The Universe of Discourse


Mon, 19 Jun 2017

Git's rejected push error

On Saturday I posted an article explaining how remote branches and remote-tracking branches work in Git. That article is a prerequisite for this one. But here's the quick summary:

When dealing with a branch (say, master) copied from a remote repository (say, remote), there are three branches one must consider:
  1. The copy of master in the local repository
  2. The copy of master in the remote repository
  3. The local branch origin/master that records the last known position of the remote branch
Branch 3 is known as a “remote-tracking branch”. This is because it tracks the remote branch, not because it is itself a remote branch. Actually it is a local copy of the remote branch. From now on I will just call it a “tracking branch”.

The git-fetch command (green) copies branch (2) to (3).

The git-push command (red) copies branch (1) to (2), and incidentally updates (3) to match the new (2).

The diagram at right summarizes this.

We will consider the following typical workflow:

  1. Fetch the remote master branch and check it out.
  2. Do some work and commit it on the local master.
  3. Push the new work back to the remote.

But step 3 fails, saying something like:

    ! [rejected]        master -> master (fetch first)
    error: failed to push some refs to '../remote/'
    hint: Updates were rejected because the remote contains work that you do
    hint: not have locally. This is usually caused by another repository pushing
    hint: to the same ref. You may want to first integrate the remote changes
    hint: (e.g., 'git pull ...') before pushing again.
    hint: See the 'Note about fast-forwards' in 'git push --help' for details.

In older versions of Git the hint was a little shorter:

    hint: Updates were rejected because the tip of your current branch is behind
    hint: its remote counterpart. Merge the remote changes (e.g. 'git pull')
    hint: before pushing again.
    hint: See the 'Note about fast-forwards' in 'git push --help' for details.

Everyone at some point gets one of these messages, and in my experience it is one of the most confusing and distressing things for beginners. It cannot be avoided, worked around, or postponed; it must be understood and dealt with.

Not everyone gets a clear explanation. (Reading it over, the actual message seems reasonably clear, but I know many people find it long and frighting and ignore it. It is tough in cases like this to decide how to trade off making the message shorter (and perhaps thereby harder to understand) or longer (and frightening people away). There may be no good solution. But here we are, and I am going to try to explain it myself, with pictures.)

In a large project, the remote branch is always moving, as other people add to it, and they do this without your knowing about it. Immediately after you do the fetch in step 1 above, the tracking branch origin/master reflects the state of the remote branch. Ten seconds later, it may not; someone else may have come along and put some more commits on the remote branch in the interval. This is a fundamental reality that new Git users must internalize.

Typical workflow

We were trying to do this:

  1. Fetch the remote master branch and check it out.
  2. Do some work and commit it on the local master.
  3. Push the new work back to the remote.

and the failure occurred in step 3. Let's look at what each of these operations actually does.

1. Fetch the remote master branch and check it out.

git fetch origin master
git checkout master

The black circles at the top represent some commits that we want to fetch from the remote repository. The fetch copies them to the local repository, and the tracking branch origin/master points to the local copy. Then we check out master and the local branch master also points to the local copy.

Branch names like master or origin/master are called “refs”. At this moment all three refs refer to the same commit (although there are separate copies in the two repositories) and the three branches have identical contents.


2. Do some work and commit it on the local master.

edit…
git add …
git commit …

The blue dots on the local master branch are your new commits. This happens entirely inside your local repository and doesn't involve the remote one at all.

But unbeknownst to you, something else is happening where you can't see it. Your collaborators or co-workers are doing their own work in their own repositories, and some of them have published this work to the remote repository. These commits are represented by the red dots in the remote repository. They are there, but you don't know it yet because you haven't looked at the remote repository since they appeared.


3. Push the new work back to the remote.

git push origin master

Here we are trying to push our local master, which means that we are asking the remote repo to overwrite its master with our local one. If the remote repo agreed to this, the red commits would be lost (possibly forever!) and would be completely replaced by the blue commits. The error message that is the subject of this article is Git quite properly refusing to fulfill your request:

    ! [rejected]        master -> master (fetch first)
    error: failed to push some refs to '../remote/'
    hint: Updates were rejected because the remote contains work that you do
    hint: not have locally. This is usually caused by another repository pushing
    hint: to the same ref. You may want to first integrate the remote changes
    hint: (e.g., 'git pull ...') before pushing again.
    hint: See the 'Note about fast-forwards' in 'git push --help' for details.

