“Use Version Control”

Darrell Norton says that “version control” is a best practice. I disagree with him about that, but his blog posting gives me an opportunity to show how context-driven reasoning works.

Darrell writes:

“If you’re looking for a No Best Practice rant like James Bach, then you won’t find it here. Instead, here I will propose the one true best practice I’ve found, one which I have not been able to change it from being a best practice no matter how much of the situation I change:

Use version control”

I think that’s the whole message. I was not able to find any more to it. Okay, let’s look at this critically. I wrote a blog entry about no best practices. Questions that immediately occur to me are the following:

  1. What is the practice being proposed as best?
  2. From what field of candidates has it emerged as the best?
  3. By what sorting process has it been determined to be best?
  4. In what contexts does that sorting process apply?

These questions are not answered in his message, nor does he point to any resource by which we may answer them. I’m concerned about that, because while Darrell may not be a pointy-haired boss who bullies people with nonsensical process-speak, some of that pointy hair in the world does read blogs. Such people latch onto things they don’t understand and force feed them to people who would otherwise be free to do their work in peace.

I am willing to believe that Darrell has some idea in his mind to which he has applied the label “version control”, and he has some notion of what it means to “use” it. I suspect that, to him, this practice seems obvious, and the contexts in which it is worth doing is obvious, too.

But whatever it is Darrell has in mind is not obvious to me, and I’ve been in this business a long time, both as a programmer and in other roles. Darrell has not explained what he means by version control. He has essentially flashed us a briefcase marked “version control”. I wonder what is in that case?

I’ve used something I would also call “version control”, but it isn’t any one thing, it’s many things. One form of version control I’ve used might be called “your turn, my turn”. In YTMT version control, you work on something for a period of time, then you email it to someone else to work on. You don’t touch it until he emails it back to you. Tada! Version control. Is that what Darrell meant? Is that “best”?

I’ve also used Visual SourceSafe. Some would say that’s a terrible tool, others, I suppose, swear by it. Either way, SourceSafe does not solve all the problems of controlling versions. There must be more to the practice of version control than buying a tool and installing it.

I can list many more humble practices that comprise version control for me, and each one involves a choice, not only about what to control, but also about what need not be controlled. Version control goes hand-in-hand with version un-control (e.g. I might change the version number of the document occasionally, yet not keep track of each individual change, and that might be good enough version control).

In many contexts, such as developing complex production software, version control deserves attention. It does not deserve to be patronized by the phrase “best practice.” I think, in his effort to elevate it, Darrell has inadvertantly degraded it to a slogan. He has elevated an empty husk.

Fortunately, he can fix it. All he has to do is tell a story about a time before he practiced “version control” and some problems he suffered. Then he should share how a specific practice of version control (he must describe this enough so that we can get a mental picture of it) seemed to solve those problems without creating too many new ones. We, the readers, would then decide for ourselves what his experience has to do with our own contexts.

While I deny that there can be an unqualified best practice, I have personally experienced benefit from hearing stories about how other people have solved specific problems by employing some practice or another. I think we need more stories, and fewer slogans. Please help.

Therefore, in the spirit of self-referential humor, I say to you “No Best Practices!”

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