Version Control

Version Control: the Missing Link

Version Control is an integral part of software development. Allowing developers to track changes to software, version control systems give programmers the power to collaborate, discover erroneous changes, and compare versions of software. When rightly used, version control (also called source control) empowers developers to make and share complex changes without fear of losing previous implementations. Developers who use revision control can always look back on and—if necessary—revert to previous versions of the software. Unfortunately, I received two-and-a-half years of Computer Science education without hearing about version control once.1

Source control management should be taught in CS 101 or 102. As soon as students have completed three or four solo programming projects in a non-toy language, they should learn the basics of revision control tools like git, Subversion, and/or Mercurial. Not only would learning revision control better prepare them for a career in Software Engineering, but it would also help them to manage school projects. Understanding git in school would make group projects much easier for students. If you are reading this as a student or recent graduate who was not taught or has not learned about revision control, allow me to provide a brief introduction and some helpful resources for further learning.

Since I have used git every day for the past three years, I will use git examples to introduce you to version control. git is also free and extremely popular, so it has plenty of documentation and helpful Q&As on StackOverflow. However, the point of this tutorial is to teach you about the benefits and basic usage of version control systems. Although the commands and functionality may differ, the overall lessons about version control will transfer to other programs like Mercurial or Subversion. My examples will be command line examples, but if you want to use a git-client like SmartGit,2 I doubt that it would be difficult for you to follow along.3

Part 1: Creating the Repository

Since the purpose of version control is to track the history of a project, the first thing you should do is create some files or a program which you want to track. I have created an example program called get-day, which outputs the day of the week for an input date string, to serve this purpose, so download and unzip the example project. Then open up a terminal on OSX or Linux or cmd.exe on Windows. Next, navigate to the unzipped example-git-project-part1 (if you simply downloaded it and unzipped it, it will be under your Downloads folder):

# You may need to navigate to the Downloads folder first:
# On OSX/Linux: `cd ~/Downloads`
# On Windows: `cd %HOMEPATH%/Downloads`
cd example-git-project-part1

Now that you have some files you want to track, you can create a git repository in this directory:

git init

Next, you need to tell git which files it should track:

git add .

The “.” tells git to track all the files in this directory, but you could also list files individually as arguments to git add. Next, commit these files to git’s history:

git commit -m "Initial commit."

Now git has a historical reference point for these files. As long as you do not rewrite the history of this project, you will always be able to obtain the original files and rebuild the original binary represented by those files.

Next I’ll show you how to add a feature to the example get-day program in order to demonstrate branching, diffing, merging, and more.

Part 2: Adding a Feature

In order to let users specify a custom date pattern for the get-day program, you are going to add another command-line option called --pattern. When tracking new features with git, it is best to branch off from master and do your work on a separate branch:

git checkout -b add-pattern-option

Now that you have checked out a new branch (called add-pattern-option), you can make changes without affecting the master branch. This means that you can make all your mistakes on the add-pattern-option branch and add the code to master only once it is completely ready. If you decide you do not like the changes, you can even delete the branch and master will be unaffected.

Since you have checked out your branch, you need to add your new feature. For the sake of this example, you can copy the new contents of from here and overwrite the original contents in your IDE or editor.

Before you do anything else, you should get a high-level view of what has changed in your repository:

git status

git status displays the following information:

On branch add-pattern-option
Your branch is up-to-date with 'origin/add-pattern-option'.
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:   src/main/java/io/gitlab/stiemannkj1/example/git/project/

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

So git knows that you have changed the file. You can also view more detailed information about changes in the file:

git diff

Here is a snippet of the git diff output:

         try {
-            LocalDate date = LocalDate.parse(dateString);
+            LocalDate date = LocalDate.parse(dateString, DateTimeFormatter.ofPattern(datePattern));
         } catch (DateTimeParseException e) {
-            System.err.println("Error: date string must be of the format: yyyy-MM-dd.");
+            System.err.println("Error: date string must be of the format: " + datePattern);
+        } catch (IllegalArgumentException e) {
+            System.err.println("Error: invalid date pattern. " + e.getMessage());
+        } finally {

git diff shows which lines have been removed, added or remain unchanged. Removed lines start with “-”. Added lines start with “+”. Unchanged lines start with neither. For example, in your changes, you have removed the following line:

-            LocalDate date = LocalDate.parse(dateString);

And added the following line in its place:

+            LocalDate date = LocalDate.parse(dateString, DateTimeFormatter.ofPattern(datePattern));

The added line shows how you have added the ability to customized the date pattern. If you want to learn more about how to read git diff’s output (also called a unified diff), check out this Q&A on StackOverflow.