Let's read through that slowly:

Updates were rejected because the remote contains work that you do not have locally.

This refers specifically to the red commits.

This is usually caused by another repository pushing to the same ref.

In this case, the other repository is your co-worker's repo, not shown in the diagram. They pushed to the same ref (master) before you did.

You may want to first integrate the remote changes (e.g., 'git pull ...') before pushing again.

This is a little vague. There are many ways one could conceivably “integrate the remote changes” and not all of them will solve the problem.

One alternative (which does not integrate the changes) is to use git push -f. The -f is for “force”, and instructs the remote repository that you really do want to discard the red commits in favor of the blue ones. Depending on who owns it and how it is configured, the remote repository may agree to this and discard the red commits, or it may refuse. (And if it does agree, the coworker whose commits you just destroyed may try to feed you poisoned lemonade, so use -f with caution.)

See the 'Note about fast-forwards' in 'git push --help' for details.

To “fast-forward” the remote ref means that your local branch is a direct forward extension of the remote branch, containing everything that the remote branch does, in exactly the same order. If this is the case, overwriting the remote branch with the local branch is perfectly safe. Nothing will be lost or changed, because the local branch contains everything the remote branch already had. The only change will be the addition of new commits at the end.

There are several ways to construct such a local branch, and choosing between them depends on many factors including personal preference, your familiarity with the Git tool set, and the repository owner's policies. Discussing all of this is outside the scope of the article, so I'll just use one as an example: We are going to rebase the blue commits onto the red ones.


4. Refresh the tracking branch.

git fetch origin master

The first thing to do is to copy the red commits into the local repo; we haven't even seen them yet. We do that as before, with git-fetch. This updates the tracking branch with a copy of the remote branch just as it did in step 1.

If instead of git fetch origin master we did git pull --rebase origin master, Git would do exactly the same fetch, and then automatically do a rebase as described in the next section. If we did git pull origin master without --rebase, it would do exactly the same fetch, and then instead of a rebase it would do a merge, which I am not planning to describe. The point to remember is that git pull is just a convenient way to combine the commands of this section and the next one, nothing more.


5. Rewrite the local changes.

git rebase origin/master

Now is the moment when we “integrate the remote changes” with our own changes. One way to do this is git rebase origin/master. This tells Git to try to construct new commits that are just like the blue ones, but instead of starting from the last black commit, the will start from the last red one. (For more details about how this works, see my talk slides about it.) There are many alternatives here to rebase, some quite elaborate, but that is a subject for another article, or several other articles.

If none of the files modified in the blue commits have also been modified in any of the red commits, there is no issue and everything proceeds automatically. And if some of the same files are modified, but only in non-overlapping portions, Git can automatically combine them. But if some of the files are modified in incompatible ways, the rebase process will stop in the middle and asks how to proceed, which is another subject for another article. This article will suppose that the rebase completed automatically. In this case the blue commits have been “rebased onto” the red commits, as in the diagram at right.

The diagram is a bit misleading here: it looks as though those black and red commits appear in two places in the local repository, once on the local master branch and once on the tracking branch. They don't. The two branches share those commits, which are stored only once.

Notice that the command is git rebase origin/master. This is different in form from git fetch origin master or git push origin master. Why a slash instead of a space? Because with git-fetch or git-push, we tell it the name of the remote repo, origin, and the name of the remote branch we want to fetch or push, master. But git-rebase operates locally and has no use for the name of a remote repo. Instead, we give it the name of the branch onto which we want to rebase the new commits. In this case, the target branch is the tracking branch origin/master.


6. Try the push again.

git push origin master

We try the exact same git push origin master that failed in step 3, and this time it succeeds, because this time the operation is a “fast-forward”. Before, our blue commits would have replaced the red commits. But our rewritten local branch does not have that problem: it includes the red commits in exactly the same places as they are already on the remote branch. When the remote repository replaces its master with the one we are pushing, it loses nothing, because the red commits are identical. All it needs to do is to add the blue commits onto the end and then move its master ref forward to point to the last blue commit instead of to the last red commit. This is a “fast-forward”.

