How GitHub Works

GitHub can be a challenge for newcomers; one question often arises - how does the innovative platform actually work under the hood? 

GitHub, the number 1 hub for developers worldwide, has become an integral platform in modern software development. What started out as a tool for easier collaboration among a few coders has now grown into an ecosystem powering millions of projects spanning from open source to enterprise. 

However, despite its widespread adoption, understanding the inner workings of GitHub can be a challenge for newcomers; one question often arises - how does the innovative platform actually work under the hood? 

In this article about how GitHub works, we'll navigate through GitHub's core components, shedding light on its primary functions. From version control to issue tracking and collaboration tools, we'll explore how GitHub empowers software teams to streamline their workflows and enhance productivity.

Key Takeaways 

  • GitHub plays a crucial role in modern software development, serving as a central hub for collaboration and code management across various project scales.
  • Core tools like repositories, commits, branches, and pull requests are fundamental for effective version control and team collaboration on GitHub.
  • GitHub's workflow fosters streamlined processes, transparency, and continuous improvement in software development.

What is GitHub?

GitHub is a web-based platform that provides developers with a centralized hub for storing, sharing, and collaborating on code repositories. Founded in 2008, GitHub offers powerful version control features powered by Git, allowing developers to track changes to their codebase over time. It facilitates collaboration through features such as pull requests, code reviews, and issue tracking, enabling teams to work together efficiently. 

Now that we've defined GitHub, let’s examine the fundamental tools and functionalities that enable it to enhance developer workflows. 

To learn more about Git, check out the blog How Git Works.

GitHub’s Main Features and Tools

In this section, we delve into the backbone of GitHub: its essential management features and collaborative tools.

Core Version Control Features

Below are the powerful version control tools that form the cornerstone of GitHub's functionality:

  1. Repositories: These serve as centralized storage for your codebase, documentation, and more. They are not only backed up and easily shareable but also come with comprehensive access controls to manage who can view or edit the project.
  2. Commits: Think of commits as milestones in your project's timeline. Each commit is a snapshot of your project at a specific point, capturing changes and allowing you to trace the evolution of your code over time.
  3. Branches: Branches exist in parallel with the main project, providing a safe space for developers to work on new features or fix bugs without directly modifying the main code. Changes made in branches do not affect the main project code until they are merged.
  4. Pull Requests: The bridge for collaboration, pull requests enable team members to propose, discuss, and review changes from branches before they are merged into the main codebase. This fosters a culture of peer review and collective improvement.

To learn more about Git Pull, check out this article: How to Force Git Pull to Overwrite Local Files?

GitHub’s Tools for Team Collaboration

Beyond code management functionality, GitHub also has the following integrated tools for improved team workflows:

  1. Issues: GitHub issues act as a versatile platform for tracking bugs, tasks, and enhancements. They link directly to the code, making it easier to tie discussions to specific project elements.
  2. Wikis: Every GitHub repository can have its wiki, allowing teams to create and maintain comprehensive documentation in a centralized location. This ensures that information remains accessible and up to date.
  3. Graphs and Pulse: These visualization tools offer insights into a project's activity, such as contribution patterns and progress over time. They provide a high-level overview, aiding in project management and team coordination.
  4. GitHub Pages: This feature lets users publish websites directly from their repositories. Ideal for project documentation, personal portfolios, or project showcases, GitHub Pages simplifies the process of taking your project to the web.

The GitHub Workflow

GitHub workflow

The GitHub workflow revolves around modifying a codebase housed in a repository, recording those modifications, and then proposing and integrating them into the main project. The typical process follows this general workflow:

  1. Set Up a Repository

To begin, developers create a new repository from scratch or fork an existing repository they have access to. Forking creates a copy of the project under the developer's GitHub account while cloning downloads the repository to the developer's local machine for editing.

  1. Make Changes and Commit

With the repository files available locally, developers can make necessary edits to the code, add or remove files as needed, and more. As changes are made, developers stage them for inclusion in the next commit. Each commit functions as a snapshot recording changes, accompanied by a commit message explaining the what and why of the alterations. Commits capture an evolutionary trail of incremental additions.

  1. Push Changes to GitHub

Thus far, changes exist only on the local clone. To synchronize with the remote repository on GitHub, developers use the git push command to upload recent commits. This ensures an up-to-date development version is centrally available for team members to access.

  1. Open Pull Requests

Here, developers propose that commits be merged back into the canonical project via pull requests. By opening pull requests, they request administrators or teammates to review the changes, provide feedback, approve, and finally integrate the commits. This vital checkpoint ensures the quality of the code.

  1. Repeat for New Changes

The cycle repeats as developers create additional features, bug fixes, and more. Continued iteration with decentralized contributions, simultaneously merging, eventually shapes the software architecture.

Collaborating on GitHub

GitHub provides a suite of features for organizing collaboration around projects in productive and transparent ways:

  1. Issues and Project Boards

Issues provide threaded discussions centered on ideas, enhancements, bugs, or broader task management. Project boards visually track issues as cards sorted into progress columns. This gives a high-level view of the work remaining. Issues facilitate coordination from problem-solving to planning.

  1. Pull Requests and Code Reviews

As outlined in the workflow, pull requests allow for proposed commits to be reviewed before integration. Teammates can provide feedback on code quality, suggest improvements, approve changes, and monitor progress through this crucial process before merging to ensure consistency.

  1. Organizations and Teams

For larger-scale collaboration, organizations contain multiple repositories under one entity. Owners can manage permissions for members and divide them into teams with custom access levels to individual repositories or coding resources.

  1. Wikis and GitHub Pages

To organize institutional knowledge, wikis document processes, guidelines, meeting notes, etc., in one central location tied to the appropriate repositories. GitHub Pages enable effortless publishing of website resources related to projects.

  1. Notifications and Social Features

Notifications alert contributors to relevant activity like issue assignments, PR updates, comments requiring a response, etc. A news feed provides updates across the repositories someone follows. Social aspects streamline awareness.

In these ways, GitHub provides robust tools to connect distributed teams working in tandem.

Additional GitHub Capabilities

Beyond its core features, GitHub continues to expand its ecosystem with the following specialized capabilities:

  • GitHub Actions: GitHub Actions provides infrastructure for automating custom software workflows directly integrated with the repository. For example, developers can set up trigger events to run preset tasks like testing, building, and deploying code without manual intervention. Actions streamline DevOps pipelines.
  • GitHub Packages: GitHub Packages allow users to store and distribute other software assets like Ruby gems or Docker containers. Teams can share these packages privately or publicly, just like coding repositories.
  • GitHub Sponsors: The GitHub Sponsors program enables funding support for open-source project developers. Organizations or individual users can sponsor contributors financially to empower sustainable open-source maintenance from the community.
  • Code Scanning: GitHub has integrated code scanning, which automatically scans code for security vulnerabilities and coding errors. This flags issues like credentials leak early on to prevent repositories compromises. Code scanning integrates with GitHub Actions so scans can be automatically triggered. 


In essence, GitHub has democratized software development, empowering developers to collaborate seamlessly, share knowledge, and collectively build better software. Its impact on the industry cannot be overstated, and it will likely continue to shape the future of software development practices for years to come.

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