Breaking down large pull requests

When working in a software development team, reviewing pull requests (PRs) is part of our everyday work. It is best practice to keep PRs small and concise, just so we can avoid missing potential issues and spending too much time understanding code changes – thus ensuring productivity.

At WooCommerce Mobile, we have several teams working on different features, and we break down tasks into bite-size ones – so large PRs are not really a problem. However, for folks working alone on a backlog story, or joining the team for a short rotation – it is common to face the issue of handling a big task and having to break them down into smaller parts. This post will sum up the tips that our team have come up with to handle this common situation.

Feature Branch: Yay or Nay?

In my previous gig, we had around 10 teams working on the same mono-repo project, so we maintained feature branches for each team. My take on this approach:

  • Yay: Each team has a separate space to work on their features.
  • Nay: It can be a pain when merging a long-lived branch, considering potential conflicts in terms of code and features. For example: a team can merge some fix that affects another team and that somehow slips through the crack. When the second team merges their feature, they discover the issue but it may be so close to the deadline and everyone gets panicked! πŸ’£πŸ’₯

So it seems like there are more cons than pros to me.

Early merges to develop branch

Another solution is breaking down tasks and handling them in separate small PRs, which are merged into develop sequentially. Spoiler alert: this is preferred considering our team size and our strong emphasis on transparency. There are quite a few things to consider though:

  • Careful planning is highly recommended. When starting with a big task, it is important to separate them into smaller bits. You can start by considering changes you’ll need to make to networking, storage, logic and UI layers. If your task focuses only on the UI layer, you can break it down into even smaller features. This will help with making sure PRs are focused and small, so that it’s easier for your teammate to review.
  • Work on non-user-facing tasks first. These have fewer effects on the app when merged, and usually are essential to be merged early to avoid conflicts (take Core Data versioning for example).
  • For user-facing changes, if your PR does not complete the feature, consider a feature flag to hide the feature from users. You can also tag your PR with status: feature-flag to let the team know that your feature is not yet available for testing on release builds.
  • Usually a PR can take some time to get merged and you want to work on another to unblock yourself. A good approach is to create a new PR basing on the previous PR’s branch. There is a really cool feature of Github that when the base branch is merged to develop, the dependent PR’s base will automatically changes to develop!
  • It can be a good practice to tag your dependent PRs as do not merge, to make sure that they are not accidentally merged before their parent PR. Some may prefer to keep the dependent PRs as drafts instead. I myself prefer the former – just so my teammates can review all PRs as soon as they can (like concurrency in programming).

In the end, you should have a number of PRs like this:

In cases when I’m not sure if my PRs can get merged before code freeze, I usually keep my feature flag on only for local development (and off for both beta testing and production). You can consider keeping your flag off on local too if it may block other teammates when they need to run the old feature. Just make sure to include instructions to turn the flag on in the testing steps of your PR.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, I want to highlight the 3 main takeaways of this post:

  • Always keep your PRs small and focused.
  • It’s important to keep the develop branch updated with your changes as early on as possible.
  • Feature flags are powerful for developing user-facing features.

I hope this post helps improve your team’s development process. Please also leave a comment if you have other ideas to make code reviewing more effective!

Published by Huong Do

Apple enthusiast 🍎 Tea over coffee 🍡 Cute animals worshipper 🐱🐢🦦

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