Impassioned ranting about the format of commit messages1 often feels like cringe-inducing gatekeeping. Many times such rants seem to be written using language both bombastic and bellicose – the message is: fuck off if you don’t agree.

The fact that the authors of many of these rants tend to be respected in the software community is confounding to many. Defense of these rants is commonplace and, likewise, is swift, absolute, and equally, seemingly, meant as a giant middle-finger to the uninitiated.

Explaining new concepts to people unfamiliar with them is a good way of testing your understanding. Explaining new concepts repeatedly, in a seemingly unending cycle, is a good test of your patience. Neither lack of understanding or lack of patience excuse the bad behavior that is all-too-typical of the software hegemony.

This post is meant to explain when and why commit messages matter. Additionally, it explains a few thoughts about the Gerrit code review system.

Pull Request vs Commit

The common wisdom is that commit messages don’t matter on GitHub. When I collaborate on GitHub I commit often and my commit messages frequently contain “.gif”, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, various curse words, and copious emoji. This is because the unit of change in GitHub is the pull request. My pull requests are thoughtful, and attempt to explain why I developed this particular patch, and try to provide means of testing for this change. When trying to bisect history in a repository developed on GitHub the merges of pull requests are the thing; i.e., Merge pull request #763 is meaningful. Pull request #763 probably has an explanation for what changed (even if your git log doesn’t).

The information contained in a pull request is useful, but is – by design – only accessible online with a web browser through

My current job uses Gerrit instead of GitHub. Gerrit doesn’t have pull requests, it has patches. The code review interface is arguably not as good as GitHub – I can’t set a unified diff view by default in my preferences, for instance. (edit 2019-03-21. unified diff is available in top-level preferences) Gitiles is no substitute for using GitHub as a repo browser – you can’t link to blocks of code, for instance. Gerrit/Gitiles URLs are hard to remember, unlike GitHub’s. There is little in the way of a “prescribed workflow”. You as a developer must decide how to split patches meaningfully, and how to do that in such a way that adheres with any shared agreements about particular branches (e.g., master must be deployable).

Despite its flaws, I really like Gerrit.

Gerrit’s use of git aligns well with git’s design. The git history that Gerrit produces is beautiful, available offline, distributed, and useable via the git command line interface (more usable than in the browser, unfortunately). This is partially because the unit of change in Gerrit is a commit. As a result, git log --oneline is totally readable and totally useful!

I prefer the repo produced by Gerrit to the repo produced by GitHub for reasons that relate to development, operations, and values.


If I’m considering making a change in a repository, especially when this change is an obvious or simple one, I worry. I worry: why wasn’t this approach chosen in the first place? Is there a bug that is being worked around by using a non-obvious approach? Am I in an area of code that is used in many areas of the code base, or is it used very seldom? Is there test coverage for this function that I can use to ensure I am not creating a regression? A good commit message would answer all of these questions, and maybe more I haven’t thought of yet.

This information in Gerrit lives with the repository, in GitHub the information lives on It’s very important that the information exist somewhere.

I like the freedom to work on code when I’m on an airplane or somewhere else without WiFi. There may be software that can make this happen for GitHub. In Gerrit the unit-of-change is the Commit, so the commit has most information that I want. With the addition of the review-notes Gerrit plugin, code reviews live in a special git note namespace (/refs/notes/review) and are also available with the repository offline.

Gerrit makes no recommendations whatsoever about how you develop, and nothing in the patch interface aligns with your local view of your changes necessarily. I feel like this is confusing for people new to using Gerrit, but it is also, after initiation to the concept, not a bad way to develop.


An appreciable portion of my job is greping through git history in the shaky moments following an embarrassing production outage. This exercise has given me a deep appreciation for well formatted git commit messages. I need to know: what changed, who changed it (not just who merged it), why it was changed, and why a particular approach was chosen.

Good commit message information helps me determine what to do with a change: do I need to wake up the person who made this commit, or can I simply revert it? Is this change merely setting an unused variable, or is it a feature flag that will unleash new functionality?

Having all this information at my fingertips, rather than having to dig through the 188(!) different repositories that are composed to create a production deployment of MediaWiki and extensions for all 933 wikis that exist in Wikimedia’s production infrastructure is important – I already have too many browser tabs open without having to dig through GitHub for repository histories.


This section speaks more to my feelings about Gerrit vs GitHub as projects more than Gerrit vs GitHub repositories. In the case of GitHub’s use of pull requests, I feel like the two are inextricably linked – GitHub has opted out of the open source implementation of git using proprietary software to implement this feature and the resultant repository is less usable as an artifact on its own because of this decision.

The essay Free software needs Free tools is probably a better summary of this topic than anything I could write here; however, the short version of this is: without the freedom to run, modify, study, and redistribute the software on which your project depends, your project is at the mercy of corporate caprice.

Corporations are beholden to shareholders, not to users. When a corporation pivots away from the customers that made it a success to serve a different market that it perceives as more valuable that is not an uncommon or remarkable event: that is the design of a corporation.

If you are working on a software project that’s important – if your software provides an essential service, or essential infrastructure that is meant to last many years (even beyond a single human lifetime) – you cannot afford to lose a part of your infrastructure in the event that a (possibly erroneous) business analysis has identified a more efficient profit-center for a business.

There are many counter-arguments to the ones I’ve made above; however, to summarize a few counter-arguments (possibly unfairly) they are:

  1. <Closed Source/Hosted provider>‘s core business is acting in their customers’ best interest, if its goal is to provide value to shareholders then to do so means being a better service for its existing customers. Our interests and the business’s interests are aligned.
  2. <Closed Source/Hosted provider> is based on an open standard, so the information is portable, if they become a bad actor, we can port information to a different solution.

