The whole company under version control

by Sashkin / fotolia

A minor fact about the Softwareschneiderei that always evokes surprised reactions is that everything we do is under version control. This should be no surprise for our software development work, as version control is a best practice for about twenty years now. If you aren’t a software developer or unfamiliar with the concept of version control for whatever reasons, here’s a short explanation of its main features:

Summary of version control

Version control systems are used to track the change history of a file or a bunch of files in a way that makes it possible to restore previous versions if needed. Each noteworthy change of a file (or a bunch of files) is stored as a commit, a new savepoint that can be restored. Each commit can be provided with a change note, a short comment that describes the changes made. This results in a timeline of noteworthy changes for each file. All the committed changes are immutable, so you get revision safety of your data for almost no cost.

Usual work style for developers

In software development, each source code file has to be “in a repository”, the repository being the central database for the version control system. The repository is accessible over the network and holds the commits for the project. One of the first lessons a developer has to learn is that source code that isn’t committed to a version control system just doesn’t exist. You have to commit early and you have to commit often. In modern development, commit cycles of a few minutes are usual and necessary. Each development step results in a commit.

What we’ve done is to adopt this work style for our whole company. Every document that we process is stored under version control. If we write you a quote or an invoice, it is stored in our company data repository. If we send you a letter, it was first committed to the repository. Every business analysis spreadsheet, all lists and inventories, everything is stored in a repository.

Examples of usage scenarios

Let me show you two examples:

We have a digital list of all the invoices we sent. It’s nothing but a spreadsheet with the most important data for each invoice. Every time we write an invoice, it is another digital document with all the necessary text and an additional line in the list of invoices. Both changes, the new invoice document and the extended list are included in one commit with a comment that hints to the invoice number and the project number. These changes are now included in the ever-growing timeline of our company data.

We also have a liquidity analysis spreadsheet that needs to be updated often. Every time somebody makes a change to the spreadsheet, it’s a new commit with a comment what was updated. If the update was wrong for whatever reason, we can always backtrack to the spreadsheet content right before that faulty commit and try again. We don’t only have the spreadsheet, but the whole history of how it was filled out, by whom and when.

Advantages of version controlled files

Before we switched to a version controlled work style, we had network shares as the place to store all company data. This is probably the de-facto standard of how important files are handled in many organizations. Adding version control has some advantages:

  • While working with network shares, everybody works on the same file. Most programs show a warning that another user has write access on a file and only opens in read-only mode. But not every program does that and that’s where edit collisions occur without anybody noticing. With version control, you work on a local copy of the file. You can always change the file, but you will get a “merge conflict” when another user has altered the file in the repository after your last synchronization. These merge conflicts are usually minor inconveniences with source code, but a major pain with binary file formats like spreadsheets. So you’ll know about edit collisions and you’ll try to avoid them. How do you avoid them? By planning and communicating your work better. Version control emphasizes the collaborative work setting we all live in.
  • Version controlled data is always traceable. You can pinpoint exactly who did what at which time and why (as stated in the commit comment). There is no doubt about any number in a spreadsheet or any file in your repository. This might sound like a surveillance nightmare, but it’s more of a protection against mishaps and honest errors.
  • Version control lets you review your edits. Every time you commit your work, you’ll see a list of files that you’ve changed. If there is a file that you didn’t know you’ve changed, the version control just saved your ass. You can undo the erroneous change with a simple click. If you’d worked with network shares, this change would have gone unnoticed. With version control, you have to double-check your work.
  • There are no accidental deletions with version control. Because you have every file stored in the repository, you can always undo every delete operation. With network shares, every file lives in the constant fear of the delete key. With version control, you catch your mishap in the commit step and just restore the file.

Summary of the adoption

When we switched to version control for every company data, we just committed our network shares in the repository and started. The work style is a bit inconvenient at first, because it is additional work and needs frequent breaks for the commits, but everybody got used to it very fast. Soon, the advantages began to outweight the inconvenience and now working with our company data is free of fear because we have the safety net of version control.

You want to know more about version control? Feel free to ask!

2 thoughts on “The whole company under version control

  1. Is a spreadsheet really a good tool to track financial expenses, incomes etc. especially in a version-controlled environment? Personally, I find text-based double-entry bookkeeping (e.g. using ledger-cli or one of its many clones) more transparent and in line with what accountants and banks do every day.

    But in any case, big thumbs up for this initiative that – I suppose – pays off quickly and in the long run.

    • Hi Matthias, thank you for your feedback. You are absolutely right that a spreadsheet is not the best way to track financial data on an accountant level. We have external professional bookkeepers for that. Our spreadsheet-based documents are internal analysis or projections that get validated by the official numbers. We wouldn’t dare to do our financial bookkeeping by ourselves. Besides the necessary software, the legal requirements are way too complex.

      So, on a company level, I would suggest to pay a professional accountant/bookkeeper for the job. On a private level, your solution is the way to go. The text-based format of ledger is perfectly suited for version control, so this is a great match.

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