How Untested Changes Block Merges to Master: a Guide for Non-Developers

At the Day Job, I work on a product that over two dozen development teams contribute to. To provide some level of stability on the branch that we release from (called "master"), each team has their own development branch and we merge from the team branches to the master branch only after

  1. a suite of automated feature and regression tests pass, and
  2. new features are manually tested

Ideally, the new features (or bugfixes) would be tested quickly and in the order that they were added to the team branch, but this doesn't always happen. Some issues take a very long time to test and the developers race ahead, and sometimes issues fail. In these situations, some changes that have met the above conditions must wait to be merged to the master branch.

Often non-developer teammates and servant leaders ask me why a tested issue is blocked by an untested (or failed!) issue. This is my attempt to explain why. Hopefully it's accessible to those without previous git knowledge.

Git: a Collection of Changes

Git, like any version control system, exists to track the evolution of a body information (often a codebase). It does so by keeping track of changes that happen over time. Each change (or "commit" as they are called in git) can include one or more file additions, deletions, or modifications. Once commits are added to the master or team branch, they cannot be removed or changed; they're permanent.

Here's a very simple representation of a collection of git commits. Letters represent individual commits, and the arrows indicate pointers from commits to the preceding commit (or "parent"):

A <-- B <-- C <-- D

In this diagram, time moves to the right, so A was the first change, B next (and it knows about its parent A), and so on, to the most recent commit, D.

Sometimes the arrowheads can clutter the graph, so I'll omit them in subsequent diagrams. In all cases, time will move the right, so to figure out the full state of a branch, you start at the right-hand side and follow the lines to the left. Given this convention, the above diagram would look like this:

A --- B --- C --- D

Merging between branches

Let's add a second branch and label them, to model the system I deal with at work

                       master
    P --- Q --- R --- S

       A --- B --- C --- D
                          team

Here we see the master branch with commits P, Q, R, and S (the latest) and the team branch with A, B, C, and D. Each of the commits I mentioned exist only in their own branch. In particular, this means that the commits in the team branch will not be built into our product and make it to our customers, since we build and ship from the master branch.

We incorporate the team-level changes in the team branch via a git "merge", which sounds very fancy, but it's just another commit. A merge commit melds divergent histories by having two parents. Once the merge commit is added to a branch any commits that are reachable by following the links from that commit back to the left are "part of" the branch:

                             master
    P --- Q --- R --- S --- T
                           /
        A --- B --- C --- D
                           team

Here we've merged the team branch into the master branch by creating a new merge commit called T on the master branch. Now all of the work we've done on the master branch and on the team branch has been consolidated into the master branch, so the next time we build the product, we'll get all the benefits.

You don't always have to merge the last commit of a branch into another branch. Suppose we had some bonus commits on the team branch that we just didn't want to merge into the master branch yet for whatever reason. We could do this:

                             master
    P --- Q --- R --- S --- T
                           /
        A --- B --- C --- D --- E --- F
                                       team

Then

  • A, B, C, D, P, Q, R, S, and T are all part of the master branch, and
  • A, B, C, D, E, and F are part of the team branch, but
  • E and F are not (yet) part of the master branch.

Even though we can pick essentially any commit to merge into the master branch, what we can't do is omit that commit's ancestors. If we merge a commit D as above, we always take C, B, and A, because we can reach those commits by following the parent links to the left from D.

Blocking commits

Up till now we've not really been looking at the worthiness of particular commits when deciding what to merge. Suppose

  1. we have 4 commits in master and 4 in the team branch
  2. the team branch passed all automated tests,
  3. the issues addressed by the first, second, and fourth team commits have been manually tested
  4. but the issue addressed by the third team commit has not yet been tested.

We'll represent the commits that has not yet been manually tested with a lowercase letter to show that it's not "done":

                       master
    P --- Q --- R --- S

       A --- B --- c --- D
                          team

Under our rules, A, B, and D are considered complete and worthy of merging, but c is not. Maybe it's fine, but we don't know yet, and we promised not to merge c into the master branch until it's known to be good.

