What is a pull request?

September 8, 2020

One of the main ways software developers contribute to free and open-source projects is by creating pull requests to fix bugs, add features, clarify documentation, and to address other issues. A pull request is a proposal to make specific changes to the source code of a project.

Projects usually have multiple versions of their source code, and one of them is the main version. The maintainers of the main version often encourage other developers to contribute to their projects by creating pull requests.

How do pull requests work?

Pull requests typically have five parts: the issue, changes, discussion, approval, and merge.

The first step to creating a pull request is to identify an issue with the existing source code for a project. Pull requests are meant to be reversible, so developers are encouraged to make each pull request focus on one issue or topic. For example, fixing a website's styling and updating its content can and should be separated into two separate pull requests.

After identifying the issue, a developer creates a complete copy of the project's source code on their own computer. Since their copy is derived from another copy, their copy is known as a fork. The developer then proceeds to change their copy of the source code to address the issue they identified.

When the developer is finished with their changes, they write a summary of their changes. The summary may include details about which issue the changes are meant to fix, an explanation for their approach to the issue, and a description of any testing they performed to ensure that the changes worked as intended.

Then, the developer requests the maintainers to review and accept their changes. The developer and maintainers discuss any remaining questions about the pull request, such as whether the changes can be optimized or need further improvements.

If the maintainers think that the pull request is ready, they can approve it and merge the changes into the main copy of the source code. The developer’s pull request is granted and the developers “pull” the changes into the main copy.

Why do people create pull requests?

Each developer has their own reasons for contributing to free and open-source software. Here are a few common reasons:

  • Prestige. When the maintainer of a project merges a developer's pull request into the source code of a project, the developer is permanently attributed as a contributor to that project. For example, the Standard Notes web app repository has 23 contributors at the time of this writing. Developers can accumulate fame and prestige within the developer community by making significant contributions to important and valuable open-source projects. This can help them build an audience and find more employment opportunities.
  • Experience. Junior developers can gain experience and build their resumes by contributing to open-source projects with pull requests, and experienced developers can use them to practice their skills. This can also help developers find future employment.
  • Generosity. Software developers are problem-solvers at heart and often enjoy sharing solutions for others to use. By sharing the solutions, more people can benefit from them. Contributing to free and open-source projects with pull requests is a way to give back to a community or project.
  • Compatibility. Developers can create new features and fix bugs by modifying their own copy of a project to suit their own needs. However, they can ensure that the new features and bug fixes are compatible with future versions of the project by implementing them into its main source code. Pull requests also allow their feature to receive more critical review and attention.

Further reading:

This post was originally published on the Standard Notes Knowledge Base. Standard Notes is a free, open, and end-to-end encrypted notes app.

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