At this point, the push is successful, and the git-push command also updates the tracking branch to reflect that the remote branch has moved forward. I did not show this in the illustration.

But wait, what if someone else had added yet more commits to the remote master while we were executing steps 4 and 5? Wouldn't our new push attempt fail just like the first one did? Yes, absolutely! We would have to repeat steps 4 and 5 and try a third time. It is possible, in principle, to be completely prevented from pushing commits to a remote repo because it is always changing so quickly that you never get caught up on its current state. Repeated push failures of this type are sign that the project is large enough that repository's owner needs to set up a more structured code release mechanism than “everyone lands stuff on master whenever they feel like it”.


An earlier draft of this article ended at this point with “That is all I have to say about this.” Ha!

Unavoidable problems

Everyone suffers through this issue at some point or another. It is tempting to wonder if Git couldn't somehow make it easier for people to deal with. I think the answer is no. Git has multiple, distributed repositories. To abandon that feature would be to go back to the dark ages of galley slaves, smallpox, and SVN. But if you have multiple distributed anythings, you must face the issue of how to synchronize them. This is intrinsic to distributed systems: two components receive different updates at the same time, and how do you reconcile them?

For reasons I have discussed before, it does not appear possible to automate the reconciliation in every case in a source code control system, because sometimes the reconciliation may require going over to a co-worker's desk and arguing for two hours, then calling in three managers and the CTO and making a strategic decision which then has to be approved by a representative of the legal department. The VCS is not going to do this for you.

I'm going to digress a bit and then come back to the main point. Twenty-five years ago I taught an introductory programming class in C. The previous curriculum had tried hard to defer pointers to the middle of the semester, as K&R does (chapter 7, I think). I decided this was a mistake. Pointers are everywhere in C and without them you can't call scanf or pass an array to a function (or access the command-line arguments or operate on strings or use most of the standard library or return anything that isn't a number…). Looking back a few years later I wrote:

Pointers are an essential part of [C's] solution to the data hiding problem, which is an essential issue. Therefore, they cannot be avoided, and in fact should be addressed as soon as possible. … They presented themselves in the earliest parts of the material not out of perversity, but because they were central to the topic.

I developed a new curriculum that began treating pointers early on, as early as possible, and which then came back to them repeatedly, each time elaborating on the idea. This was a big success. I am certain that it is the right way to do it.

(And I've been intending since 2006 to write an article about K&R's crappy discussion of pointers and how its deficiencies and omissions have been replicated down the years by generation after generation of C programmers.)

I think there's an important pedagogical principle here. A good teacher makes the subject as simple as possible, but no simpler. Many difficult issues, perhaps most, can be ignored, postponed, hidden, prevaricated, fudged, glossed over, or even solved. But some must be met head-on and dealt with, and for these I think the sooner they are met and dealt with, the better.

Push conflicts in Git, like pointers in C, are not minor or peripheral; they are an intrinsic and central issue. Almost everyone is going to run into push conflicts, not eventually, but right away. They are going to be completely stuck until they have dealt with it, so they had better be prepared to deal with it right away.

If I were to write a book about Git, this discussion would be in chapter 2. Dealing with merge conflicts would be in chapter 3. All the other stuff could wait.

That is all I have to say about this. Thank you for your kind attention, and thanks to Sumana Harihareswara and AJ Jordan for inspiration.


[Other articles in category /prog] permanent link

Sat, 17 Jun 2017

Git remote branches and Git's missing terminology

Beginning and even intermediate Git users have several common problem areas, and one of these is the relationship between remote and local branches. I think the basic confusion is that it seems like there ought to be two things, the remote branch and the local one, and you copy back and forth between them. But there are not two but three, and the Git documentation does not clearly point this out or adopt clear terminology to distinguish between the three.

Let's suppose we have a remote repository, which could be called anything, but is typically named origin. And we have a local repository which has no name; it's just the local repo. And let's suppose we're working on a branch named master, as one often does.

There are not two but three branches of interest, and they might all be pointing to different commits:

  1. The branch named master in the local repo. This is where we do our work and make our commits. This is the local branch. It is at the lower left in the diagram.

