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What is GitHub and how do Software Engineers use it?

By Academy Xi

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What is GitHub

GitHub is a buzzword in the tech space – it’s the name on every coder’s lips. Maybe you’re wondering ‘What even is GitHub and how do developers use it?’. The short answer – in a multitude of ways. Let’s explore them……

What is GitHub and how do developers use it?

If you enter the searchterm “what is GitHub?” on Google, you’ll be served over 615 million responses. Amongst other things, you’ll be told GitHub is a cloud storage site, a version control system, a social networking site for programmers, and a code-sharing site. 

Does GitHub actually do all these things? It certainly does, and so much more. 

Broadly speaking, GitHub is a cloud-based service designed to help developers store, manage and share code while working on development projects. Crucially, GitHub also helps team members collaborate effectively by tracking and controlling changes to their code, known in the industry as ‘version control’. 

What is Git?

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s cover the basics. Git was first developed in 2005 by tech figurehead Linus Torvalds, who had already famously created the Linux operating system kernel. 

In a nutshell, Git is a DevOps tool used for source code management that helps to efficiently handle coding and development projects of all shapes and sizes. Git is used to track changes in source code, enabling multiple developers to work together on nonlinear projects without any confusion or conflict. As such, Git is the world’s most popular free and open-source version control system 

So, what’s the difference between Git and GitHub? Good question! Git is used to manage multiple versions of source code edits, which are transferred to files in a Git repository. GitHub serves as a location for all repositories, where all files are uploaded and stored. 

How do version control systems help developers?

Imagine you’re part of a team of developers working on a web application with multiple features. Your app may have a large, complex code base, involving several projects and developers working on different parts of the software.

This type of scenario is quite common and can easily lead to problems:

😬Imagine someone is working on a new feature and something they change breaks the app. How can you “back up” to the most recent working version of the code?

😬Or, there could be some part of the application that overlaps with the work being done by other developers. How can you ensure there are no inconsistencies or conflicts in the code?

The term Version Control System (VCS) describes a type of software that is designed specifically to help manage the potential pitfalls described above. 

Version control keeps a complete history of the changes to the code, which makes it easy to revert to a working state. This gives you the freedom to experiment, throw away bad ideas, and instantly get back to your last-known “good” state if anything breaks (something always breaks, right?!).

There are a number of benefits that come with using a VCS to manage your work:

✔️Automatically creating a backup of your work

✔️Providing an easy way to undo mistakes and restore a previous version of your work

✔️Documenting changes with a log that clearly describes what’s been changed and why

✔️Keeping file names and hierarchies consistent and organised

✔️Breaking off from the source code to work in multiple “sandboxes” (called branches in Git), allowing developers to experiment without impacting other branches

✔️Merging branch code back into the source, once the developer gets his or her part of the code working properly

✔️Collaborating with others without disturbing each other’s work

The world’s most popular VCS software is Git. As you’ve probably guessed, GitHub is the platform that hosts the Git VCS. 

GitHub’s other features and uses

Although GitHub was primarily developed for its version control capabilities, its functionality has evolved with time. A host of handy new features have been added over the years, enabling programmers to use GitHub for a range of vital day-to-day tasks, including:

  • Improved project management

The ‘GitHub Issues’ feature allows you to manage a development project from end-to-end. You can use it to define tasks, track their progress, and communicate with coworkers. This typically involves a description of the coding task, with additional comments, assignees, labels and milestones.

  • Easy file management

GitHub makes managing your files easy-as-pie. When you edit or save a file, Git effectively takes a series of snapshots of it in its various states. Everything that’s happened to your file along the way is captured, meaning you can access it in any state it’s been in. Impressive, huh?! 

  • Increased safety with additional packages

Although GitHub is cloud-based, it incorporates security features that help keep your code and sensitive data secure across the repositories. Many of these features are available as standard with all GitHub plans, but for those projects that demand even tighter levels of security, additional protection is available with GitHub’s Advanced Security packages.

  • Effective team management

GitHub’s project boards can be used to organise and manage a team, enabling you to pull requests, add notes, allocate tasks to team members and assign due dates. You’re also able to arrange cards into columns that enable your entire team to visualise and track workflows and easily understand how a project is progressing as a whole.

  • Simple code hosting

Once you’ve set up your GitHub account, all your code can be placed in a Git repository. You’ll have options on where you choose to host your code, but the simplest way is to do it directly via GitHub. This gives you the convenience of all your code and documentation being hosted in a single location. Beautifully simple!

  • Social Networking

In its essence, GitHub is all about developers working together to complete team projects. This dynamic naturally extends to social networking. Tech professionals all over the world use GitHub to share code and practical advice, showcase their skills, and pitch project ideas. As well as connecting like-minded professionals, this makes GitHub a perfect place to host a portfolio. It’s great for job networking too! 

  • Improved code writing

GitHub doesn’t just facilitate coding projects, it actually has the potential to improve your code writing. You can plug GitHub Copilot directly into your editor and it will convert natural language prompts into coding suggestions across dozens of languages. Trained by billions of lines of code, Copilot’s suggestions are almost always spot-on and will take your coding to the next level.

Want to become a Software Engineer?

At Academy Xi, we offer a range of Software Engineering courses that are designed and delivered by experienced industry professionals. Our hands-on, practical training will take you from beginner to job-ready in a matter of weeks.

You’ll complete all your projects in GitHub and walk away with a GitHub portfolio showcasing your new coding skills to prospective employers. 

Best of all, our Transform courses come with access to a Career Support Program that helps 97% of graduates land their dream role.

To discuss your transferable skills and course options, speak to a friendly course advisor today and take the first steps toward an exciting new career in tech.