Now that you have made your changes and reviewed them via git diff, you can commit them:

git commit -a -m "Added --pattern command line option to make the date pattern configurable."

Since you have committed the changes, git status will no longer show any unchanged files.

Now you can check how different your current branch, add-pattern-option, is from the master branch which only contains the original files:

git diff master

Since master is still at the initial commit, the git diff output will be very similar to the git diff output above. None of your changes so far have affected the master branch, so now would be a good time to test the new feature and ensure that it works. Once you have done (or skipped) that, you are ready to add your new --pattern option feature to the master branch. First you must go back to the master branch:

git checkout master

Now you can merge your add-pattern-option changes into master:

git merge add-pattern-option

Since you merged your feature branch into master, master contains the new feature and its history.

To see everything what you have accomplished, you can check the commit log:

git log

git log displays all the commit hashes4 with their authors, dates, and messages. Here is the output of git log on my example repo:

commit b6c508e4379644731bc0210af309f1be3ce9ef47
Author: Kyle J. Stiemann <>
Date:   Mon Jul 11 21:39:59 2016 -0400

    Added --pattern command line option to make the date pattern configurable.

commit 81a59d9429e2f2611ed9196f7163876796bd48c5
Author: Kyle J. Stiemann <>
Date:   Sat Jul 9 14:21:04 2016 -0400

    Initial commit.

As you can see, git has two commits worth of history: one for the initial get-day program and one for the additional --pattern feature. If you ever need to review, access, or rebuild the get-day program without the --pattern feature, you can simply copy the hash of the initial commit and do a git checkout on that hash. For more information on git log, check out 2.3 Git Basics - Viewing the Commit History.


Congratulations! You made it to the end. Hopefully, my tutorial helped you get started with version control and git. Please let me know in the comments if anything was confusing or vague or especially helpful. Version control is extremely powerful, and these examples have barely demonstrated the simplest use cases. I highly recommend playing around with git (or your version control system of choice) in my example project5 or your own projects. In my humble opinion, the best way to learn about version control is to use version control.

Further learning:

  1. I did a quick survey of the CS curricula for three colleges and three universities. Five* of the six schools did not mention version control in their CS curricula. Sources:

    The University of Central Florida (UCF) mentions version control in the course description for “Software Development I” (CEN 3024). However, CEN 3024 is an elective, and it has Object Oriented Programming (COP 3330) as a prerequisite, which has Introduction to Programming with C (COP 3223C) as a prerequisite. So students are still not guaranteed to learn version control at UCF. Sources:

    I’m not convinced that version control needs more than a few class periods worth of instruction, and I want to give the schools that I didn’t attend the benefit of the doubt in case they teach a little version control but don’t feel the need to mention it in the course description. However, I’m still surprised that version control is only mentioned in only one of these schools’ catalogues. And I’m flabbergasted that a software engineering tool that I use every day was not taught (or even mentioned) at Grove City College (where I spent two years) or in Thomas Edison State University’s “Software Engineering” (CIS-351-OL) course.

    * Four of those five schools were the schools I attended. Short version of my college career: started early college at CCM, spent two decent years at GCC but ran out of money, did three worthless classes at SSC, and finished at TESU. 

  2. SmartGit is free for non-commercial use. 

  3. I actually learned git via SmartGit. Afterwards I moved to the command-line for various reasons, but SmartGit is more user-friendly and accessible. It is a great way to get started. 

  4. A git commit hash is a unique Secure Hash Algorithm 1 (SHA-1) identifier for a commit. 

  5. You can obtain the complete project like so:

    git clone


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