  2. The branch named master in the remote repo. This is the remote branch, at the top of the diagram. We cannot normally see this at all because it is (typically) on another computer and (typically) requires a network operation to interact with it. So instead, we mainly deal with…

  3. The branch named origin/master in the local repo. This is the tracking branch, at the lower right in the diagram.

    We never modify the tracking branch ourselves. It is automatically maintained for us by Git. Whenever Git communicates with the remote repo and learns something about the disposition of the remote master branch, it updates the local branch origin/master to reflect what it has learned.

I think this triangle diagram is the first thing one ought to see when starting to deal with remote repositories and with git-fetch and git-push.

The Git documentation often calls the tracking branch the “remote-tracking branch”. It is important to understand that the remote-tracking branch is a local branch in the local repository. It is called the “remote-tracking” branch because it tracks the state of the remote branch, not because it is itself remote. From now on I will just call it the “tracking branch”.

Now let's consider a typical workflow:

  1. We use git fetch origin master. This copies the remote branch master from the remote repo to the tracking branch origin/master in the local repo. This is the green arrow in the diagram.

    If other people have added commits to the remote master branch since our last fetch, now is when we find out what they are. We can compare the local branch master with the tracking branch origin/master to see what is new. We might use git log origin/master to see the new commits, or git diff origin/master to compare the new versions of the files with the ones we had before. These commands do not look at the remote branch! They look at the copy of the remote branch that Git retrieved for us. If a long time elapses between the fetch and the compare, the actual remote branch might be in a completely different place than when we fetched at it.

    (Maybe you use pull instead of fetch. But pull is exactly like fetch except that it does merge or rebase after the fetch completes. So the process is the same; it merely combines this step and the next step into one command. )

  2. We decide how to combine our local master with origin/master. We might use git merge origin/master to merge the two branches, or we might use git rebase origin/master to copy our new local commits onto the commits we just fetched. Or we could use git reset --hard origin/master to throw away our local commits (if any) and just take the ones on the tracking branch. There are a lot of things that could happen here, but the blue arrow in the diagram shows the general idea: we see new stuff in origin/master and update the local master to include that new stuff in some way.

  3. After doing some more work on the local master, we want to publish the new work. We use git push origin master. This is the red arrow in the diagram. It copies the local master to the remote master, updating the remote master in the process. If it is successful, it also updates the tracking branch origin/master to reflect the new position of the remote master.

In the last step, why is there no slash in git push origin master? Because origin/master is the name of the tracking branch, and the tracking branch is not involved. The push command gets two arguments: the name of the remote (origin) and the branch to push (master) and then it copies the local branch to the remote one of the same name.

Deleting a branch

How do we delete branches? For the local branch, it's easy: git branch -d master does it instantly.

For the tracking branch, we include the -r flag: git branch -d -r origin/master. This deletes the tracking branch, and has no effect whatever on the remote repo. This is a very unusual thing to do.

To delete the remote branch, we have to use git-push because that is the only way to affect the remote repo. We use git push origin :master. As is usual with a push, if this is successful Git also deletes the tracking branch origin/master.

This section has glossed over an important point: git branch -d master does not delete the master branch, It only deletes the ref, which is the name for the branch. The branch itself remains. If there are other refs that refer to it, it will remain as long as they do. If there are no other refs that point to it, it will be deleted in due course, but not immediately. Until the branch is actually deleted, its contents can be recovered.

Hackery

Another way to delete a local ref (whether tracking or not) is just to go into the repository and remove it. The repository is usually in a subdirectory .git of your working tree, and if you cd .git/refs you can see where Git records the branch names and what they refer to. The master branch is nothing more nor less than a file heads/master in this directory, and its contents are the commit ID of the commit to which it refers. If you edit this commit ID, you have pointed the ref at a different commit. If you remove the file, the ref is gone. It is that simple.

Tracking branches are similar. The origin/master ref is in .git/refs/remotes/origin/master.

The remote master branch, of course, is not in your repository at all; it's in the remote repository.

Poking around in Git's repository is fun and rewarding. (If it worries you, make another clone of the repo, poke around in the clone, and throw it away when you are finished poking.) Tinkering with the refs is a good place to start Git repo hacking: create a couple of branches, move them around, examine them, delete them again, all without using git-branch. Git won't know the difference. Bonus fun activity: HEAD is defined by the file .git/HEAD. When you make a new commit, HEAD moves forward. How does that work?

There is a gitrepository-layout manual that says what else you can find in the repository.

