Version control Git#

As a future researcher, professional or enthusiast you will find out that maintaining a high standard of code is a considerable challenge. This can get even harder when multiple programmers are involved. Coding can be very rewarding, but it is also full of pitfalls and requires a trial-and-error approach.

This is where version control comes in. It is a software which allows you to track the development of your coding project. It also enables your peers to work on different versions of the same structure.

The most well-known version control facility is Git but there are others such as Mercurial. We are going to tackle the former. Many platforms that host Git repositories exist, but the most well-known is GitHub. This is the one we are going to use.

Setting up Git#

If you are on MacOS or most distributions of Linux, you have git already configured on your machine. For Windows, you will need to download and install Git for Windows. We will be accessing git via the terminal (Git Bash on Windows).

My first Git repo#

We create a repository on GitHub and then connect to it using the terminal.

Follow these steps:

  1. Create a GitHub account here

  2. Click your profile picture in the upper right corner -> Your Repositories -> New (Green)

  3. Choose a Repository name (e.g. “MyFirstRepo”)

  4. Set to Private

  5. Initialise this repository with a README (used to describe the repository)

  6. Click Create Repository (Green)

Now your repository is on Github and you can connect it to your local machine.

  1. In the repository window click Code (Green)

  2. Copy the given link (you might have an option to use SHH or HTTPS - the latter will be simpler for now)

  3. Now open the terminal on your computer

  4. Type git clone <link> where <link> is the link you copied above, e.g. git clone and hit enter. You might be asked to enter your GitHub credentials.

Congratulations, your repo is now on your machine!

Basic Git commands#

Now we will go through different commands and their effect on the repository:

  • git clone <link> - creates a copy of the repo on your machine.

  • git add <file/directory> - adds changed files or whole directories to a “staging area”, which we will later commit to our repository. It is the first part of the two-step process of creating a new snapshot (commit), which is essentially a copy of our project. Files must be added before the commit. It needs to be run with an argument, e.g.:

    git add text.txt - stages the text.txt file

    git add dir - stages the whole dir

    git add . - stages all the unstaged files, very common.

  • git commit -m "message" - saves the snapshot in the project history. It works as a photo, anything staged with git add will become a part of this snapshot. It is a good practice to run it with the -m (message) flag followed by a brief message about what changes were made. Without -m you might be prompted to do it in a terminal text editor such as Vim. Read about the Vim commands.

  • git status - shows the overview of the staging area: which files are staged, modified or untracked (not staged).

  • git pull - updates the local repository with the changes made on the remote one. If you work in a team and your friend committed code, you might want to git pull to have those changes on your machine.

  • git push - updates the remote repository with your commits. You need to use this command to update the code on GitHub.

Advanced commands:#

  • git init - initializes a new Git repository and begins tracking the directory. Adds a hidden subfolder required for the version control. Have a look at the exercises if you want to try it!

  • git stash - this command is used quite infrequently. It locally saves the work that is not ready to commit and gives a clean working directory. For instance, when working on a new feature that’s not complete, but an urgent bug needs attention:

    git stash -u - saves the untracked files as well

    git stash pop - brings the stashed work back to the directory

  • git fetch - downloads meta-data but does not change the files on your machine. It allows you to see the changes in the latest version of a branch but does not implement those changes. Followed by git merge FETCH_HEAD works the same as git pull

  • git log - shows a chronological commit history for a repo.

Git workflow#

For now, the history of our project looks like this:


where circles denote pushed commits.

The commands we have discussed enable us to work on one branch. A branch is a version of a project. The great power of Git comes when we work on multiple branches. Such a multi-branch project can have the following structure:


Master is usually the main branch of the project. All branches stem (immediately or not) from the master branch. We might want to work on different parts of the project in separate branches and later merge them with the master branch when that part of the project is complete. It is good practice to merge all branches at the end of the development process (unless one of the branches is not relevant to the project). Consider the branches from the diagram above:

  • FixRunner - there was a broken “runner” function in the structure of the project. One of the developers branched from the Master branch to fix it and then merged them.

  • FrontEnd - the team working on the front end works created this branch not to interfere with the rest of developers. It is merged with the Master branch at the end of the production cycle.

  • OpenSreen - a feature developed by some people in the front end team.

  • Unused - a branch that did not end up contributing to the final version of the project.

Git branching commands#

Let us consider the commands dealing with branches:

  • git branch - this command has multiple effects depending on the arguments:

    git branch - shows the branches being worked on locally.

    git branch -a - shows remote and local branches (“a” stands for all).

    git branch <branch_name> - creates a new branch.

    git branch -d <branch_name> - deletes a branch.