To argument one: there are myriad examples of business decisions made at the expense of customers. This is particularly true once a business entity becomes a monopoly power as so many tech companies are at this moment. I think anyone would concede the example of large cable companies offering poor service to customers despite the fact that customers provide their revenue. Business interests and customer interests, even when they are currently aligned, may not always be.

To argument two: in the instance of GitHub above (and this is applicable to other services as well) they have proprietary features (i.e., “pull requests”) that make them incompatible with portability. In other instances, the compatibility with a portable solution is invalidated by the point of business caprice.

How I commit now

If commit messages are important (as I argue above), then it is a valuable exercise to evaluate the way in which you write your commit messages.

Earlier this year I came across Vicky Lai’s post “Git Commit Practices Your Future Self Will Thank You For” Which (for me anyway) highlighted the use of the git commit.template. Vicky provided an example in the post that I’ve been refining for myself.

I’ve followed git commit best practices234 for years, so initially the template wasn’t proving too useful. I started to think about what was missing from my commit messages, where I could improve formatting, and where I could save myself some time searching.

The first issue I identified is that I can’t remember the names of commit message fields like Signed-off-by or Requested-by. Also, my capitalization and ordering of those fields was all over the place. What are the best-practices for using these fields? I could never remember. I put all these fields in my template. Along with a link to the kernel patch submission guidelines for easy reference.

The next issue I had was that there are myriad schools of thought about commit message bodies. Bullet points vs Problem/Solution vs “answers the following questions”. The basic questions of “What is wrong with the code that this patch fixes?” sometimes hindered my ability to write a commit message that made sense. I wanted options. I wanted examples. I wanted links in case I felt like reading more. I added all this to my template.

Finally, I noticed that vim does some syntax highlighting in the commit screen. Specifically, lines that end with :. So I made sure that the only lines that ended with : were important sections.

I think I have a template I can live with for a while. It’s verbose. Probably too verbose, really. But my mind works in ways I don’t understand sometimes. To keep it on track, I need all the information it craves at my fingertips in a context-dependant way. I think this template is ideal for that.

Git Commit ZOMG!!1!

The commit.template below is in my dotfiles as .git-commit-zomg. I install the template using the command git config --global commit.template ~/.git-commit-zomg.

I named this template .git-commit-zomg because I have mixed feelings about commit messages. I think a lot about commit messages. I think they’re important. I evidently feel that they’re “rant worthy” in some context. I still, however, know people will decide the value of commit messages on their own. You can tell people the value you think commit messages will have, and they’ll maybe ackowledge your concerns are valid. Maybe they’ll even make changes in their process. But no one groks to fullness.

Someday production will be down. Rollback will have failed with an opaque error. Your mind will be screaming too loud for you to think clearly. You’ll frantically grep git log output for the error message – something, anything – and you’ll come face-to-face with a commit (probably authored by you) that reads, simply, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. To paraphrase Jack Handy: when this moment comes, if you’re drinking milk, I bet it will make milk come out your nose.

# ^^ Subject: summary of your change:
# * 50 Characters is a soft limit (aim for < 80)
# * "If applied, this commit will..."
# * Use the imperative mood; e.g.,
#   (Change/Add/Fix/Remove/Update/Refactor/Document)
# * Do not end the subject with a period (full stop)
# * Optionally, prefix the subject with the relevant component
#   (the general area of code being modified)
# Example[0]
#     jquery.badge: Add ability to display the number zero
# [0]. <>
# Leave this blank line below your subject:

# Body: Additional information about a commit:

# Think about these questions
# * Why should this change should be made?
#   What is wrong with the current code?
# * Why should it be changed in this way?
#   Are there other ways?
# * How can a reviewer confirm that your change works as intended?[0]
# * An alternative format maybe a problem/solution commit as used in
#   ZeroMQ[1]; e.g.
#       * Problem: Windows build script requires edit of VS version
#       * Solution: Use CMD.EXE environment variable to extract
#         DevStudio version number and build using it.
# [0]. <>
# [1]. <>

# ---
# Bug number:
# ---
# Gerrit specific:
# ---
# Sign your work:
# > The sign-off is a simple line at the end of the explanation for the
# > patch, which certifies that you wrote it or otherwise have the right to
# > pass it on as a open-source patch [0]
# Signed-off-by: Example User <>
# [0]. <>
# ---
# Other Nice Things:
# If you worked on a patch with others it's nice to credit them for
# their contributions; however, these tags should not be added without
# your collaborator's permission!

# Acked-by: Example User <>
# Cc: Example User <>
# Co-Authored-by: Example User <>
# Requested-by: Example User <>
# Reported-by: Example User <>
# Reviewed-by: Example User <>
# Suggested-by: Example User <>
# Tested-by: Example User <>
# Thanks: Example User <>
# ---
#        _ _                                   _ _
#   __ _(_) |_    ___ ___  _ __ ___  _ __ ___ (_) |_   _______  _ __ ___   __ _
#  / _` | | __|  / __/ _ \| '_ ` _ \| '_ ` _ \| | __| |_  / _ \| '_ ` _ \ / _` |
# | (_| | | |_  | (_| (_) | | | | | | | | | | | | |_   / / (_) | | | | | | (_| |
#  \__, |_|\__|  \___\___/|_| |_| |_|_| |_| |_|_|\__| /___\___/|_| |_| |_|\__, |
#  |___/                                                                  |___/
# Save to `~/.git-commit-zomg` Then run:
#     git config --global commit.template ~/.git-commit-zomg
# The idea for this template came from Vicky Lai[0]
# [0]. <>