Failed pushes

We're now in a good position to understand one of the most common problems that Git beginners face: they have committed some work, and they want to push it to the remote repository, but Git says

      ! [rejected]        master -> master (fetch first)
      error: failed to push some refs to 'remote'
      something something fast-forward, whatever that is

My article explaining this will appear here on Monday. (No, I really mean it.)

Terminology problems

I think one of the reasons this part of Git is so poorly understood is that there's a lack of good terminology in this area. There needs to be a way to say "the local branch named master” and “the branch named master in the remote named origin” without writing a five- or nine-word phrase every time. The name origin/master looks like it might be the second of these, but it isn't. The documentation uses the descriptive but somewhat confusing term “remote-tracking branch” to refer to it. I think abbreviating this to “tracking branch” would tend to clear things up more than otherwise.

I haven't though of a good solution to the rest of it yet. It's tempting to suggest that we should abbreviate “the branch named master in the remote named origin” to something like “origin:master” but I think that would be a disaster. It would be too easy to confuse with origin/master and also with the use of the colon in the refspec arguments to git-push. Maybe something like origin -> master that can't possibly be mistaken for part of a shell command and that looks different enough from origin/master to make clear that it's related but not the same thing.

Git piles yet another confusion on this:

    $ git checkout master 
    Branch master set up to track remote branch master from origin.

This sounds like it has something to with the remote-tracking branch, but it does not! It means that the local branch master has been associated with the remote origin so that fetches and pushes that pertain to it will default to using that remote.

I will think this over and try to come up with something that sucks a little less. Suggestions are welcome.


[Other articles in category /prog] permanent link

Thu, 15 Jun 2017

Base-4 fractions in Telugu

Rik Signes brought to my attention that since version 5.1 Unicode has contained the following excitingly-named characters:

    0C78 ౸ TELUGU FRACTION DIGIT ZERO FOR ODD POWERS OF FOUR
    0C79 ౹ TELUGU FRACTION DIGIT ONE FOR ODD POWERS OF FOUR
    0C7A ౺ TELUGU FRACTION DIGIT TWO FOR ODD POWERS OF FOUR
    0C7B ౻ TELUGU FRACTION DIGIT THREE FOR ODD POWERS OF FOUR

    0C7C ౼ TELUGU FRACTION DIGIT ONE FOR EVEN POWERS OF FOUR
    0C7D ౽ TELUGU FRACTION DIGIT TWO FOR EVEN POWERS OF FOUR
    0C7E ౾ TELUGU FRACTION DIGIT THREE FOR EVEN POWERS OF FOUR

I looked into this a little and found out what they are for. It makes a lot of sense! The details were provided by “Telugu Measures and Arithmetic Marks” by Nāgārjuna Venna.

Telugu is the third-most widely spoken language in India, spoken mostly in the southeast part of the country. Traditional Telugu units of measurement are often divided into four or eight subunits. For example, the tūmu is divided into four kuṁcamulu, the kuṁcamulu, into four mānikalu, and the mānikalu into four sōlalu.

These days they mainly use liters like everyone else. But the traditional measurements are mostly divided into fours, so amounts are written with a base-10 integer part and a base-4 fractional part. The characters above are the base-4 fractional digits.

To make the point clearer, I hope, let's imagine that we are using the Telugu system, but with the familar western-style symbols 0123456789 instead of the Telugu digits ౦౧౨౩౪౫౬౭౮౯. (The Telugu had theirs first of course.) And let's use 0-=Z as our base-four fractional digits, analogous to Telugu ౦౼౽౾. (As in Telugu, we'll use the same zero symbol for both the integer and the fractional parts.) Then to write the number of gallons (7.4805195) in a cubic foot, we say

7.-Z=Z0

which is 7 gallons plus one (-) quart plus three (Z) cups plus two (=) quarter-cups plus three (Z) tablespoons plus zero (0) drams, a total of 7660 drams almost exactly. Or we could just round off to 7.=, seven and a half gallons.

(For the benefit of readers who might be a bit rusty on the details of these traditional European measurements, I should mention that there are four drams in a tablespoon, four tablespoons in a quarter cup, four quarter cups in a cup, four cups in a quart, and four quarts in a gallon, so 4⁵ = 1024 drams in a gallon and 7.4805195·4⁵ = 7660.052 drams in a cubic foot. Note also that these are volume (fluid) drams, not mass drams, which are different.)

