5 problems stacked diffs address

Greg Foster
Greg Foster
Graphite software engineer

When advocating for the adoption of stacked diffs, one must appreciate the complexity and dynamism of software development, especially in a collaborative setting. The stacked diffs workflow offers a structured and incremental approach to code integration, which is critical for maintaining quality and ensuring continuous progress in development projects. Here’s a compelling case for why learning and implementing stacked diffs is beneficial:

Problem: Traditional pull requests can be massive, encompassing many features or fixes. This can lead to daunting reviews that are often procrastinated, rushed, or worse, superficially checked.

Stacked Diffs Solution: By breaking down changes into smaller, manageable pieces, each diff can be reviewed in isolation, ensuring thoroughness and higher code quality. It’s the difference between digesting a full course meal in small, savory bites versus trying to swallow it whole.

Problem: Waiting for a large pull request to be reviewed can halt progress, leaving developers in a state of limbo.

Stacked Diffs Solution: With stacked diffs, a developer can continue working on subsequent features or fixes without waiting for prior reviews to complete. This continuity reduces downtime and keeps the development momentum going.

Problem: Integrating large changes into a busy main branch can be a nightmare of conflicts and regressions.

Stacked Diffs Solution: Smaller diffs mean simpler rebases and fewer conflicts. When conflicts do arise, they are easier to resolve due to the smaller context. This makes the integration process smoother and less error-prone.

Problem: In monolithic PRs, tracing the origin of a specific change or issue can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Stacked Diffs Solution: Each diff in the stack represents a logical, self-contained change. This granularity enhances traceability, making it easier to pinpoint where a specific change was introduced and who is accountable.

Imagine implementing a new feature that involves backend changes, a new API endpoint, and a new UI component. With stacked diffs, you can:

  1. Submit a diff for the backend changes and have them reviewed and merged quickly.

  2. Base your API changes on the updated backend and submit a second diff.

  3. Finally, stack the UI component diff on top of the API changes.

Each part of the feature is reviewed separately, reducing the cognitive load on reviewers and increasing the likelihood of catching issues.

Problem: Managing dependencies between changes manually can be complex and error-prone.

Stacked Diffs Solution: Tools like Graphite provide dedicated support for stacked diffs, handling the complexity of tracking and updating the stack, allowing developers to focus on writing code rather than managing it.

Stacked diffs represent a strategic shift towards modular, efficient, and quality-centric development. Learning and implementing this workflow can significantly enhance the code review process, reduce integration headaches, and maintain a smooth, uninterrupted development pipeline. It’s a methodology that scales with the complexity of projects and teams, fostering a more organized and professional codebase. By adopting stacked diffs, you align with a modern approach that anticipates and mitigates the challenges of software development, both at present and as your project grows.

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