Getting started with Git

17 Oct 2016

It has come to my attention that a lot of our new and incoming students have not really used Git before. Git’s an incredibly useful tool for software engineering; it’s particularly important for working on group projects.

There are a couple reasons for this:

  • It tracks user contributions and file history, making it easier to figure out when bugs were introduced
  • It allows us to easily maintain different versions of a project with features that are currently in development
  • It makes it easy to combine different subsets of our code.

Let’s get started. On Ubuntu you can install git like so:

sudo apt-get install git

On Windows, the process is barely more complicated. Download Git for windows and add it to your system path. Quick windows command line refresher: to bring up the command prompt, press windows+R, then type “cmd” and press enter. Everything else will be the same after this.

Now, there are a couple million guides that are a Google search away if you want to learn how to use Git with a new repository (see, for example, this one or this one or all these. In this example, I’m going to talk about how to specifically start contributing to one of my projects as an example for how to get things running.

What follows is a brief, high-level guide to how to get started using Git. This is not meant to be comprehensive, and those well-acquainted with git may not love how I use some of these terms. The point here is to get the high-level concepts across for people who have not yet dug into all the details.

Set Up Your Account

You’ll need to create an account on GitHub or whatever other site you are using. For GitHub, create an SSH key as per the instructions here. For GitLab (which we use internally at JHU), the instructions are similar.

Clone The Project

We use git clone to download the project and its history. To clone CoSTAR, for example:

git clone

Now, CoSTAR is a ROS project, which means you clone it into your Catkin workspace. For something else, like this java game, you can clone it wherever seems appropriate. For MATLAB code like this, you would normally clone it into your MATLAB workspace, for example.


Git lets us track code in different branches. For example, if I cd costar_stack, then I can run git branch:

chris@blunderbuss:~/catkin_ws/src/costar_stack$ git branch
* master

This means I am currently on branch master.

When you are starting out, you probably want to create your own branch for whatever feature you will be working on. For example, if I am adding support for the Barrett WAM arm to CoSTAR, I might do this:

git checkout -b barrett-wam

This creates a new branch called barret-wam and moves me into that branch.

In the future, we can switch between branches with git checkout:

git checkout master
git checkout barrett-wam

Making Changes and Pushing

Let’s say I add a new file: In this case, I use the git add command:

git add

This tells Git it should add this file to the set of files it’s currently tracking.

Now I want to commit this change. This actually adds it to my history.

git commit -a

A message will pop up to tell you to enter a message. Try to keep these messages short and sweet, and keep your commits atomic. What that means is that I only change essentially one thing at a time.

We’re not done! Now I’ve added this file to my local history, but I still need to share with others. To do that, I push:

git push origin barret-wam

Substitute barret-wam with whatever your branch is called.

Stay Up To Date

Use the git fetch command to keep your local information up to date. Use git pull to download changes others have made.

Hopefully this helps you get started.

Published on 17 Oct 2016 Find me on Twitter or Github!