We can omit the decimal point (as the Telegu did) and write

7-Z=Z0

and it is still clear where the integer part leaves off and the fraction begins, because we are using special symbols for the fractional part. But no, this isn't quite enough, because if we wrote 20ZZ= it might not be clear whether we meant 20.ZZ= or 2.0ZZ=.

So the system has an elaboration. In the odd positions, we don't use the 0-=Z symbols; we use Q|HN instead. And we don't write 7-Z=Z0, we write

7|ZHZQ

This is always unambiguous: 20.ZZ= is actually written 20NZH and 2.0ZZ= is written 2QZN=, quite different.

This is all fanciful in English, but Telugu actually did this. Instead of 0-=Z they had ౦౼౽౾ as I mentioned before. And instead of Q|HN they had ౸౹౺౻. So if the Telugu were trying to write 7.4805195, where we had 7|ZHZQ they might have written ౭౹౾౺౾౸. Like us, they then appended an abbreviation for the unit of measurement. Instead of “gal.” for gallon they might have put ఘ (letter “gha”), so ౭౹౾౺౾౸ఘ. It's all reasonably straightforward, and also quite sensible. If you have ౭౹౾౺ tūmu, you can read off instantly that there are ౺ (two) sōlalu left over, just as you can see that $7.43 has three pennies left over.

Notice that both sets of Telugu fraction digits are easy to remember: the digits for 3 have either three horizonal strokes ౾ or three vertical strokes ౻, and the others similarly.

I have an idea that the alternating vertical-horizontal system might have served as an error-detection mechanism: if a digit is omitted, you notice right away because the next symbol is wrong.

I find this delightful. A few years back I read all of The Number Concept: Its Origin and Development (1931) by Levi Leonard Conant, hoping to learn something really weird, and I was somewhat disappointed. Conant spends most of his book describing the number words and number systems used by dozens of cultures and almost all of them are based on ten, and a few on five or twenty. (“Any number system which passes the limit 10 is reasonably sure to have either a quinary, a decimal, or a vigesimal structure.”) But he does not mention Telugu!


[Other articles in category /math] permanent link

Wed, 07 Jun 2017

Annual self-evaluation time, woo-hoo!

It's annual performance evaluation time at my employer, ZipRecruiter, and as part of that I have to write a self-evaluation. I know many people dread these, and I used to dread them, but these days I like doing it. Instead of being a torture or even a chore, for the last couple of years I have come out of it feeling much better about my job and my performance than I went in.

I think that is about 20% because my company does it in a good way, 30% because it suits my personality, and 50% because I have learned how to handle it well. The first half of that might not help you much, but if you're an evaluation loather, you might be able to transfer some of the second half and make it a little less horrible for yourself.

How ZipRecruiter does self-evaluations

I will get this out of the way because it's quick. ZipRecruiter does these evaluations in a way that works well for me. They do not pester me with a million questions. They ask only four, which are roughly:

  1. What were your main accomplishments this year?
  2. Describe areas you feel require improvement.
  3. What do you hope to accomplish in the coming year?
  4. How can your manager help you?

I very much appreciate this minimalist approach. It gets right to the point, covers all the important issues and nothing more. None of these questions feels to me like a meaningless bureaucratism or a waste of time.

Answering the questions thoroughly takes (only) two or three hours, but would take less if I didn't write such detailed answers; I'm sure I could write an acceptable report in an hour. I can see going in that it will be a finite process.

Why this suits my personality well

If you have followed this blog for a while, you may have noticed that I like writing essays, particularly essays about things I have been working on or thinking about. ZipRecruiter's self-evaluation process invites me to write a blog post about my year's work. This is not everyone's cup of tea, but it is right up my alley. Tea alley. Hee hee.

My brain has problems

My big problems with writing a self-evaluation are first, that I have a very poor memory, and second, that I think of myself as a lazy slacker who spends a lot of time goofing off and who accomplishes very little. These combine badly at evaluation time.

In the past, I would try to remember what work I did in the previous year so I could write it up. My memory is poor, so I wouldn't remember most of what I had done, and then it was easy to come to the conclusion that I had not done very much, probably because I was a lazy slacker whose spent a lot of time goofing off. I would go through several iterations of this, until, tormented by guilt and self-hatred, I would write that into the self-evaluation. This is not a practice I would recommend.

