Octokit and the Documentation Nightmare

Before I get into the meat of this series of posts, I would like to set the scene. Like many organisations that perform some level of software development these days, we use GitHub. Here at CareEvolution, some developers use the web interface extensively, some use the command line, and others use the GitHub desktop client1, but most use a combination of two or more, depending on the task. This works great for developers, who have each found a comfortable workflow for getting things done, but it is not so great for those involved with DevOps, QA, or documentation where there is a need to find out user-friendly details of what the developers did. Quite often, a feature or bug fix involves several commits and while each has a comment or two, and perhaps an associated pull request (PR) or issue has a general description, but there is no definitive list of "this is what release X contains" that can be presented to a customer. Not only that but sometimes a PR or issue is resolved in an earlier release and merged forward. While we have lists of what a release is going to include, quite often there is more detail that we would like to include, and we often have additional changes as we adapt to the changing requirements of our customers. All this means that one or more people end up trawling the commits, trying to determine what the changes are. It is not a happy task.

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

Niccolo Machiavelli
The Prince (1532)

Now, I know that this could all be avoided if people documented changes more clearly, perhaps added release notes to commits, raised issues for documentation changes, or created release notes on the release when it is made. However, no matter how noble change may be, anyone who has worked in process definition for any length of time will know that changing the behaviour of people is the hardest task of all, and therefore it should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. It was with that in mind that I decided mining the existing data for information would be an easier first step than jumping straight to asking people to change. So, with the aim of making life a little easier, I started looking at ways to automate the trawling.

I figured that by throwing out noisy and typical developer non-descriptive commits like "fixed spelling" or "updated comment", and by combining commits under the corresponding PR or issue, I could create useful summary of changes. This would not be customer-ready, but it would be ready for someone to turn into a release note without needing to trawl git history. In fact, if I included details of who committed the changes, it might even provide a feedback loop that would improve the quality of developer commit messages; developers do not like interruptions, so anyone asking for more detail on a commit they made should start to reinforce that if they wrote better commits, PRs, issues, they would get less interruptions.

Octokitty2

Octokit .NET logoAfter a dismissing using git locally to perform this task (I figured those who might need this tool would probably not want to get the repository locally) and reading up on the GitHub API a little, I cracked open LINQPad —my tool of choice for hacking— and went looking for a Nuget package to help. It was during that search that I happily stumbled on Octokit, the official GitHub library for interacting with the GitHub API. At the time of writing, Octokit reflects the polyglot nature of GitHub users, providing variants for Ruby, .NET, and Objective C, as well as experimental versions for Python, and Go. I installed the Octokit Nuget package into LINQPad and started hacking (there is also a reactive version for IObservable fans).

Poking around the various objects, and reading some documentation on GitHub (Octokit is open source), I got a feel for how the library wrapped the APIs. Though, I had not yet got any code running, I was making progress. Confident that this would enable me to create the tool I wanted to create, I started writing some code to gather a list of releases for a specific repository and stumbled over my first hurdle; authentication. It turns out it is not quite as straight-forward as I thought (the days of username and password are quite rightly behind us3), and so, my adventure began.

And then…

This is a good place to stop for this week, I think. As the series progresses, I will be piecing together the various parts of my "release note guidance" tool and hopefully, end up with a .NET library to augment Octokit with some useful history mining functionality. Next time, we will take a look at authentication with Octokit (and there will be code).


  1. OSX and Windows variants 

  2. or, James Bond for kids 

  3. OK, that's a lie, but I want to encourage good behaviour