful in cases where code needs to be reviewed before being locally merged. Afterward, a git merge command can be run merge the fetched changes into the <local-branch> or the origin remote.

The git fetch and git merge commands can be combined into one git pull command. This automatically fetches and merges changes from a remote into the local branch. git pull can be run as a standalone command or with options such as git pull <remote-name> which will fetch and merge a specified remote with the local branch. Some important points to keep in mind when updating branches include the following:

  • It is good to keep a habit of updating the local repo of a codebase being remotely worked on with others in a team. This includes fetching, merging, or pulling changes from the remote branch.
  • When working in a team, it is good to ensure the local-side of the codebase is kept up to date with the remote-side.

Pushing

One of the advantages of creating branches, rather than working off main is that any changes made to that branch do not affect the work of any other developers in the team. When changes from a branch are pushed up to the remote, the team members can also take the time to review the code properly without needing to worry that there may be broken code included in main.

To push code to the remote repo, the git push command is used as follows:

git push <remote-branch-name> <local-branch-name>

This command pushes the local branch, along with all of the changes which have been committed to that branch, to the remote destination repo. If the remote branch does not already exist, one will be automatically created with the name of the local branch. An alternative syntax to this is:

git push origin <local-branch-name>

This also pushes the current local branch to a remote branch of the same name.

Pull requests

Once pushed, a pull request (sometimes called a merge request or PR for short) can be created. PRs are generally requests for merging changes into the main branch of the remote repo. Although the command line has been used throughout this article, there are some cases where using the GUI (graphical user interface) of GitHub is another option. This is the case when creating a PR, which can be done through the GUI of all of the major hosting services.

After the PR is created, other team members can review the code and suggest changes. Changes can be requested with either of the following methods:

  • They can be made locally and committed/pushed to the remote branch with the usual add/commit commands as described above.
  • If direct changes to the files are suggested, they can be made and committed to the remote repo from within the GUI of the hosting provider.

Code reviews

When collaborating on a project, it is often the case (amongst other reasons) that to prevent broken code from being added to the main development branch and/or to ensure code is correctly formatted and follows whatever code conventions have been set by the team, those who have not been working on the new feature or fix will be asked to review the code.

Code reviews are an important part of quality assurance in software development and not only help protect against broken code from being mistakenly included in a codebase but also help share knowledge amongst a team and can help develop the skills of both the reviewer and author.

Conclusion

In this article, we learned to use Git including how to add and commit changes. We also explored important Git concepts like branching and workflows. Lastly, we looked at a straightforward GitHub workflow for collaborating with others on projects.

Learning to use Git is similar to learning a new programming language and can be improved with time, practice, and patience. Since GitHub and Git are among the industry standards for collaboration and version control, respectively, they are important for beginners to get familiar with.

Article by @FrancineBlanc