If there were two projects, A and B, and I promptly finished A but B dragged on and was running late, which one would I be more likely to remember when the time came to write the self-evaluation report? B, of course. It was still on my mind because I spent so long thinking about it and because it was still in progress. But I had forgotten about A immediately after putting it to rest. Since I could remember only the unfinished projects, I would conclude that I was a lazy slacker who never finished anything, and write that into the self-evaluation. This is also a a practice I recommend you avoid.

The ticketing system is my bionic brain

The way I have been able to escape this horrible trap is by tracking every piece of work I do, every piece, as a ticket in our ticketing system. People often come to me and ask me to do stuff for them, and I either write up a ticket or I say “sure, write me a ticket”. If they ask why I insist on the ticket (they usually don't), I say it's because when self-evaluation time comes around I want to be able to take credit for working on their problem. Everyone seems to find this reasonable.

Then, when it's time to write the self-evaluation, the first thing I do is visit the ticket website, select all my tickets from the past year, and sort them into chronological order. I look over the list of ticket titles and make a list of stuff that might be worth mentioning on the evaluation. I will have forgotten about three-fourths of it. If I didn't have the list in the ticketing system, I would only remember the most recent one-fourth and conclude that I spent three-fourths of my time goofing off because I am a lazy slacker. Instead, there is this long list of the year's accomplishments, too many to actually include in the report.

Well, this is not rocket science. One is called upon to describe the year's accomplishments. Even people with better memory than me surely cannot remember all this without keeping records, can they? Anyway I surely cannot, so I must keep records and then consult them when the time comes. Put that way, it seems obvious. Why did it take so long to figure out? But there are a lot of happy little details that were not so obvious.

  • Instead of thinking “Why didn't I finish big project X? I must have been goofing off. What a lazy slacker I am” I think “holy cow, I resolved 67 tickets related to big project X! That is great progress! No wonder I got hardly anything else done last fall” and also “holy cow, X has 78 resolved tickets and 23 still open. It is huge! No wonder it is not finished yet.”

    Writing “I completed 67 tickets related to X” is a lot more concrete than “I worked hard on X”. If you are neurotic in the way I am, and concerned that you might be a lazy slacker, it feels much more persuasive. I have an idea that it sounds better to my boss also, particularly if he were to be called upon to discuss it with his manager. (“Under my leadership, Mark completed 67 tickets related to X!”) Andy Lester says that your job is to make your boss happy, and that means making it easy for him to do his job, which is to make his boss happy. So this is no small thing.

  • Instead of thinking “Gee, the CTO declared top priority initiative Y, and while everyone else was working hard on it I mostly ignored it because I am a lazy slacker” I might see that I have tagged 9 tickets “top priority initiative Y”. Then on the report, I proudly boast “I completed 9 tickets in support of the CTO's mandate, including (most important one) and (most impressive one).” This also comes under the heading of “make it easy for your boss to do his job”.

  • Instead of completely forgetting that I did project Z, I see the tickets and can put it in my report.

  • Instead of remembering awful project W, which dragged on for months, and thinking what a lazy slacker I was because I couldn't get it done, I have a progress record in the ticket and the details might suggest a different interpretation: Project W sucked, but I nevertheless pursued it doggedly to completion, even though it took months.

  • I might remember that I once helped Jones, but what did I help him with? Did I really spend much time on him? Without looking at the ticket list, I might not realize that I helped Jones every few weeks all year long. This sort of pattern is often apparent only in the retrospective summary. With the ticket system, instead of “oh, Jones sometimes asks me questions, I guess” I can see that supporting Jones was an ongoing thing and he kept coming back. This goes into the report: “I provided ongoing support to Jones, including (some cherry-picked example that makes me look especially good).”

  • One question (#2) on the report form is “Describe areas you feel require improvement”. If I wrote in last year's report that I would like to improve at doing X, I can look in the ticket system for specific evidence that I might have improved, even if I wasn't consciously trying to improve X at the time. Probably there is something somewhere that can at least be spun as an attempt to improve at X. And if it didn't actually improve X, I can still ask myself why it didn't and what might work instead, and put that in the report as something to try next time, which is question #3.