There's no way to merge D into the master branch given our rules. We could merge A and B like so:

                             master
    P --- Q --- R --- S --- T
                           /
                    A --- B --- c --- D
                                       team

(or similarly just A). But if we want to merge D in, we'd end up getting c, B, and A as well. It would look like this:

                             master
    P --- Q --- R --- S --- T
                           /
        A --- B --- c --- D
                           team

And that violates our rules: c has not yet met all its merging conditions, but it's been merged into the master branch. We can start at the latest commit in the master branch (T) and follow the lower parent link to the left (and down) to D, and then follow its link to c. We've risked polluting the master branch with an unproven change.

How to Unblock the Branch

Ultimately we want to merge all of our proven work from the team branch into the master branch. How do we do that?

Focus on the blocking commit and wait

This is the approach we take most often. The commit called c hasn't been tested above, but it will be sometime. When we notice that we have blocked commits, as a team we can concentrate on completing the testing for the blocking commits. Once they are found to be good, they're no longer blockers and we can merge them or any other subsequent commits, so long as all of those have been found worthy. This is the strategy we take most often.

Revert the offending commit

If the blocking commit is expected to take a very long time to test, we can "revert" it. This is different from removing the commit (remember, once a commit is added to a branch, you can't remove it). Reverting involves adding another commit to the branch. The new commit undoes the original change. Here's what that looks like:

                       master
    P --- Q --- R --- S

       A --- B --- c --- D --- !c
                                 team

Here "!c" represents a sort of anti-c that has the opposite of the changes contained in c.

Once this is done, it's as if the team branch has only A, B, and D in it. But there are some caveats:

  • crafting and adding !c takes some development time, and time to run the automated tests to ensure that the team branch is still in good shape
  • sometimes the commits between c and !c will build upon work in c. This means that
    • !c is harder to make, and
    • making !c runs the risk of compromising the work done in D (or other intervening commits—there could be more than one). Depending on the entanglement, it may even be necessary to manually retest the issue addressed by D
    • eventually we'll need to redo the work for c and test it then, perhaps running into the same problem we had this time

If we decide that reverting and merging are still worth it given all those caveats, eventually we'll end up with

                                   master
          P --- Q --- R --- S --- T
                                 /
       A --- B --- c --- D --- !c
                                 team

While this approach is possible, it has significant downsides, and so we are loath to use it when "focus and wait" is a viable option.

How to Avoid the Problem

The problem of blocking commits is generally caused by a mismatch in the time it takes for us to develop a change and that taken to test it. Our product's build times and even automated testing times are quite long, so we'll naturally have some mismatch, even if someone is available to perform manual testing immediately after the change is in a team branch build. But there are ways to reduce this gap or mitigate its effects. The ideas presented below are neither comprehensive nor independent. In the coming months we could pursue more than one of them, or think of something else.

More (reliable) automated testing

Our ratio of automated to manual testing isn't great. Some portions of the product have good automated tests and we have high confidence in them, but more areas have lower coverage and therefore confidence. If developers and testers were better at working together to establish what kinds of automated tests should be written in conjunction with a bugfix or new feature, and if those tests reliably produced consistent results, this might

  1. slow down development
  2. considerably shorten the manual testing phase
  3. increase the likelihood that any manual testing phase will pass
  4. provide lasting value in the form of automatically-run regression tests

Better planning and coordination

Sometimes developers and testers fail to talk before an issue is developed, so the change is added to the team branch when no testers are ready to test it, and it languishes. Maybe certain issues require special hardware or complex configuration, so the tester prefers to test B and D consecutively, deferring c for a while, but the developer was unaware (or just didn't consider it).

If there were more and better intra-team planning, a change could be developed just in time for it to be manually tested, reducing the time it sits in the team branch, waiting for other issues to be cleared.

Manual testing before the team branch

I didn't discuss topic branches above, but they are a third type of branch where developers do their low-level work. They feed into the team branches. In theory, we could build packages from those branches and do the manual testing on them. Then once the issue has passed, the topic branch's contents could be added to the team branch. We'd only be waiting for the automated tests to run to clear the branch, and this is generally quicker than manual testing (and can be done overnight).

The downside to this approach is that it requires heavier weight automated processes to be run on the topic branches (of which there are more than team branches) and we're already resource-constrained. In addition, it means staging more clusters for the manual testers to work on, again requiring more hardware and time.