Git: undoer of bad decisions

I’ve been working on a major Perl code refactor since March; this is a fairly critical subsystem that unifies two slightly different ways of doing the same thing under the One True Way. I’m finally starting to come out the far end of this process, having learned several things very much the hard way.

The biggest mistake was not working out the most stepwise possible attack on the problem. I tackled a monolith of code and created a new monolith. The changeset was over a thousand lines of moved, tweaked, hoisted, rewritten, and fixed code – a recipe for failed code review. No matter how simple it seems to you because you’ve been living with the code for months on end, the reviewer will come up against a massive wall of code and bounce off it.

Second, I didn’t clearly establish a baseline set of tests for this code. It was, essentially, not tested. A few features were cursorily tested, but the majority of the code was uncovered. In addition, some code needed to live on the Apache web servers, and some on dumb database servers without Apache, so the structure of the code ended up being two communicating monoliths hooked up to mod_perl.

Third, I squashed too soon. Fifty-some commits were turned into a single commit that, to be fair to me, contained only 90 lines of new code – but in fairness to everyone else, shifted a thousand lines of code around, hoisting a lot to new common libraries, and changing one set to mach another.

The code worked, and was provably correct by my tests — but it was an utter failure as far as software engineering was concerned.

After a very educational conversation with my tech lead, Rachel, I headed back to revisit this change and make it into something my co-workers and I could live with.

First: build the infrastructure. I learned from the first try at the code that unit-testing it would not work well. Some of it could be unit-tested, but others simply died because they weren’t running under mod_perl, and couldn’t be mocked up to work without it. The best approach seemed to be to use a behavior-driven development approach: write the necessary interactions as interactions with an Apache instance running enough of the stack for me to test it. I decided that since, luckily, this particular part of the code had very little Javascript, and none along the critical path, I’d be able to write interaction tests using WWW::Mechanize, and verify that the right things had happened by checking over the headers and cooke jar and database.

I started off by creating tiny commits to add a couple of support functions for the Web testing — a WWW::Mechanize subclass optimized for our site, and a couple of support methods to make constructing URLs easier.

I then wrote a set of tests, each exercising a specific part of the code in question, and overall verifying that we had a set of tests that described the system behavior as it should be, both for good and bad inputs.

Once this was done, I turned back to the giant monolithic commit. I knew I wanted to unsquash the commits, but I wasn’t sure how, or what was safest. After some reading, I found a good description of using git reflog and git cherry-pick to restore a branch to its unsquashed shape, and a Stack Overflow post with more hints. With a little extra consideration and checking of git cherry-pick’s options, I was able to recover the original set of commits on a new branch. Here’s how:

  1. Start with the output from git reflog. This tracks all your commits and branch switches. As long as your squashed commits point to something (in this case it’s the reflog), git won’t discard them.
  2. Scan back for the first reference to the branch that you need to unsquash. Note its SHA1, open another window, and git checkout this SHA1. You’ll now be in “detached head” state.
  3. git checkout -b some-name to create a new branch at the same point your desired branch was in when it was created.
  4. Now scroll back through the reflog, and git cherry-pick all the commits on this branch. You can save time by cherry-picking ranges (sha1..sha1), which will apply them in reflog order to the branch
  5. Continue until you’ve reached the last commit you want on this branch. You may end up skipping sets of commits if you’ve been working on other branches too; watch for branch switches away from the desired branch and then back to it.

You may hit minor problems re-applying the commits to the branch; resolve these as you normally would, and then use git cherry-pick –continue to complete the commit or continue the set of commits.

Once I had my original commits, I was able to cherry-pick these off the newly-recovered (and working) branch, a few at a time, and create smaller pull requests (add a test, add another test; shift code, verify the test still works; and so on).

The final result was a series of pull requests: tests to validate the current behavior, and then a series of hoists and refactors to get half of the code to the desired point, and then another series to bring the second half in line with the first.

Overall, this was more than a dozen pull requests, and I’m sure that my co-workers got sick of seeing more PRs from me every day, but the result was a properly-tested and properly-refactored set of code, and no one had any complaints about that.

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