    Hey, look at that, I am evaluating my prior performance and making informed corrections. That might be a useful practice. Wouldn't it be great if I took time every so often to do that? Some sort of periodic self-evaluation perhaps?

  • Another question (#3) is “What would you like to do in the coming year?” If I wrote in last year's report said “I would like to do more of X” I can look for evidence that I did do that, and then write it into this year's report: “Last year I said I would try to do more of X, and I did.”

  • Even if I were having a bad year and got very little done—and this has happened—having a list of the stuff I did get done leaves me in a much better position to write the report than not having such a list.

None of this good stuff would be possible without an actual record of what I did. If there weren't a ticketing system, I would have to invent one or maybe tattoo it on my chest like the guy in Memento. Even aside from its use in writing annual self-evaluations, keeping a work diary is crucial for me, because without it I can't remember day-to-day what I am working on and what needs to happen next. And even for people with better memory than me, are they really going to remember all 317 things they did for work this year, or that 67 of them pertained to big project X? If they can that's great but I doubt it.

Keeping a work record is part of my job

I think it is important to maintain the correct attitude to this. It would be easy to imagine ticket management as unproductive time that I wasted instead of accomplishing something useful. This is wrong. The correct attitude is to consider ticket updates to be part of my work product: I produce code. I produce bug fixes. I produce documentation, reports, and support interactions. And I also produce ticket updates. This is part of my job and while I am doing it I am not goofing off, I am not procrastinating, I am doing my job and earning my salary. If I spent the whole day doing nothing but updating tickets, that would be a day well-spent.

Compare “I produce ticket updates” with “I produce unit tests”. The attitude for ticket updates is the same as for testing. When something happens in a project, I update the ticket, because keeping the tickets updated is part of the project, just like writing tests is. An organization that fails to support ticket updates is broken in the same way as one that fails to support test development.

My boss gets email every time I update a ticket. I don't know if he reads these, but he has the option to, and I don't need to worry as much that maybe he thinks I am a lazy slacker who is goofing off, because he is getting a stream of automatic notifications about what I am up to. I'm not my boss but if I were I would appreciate this very much.

Maybe some of this can help you?

There might be some use in this even for people who aren't already in the habit of writing self-absorbed blog posts.

If doing the annual self-evaluation makes you suffer, maybe it would help to practice writing some blog posts. You don't have to publish them or show anyone. Next time you finish a project, set aside thirty or sixty minutes to try to write up a little project report: What worked, what didn't, what are you pleased about, what was surprising, what was fun, what was annoying? I'm not certain this will help but it seems like this is a skill that might get easier with practice, and then when you have to write your annual self-evaluation it might be easier because you have more practice doing it. Also, you would have a little file of material to draw on and would not have to start from zero.

If your employer's process requires you to fill in some giant questionnaire, it might be easier to do if you go into it with answers to the four basic questions prepared ahead of time. (I imagine that it's even possible that if you address the four big questions and ignore everything on the giant questionnaire that doesn't pertain to them, everyone will be perfectly satisfied and nobody will notice the omissions.)

And keep a work diary! Tattoo it on your chest if you have to. If it seems daunting, realize that you don't have to do it all at once. Keeping a work diary of some sort is forgiving in the same way as writing unit tests:

  • It's not all-or-nothing, you don't have to test every piece of code to get any benefit from testing. If you write tests for 1% of the code, you get about 1% of the benefit, and you can ramp up.

  • If you break your test-writing streak you don't have to start over from zero. If you didn't write any tests for the code you wrote last week, that's a shame, but it doesn't affect the benefit you can get from writing a unit test for whatever you're working on today.

The work diary is similar. When time comes to write your evaluation, a small and incomplete record is better than no record at all. If you forget to write in the diary for a month, that's a shame, but it doesn't affect the benefit you can get from writing down today what you did today.

Our ticketing system

This isn't important, but I expect someone will want to know: At work we use FogBugz. Some of my co-workers dislike it but I have no major complaints. If you want to try it on your own, they have a seven-day free trial offer, after which you can sign up for a permanent free account that supports up to two users. I am experimenting with using a free tier account to manage my personal to-do list.

Coming soon

I wrote another 2,000 words about my specific practices for managing tickets. I hope it'll be along in a few days.


[Other articles in category /misc] permanent link