  • git checkout - used to switch branches:

    git checkout <branch_name> - move to an existing branch.

    git checkout -b <branch_name> - create a branch and move to it.

  • git merge <branch_name> - merges a branch into the current working branch (<branch_name> will no longer be an independent branch).


  • Contributing

Now your repository is in the home directory. Now you will need to enter this directory on your machine:

cd MyFirstRepoTutorial

Let us create a new file in that folder using vim:

vim Hello.txt

This will take you to the Vim text editor. Type i to enter the editing mode. Type some text, when finished type click the esc button. Then type w and enter. Finally, type qa and enter. A new file is created!

Now type in terminal:

git status

This should tell you that Hello.txt is untracked. To change this:

git add .
git status

Now the file is tracked, congrats! We now need to commit:

git commit -m 'Hello file created'


git push

Now your new file is on GitHub!

  • Creating a new branch

To see the existing branches type:

git branch -a

This should mention the master branches (remote and local) as well as the HEAD which is an alias for the current branch we are in. Now we aim to create a new branch and move to it; there are two ways to do this:


# create a new branch
git branch new_branch
# navigate to it
git checkout new_branch


git checkout -b new_branch

Now we have a new branch and we can edit it without affecting the code in the master. To verify that we have created a branch:

git branch -a

The new_branch is only present locally, to add it to GitHub:

git push --set-upstream origin new_branch

Now let us edit the Hello.txt file from the first example. You can also use any other text editor of your choice, VS Code or even Notepad:

vim Hello.txt

Edit the file a little bit.

Now contribute your changes:

git add Hello.txt
git commit -m 'Changed Hello.txt'
git push

  • Switching branches

Let us verify that changing the Hello.txt file in new_branch does not affect the Hello.txt in master branch:

git checkout master

Have a look at the file:

cat Hello.txt

They are different, aren’t they?

  • Merging

Now, we want to merge the new_branch with the master. As we are in the master branch (we did git checkout master above) this should be easy:

git merge new_branch

You might be lucky and have no merge conflicts to deal with, if not, keep reading!

  • Merge Conflicts

When merging branches, we might encounter issues related to the different versions of the same file. Let us induce such case. In the master branch create a following file in the repository (which should be in your Home directory):

def f(n):
    return n**2+n-2


add and commit:

git add .
git commit -m 'Python file'

Now switch to the new_branch:

git checkout new_branch

Create the Python file:

def f(n):
    return 18*n


add and commit:

git add .
git commit -m 'Python file'

Finally back to the master:

git checkout master
git merge new_branch

This should print the following error message:

CONFLICT (content): Merge conflict in
Automatic merge failed; fix conflicts and then commit the result.

Now have a look at your Python file:

def f(n):
<<<<<<< HEAD
    return n**2+n-2
    return 18*n
>>>>>>> new_branch


We can now easily find the conflict between the current (HEAD) branch and the new_branch branch. To resolve this conflict, you will have to delete the <<<<<<<, >>>>>>>, and ======= markers together with branch names. You also need to choose which version you want. Let us keep the new_branch changes, so after editing above we should end up with the following:

def f(n):
    return 18*n


commit and add:

git add .
git commit -m 'Python file merged!'

Good job, you have resolved your first merge conflict!

  • Deleting branches

It is good practice to delete branches which are no longer used. Time to say goodbye to the new_branch:

git branch -d new_branch

You can also delete it on GitHub by going to the branches section of your repo.

  • Undo

It happens to everyone, you have just pushed something that you did not want to. This is where the git revert command comes in. You will need to supply a commit hash (which can be found using the git log command. In this case, we want to undo the very last commit, which is referenced under the name HEAD.

git revert HEAD
git push



  • .gitignore Sometimes you will want to ignore some files in your repository, maybe you just want to keep them to yourself or they are irrelevant to the project. The .gitignore allows you to do exactly that. In it, you list the files you want to ignore. Do the following:

  1. Create a file irrelevant.txt in your repo

  2. Create a file .gitignore and insert the name of the file from (1)

  3. Add, commit, and push. Did it change anything?

  • git stash Now try the following:

  1. Create a file test.txt in your repo and edit it

  2. Stash with unversioned files, add, commit and push (anything to commit actually?)

  3. Did anything change on Github?

  4. Now pop from the stash, add, commit and push

  5. Can you see your file back?