How Agile Teams Use Feature Branching

Updated on June 29th, 2022
How Agile Teams Use Feature Branching

Feature branches help developers in agile teams be more flexible with the development process. It allows them to work on a new feature or fix an existing issue independent of the main code line. 

Most version control systems today allow software teams to utilize branches. The naming system of each branch depends on the version control system you use. 

A feature branch allows continuous deployment of bug fixes and new features without any interruption to the primary code base. 

In this article, we go over how an agile team utilizes feature branching strategies for efficient software development. 

Let’s get started. 

Using Feature Branching for Agile Development 

Branching allows developers to collaborate better. Different branches don’t affect each other’s progress. Even with short-lived branches, the code changes within that branch only. 

GIT Flow Feature Branching

Credits: David Estevez

Since each development team has its own individual branches, keeping your codebase stable isn’t an issue. Alternatively, several developers working on the same code create instability and release delays. 

In agile methodology, feature branches also include feature flags. These are toggles that enable and disable features in a product. 

This helps deploy code to the main and develop branch quicker. It also helps activate the feature fast, making it much easier to test and deploy it for the final user. 

Furthermore, the developers and the branches created remain inactive for prolonged periods of time. Regardless of how long it takes to develop the code, it never affects the main codebase. 

If a test fails in a specific release, the system admin reverts the feature flag. That allows the system to go back to one of the earlier versions. Meanwhile, the developers continue to fix and organize code better. 

Best Practices of Feature Branching 

Agile teams use the following best practices to ensure continuous integration and success. 

1. Focus on Communication 

Lack of communication is a major issue in development. However, the agile process focuses on a culture of communication and continuous collaboration. 

Furthermore, creating a regular feedback loop also helps ensure all code goes through continuous peer review. 

A more robust peer review process means a more efficient feature branching process. 

This minimizes merge conflicts, overlap issues, and the chances of merging hell. 

2. Keep a Branch Lifetime Limit 

A good branching strategy always has short-lived feature branches. A greater number of merge operations and rapid integration ensures lesser merge conflicts. 

Whether you’re updating frameworks, tackling bug fixes, or adding new features, your priority needs to be a bug-less release. 

That said, a lot of major releases still have bugs, more so if you merge early. There’s nothing wrong with that if you put feature flags in place so you always have the option to turn the feature off. 

Since each developer has their own branch to work on, it’s a good idea to limit the total number of branches. This helps control and reduce the complexity of the code.

3. Always Use Feature Flags 

It’s important to reiterate the importance of feature flags as part of the development lifecycle. An agile team always uses feature flags because it helps them work faster and with lesser risk. 

With feature flags, every developer on the team merges their code with the source code. The code still goes through a proper review and testing. However, there’s a higher chance of it passing all tests, even if there are minor bugs present. 

It’s up to the backend team to unlock the feature whenever it’s relevant. At times, the end-user gets the option to enable or disable a specific feature. A good example of this includes experimental features that you see in Android developer settings. 

4. Name Feature Branches with a System 

It’s always best to have a proper naming convention when you’re creating multiple feature branches. 

The primary branches include the master, development, and quality assurance branches. However, you have to separate the supporting and temporary branches, including the hotfix, experimental, and feature branches. 

Sticking to the right naming conventions allows teams to keep track of all the branches. 

Furthermore, it helps maintain a more efficient feature branching strategy. 

5. Scope Management 

Project scope is crucial to avoid unnecessary resource wastage. At times, a minor code change doesn’t require a separate feature branch. 

If you create a feature branch for every minor change, it leads to higher costs, slower delivery, and development fatigue. 

Make sure each feature branch’s purpose is clear and represents a major change or addition to the code. 

Other Branches in a Version Control Systems 

Continuous delivery of long-lived feature branches also relies on a number of factors. Before we get into that, you have to learn about other branch types. 

  • Master Branch: The master or main branch is the current codebase in production that passes all the workflow. 
  • Develop Branch: This is where all the feature branches merge; at this point, automated tests start running and the code starts releasing through CI/CD pipelines. 
  • Hotfix Branch: This is when a developer is making a direct change to the master branch; hotfix branches are quick support fixes that don’t affect current development. 
  • Release Branch: Release branches are the final stage where feature branches end up. After verification, this branch merges with the master branch in the next release. 

The master and develop branches are the primary branches while the feature, hotfix, and release branches are the supporting branches.

Benefits of Feature Branches 

When utilizing Git, developers write code on branches. The branch is an extension of the main code that is editable without causing changes to the base code.

When several developers and development teams work with the same code base, issues crop up. Modifying, erasing, or adding code without overlap becomes difficult, thus leading to override of other developers' changes. 

In this case of one central code base, a feature branch allows agile development teams to create a new branch from the master branch. They then make any necessary changes to that feature branch without affecting the main code repository. 

Each developer creates their own feature branch to fix the issue or try out the feature they need. Developers tend to set up a feature branching strategy with automated testing if the bulk of the tasks includes bug fixes. 

However, every development cycle requires code reviews before they move towards merging. Merging is the process of incorporating a successful feature branch change into the main branch. 

Individual branches add pull requests or merge requests after the review. The feature branch then merges with the main branch where you last left the master branch. 

This system allows for multiple production environments and multiple changes while you minimize unknown risks.

Feature Branching: Final Thoughts 

While agile feature branching is an excellent way to ensure development success, there are other ways too. 

A release branching strategy works by creating a development branch that merges into the main branch. However, since many developers are working on the same branch, it is harder to manage. 

There’s also task branching where a project breaks down into individual tasks. Task branches connect issues straight to the source code. Since each issue has a separate branch and name, it improves transparency. 

Whatever branching strategy you use depends on what kind of code and project you’re working with.