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What is GitHub and How Do You Use It?


If you work in IT, are a developer, or work with developers, you’ve probably heard of GitHub. GitHub is one of the most powerful online collaboration tools for developers out there. It helps facilitate the building of some of the most well-known open-source apps and programs.

If you’ve heard of GitHub but aren’t sure what exactly it is, this quick guide is for you. You’ll learn what it is, what it’s used for, major features, and how to get started.

What is GitHub?

GitHub is a repository hosting service for the version control software Git. Wait, what?

It’s essentially an online collaboration platform. It allows members of a team to work on the same project, contribute changes, and keep track of previous versions of that project. GitHub works with Git, so let’s learn what Git is before we go any further.

Git is an open-source version control system that was created in 2005 by the same developer who created the Linux operating system. What is a version control system?

It’s a tool that allows developers working on a project, like an app, to keep track of the constant changes they make to their code. When you’re a developer, keeping previous versions of your project is a must, so you can go back through your code to find the source of any bugs that come up.

With a version control tool like Git, every developer working on a project can see changes others have made, download them to their local device, work on them, and contribute to the project.

What is GitHub used for?

If you have a tool like Git, what do you need GitHub for? You have to use the terminal and send commands to work with Git. It’s a locally based software. GitHub provides Git users with a web-based, graphical user interface (GUI), making it more convenient for online collaboration.

GitHub has many features that make tracking a team project easy and organized. It’s mostly used by developers, but GitHub can also be used with all types of files.

What are GitHub’s features?

  • Repositories: Repositories (or repos) are the storage spaces where your project’s files live. You host the repo either on GitHub or locally on your computer. You usually create one repo per project. You fill it with code files, text files, images, videos, spreadsheets, and data sets. You access your repo with a unique GitHub URL.
  • Forking a repository: “Forking” a repository is making a full copy of it so you can build on it or develop a new project based on it. Anyone on GitHub can create a copy of a repo and start editing to make their own project. Forking is the primary way new projects are inspired and developed on GitHub.
  • Sending pull requests: After you’ve forked a repository or added changes to a branch in a repo, you can send the repository owners a pull request. The request asks the owners to review your changes and merge them into their branch. The pull requests are at the heart of GitHub’s collaboration. They allow people working on new versions of projects to message repo owners directly. You can tag other collaborators in your pull request message to loop them in on your changes as well.
  • Building GitHub profiles: GitHub is a social network as much as a version control hub. Each GitHub user has a profile that shows which projects they’ve worked on or contributed to. The profile functions as a sort of GitHub portfolio that other users can see. This portfolio helps establish trust when someone wants to add to an existing project.
  • Viewing change logs: GitHub tracks all changes made to a project by any of its collaborators. Everyone working on the project knows who changed which file, when, and where they can access those files. This tracking system is what makes GitHub such an appealing choice for teams of developers and coders.

How to get started with GitHub

If you’re new to GitHub or interested in trying it out, getting started is straightforward. The following six steps cover GitHub basics you’ll need to get started. This setup doesn’t require you to install Git, but learning how to use Git would be useful for you in the long run.

1. Create an account

The first thing you need on GitHub is a free account. Set one up at

2. Create a repository

Once you’re signed in, you can create your first repository. In the upper right corner, click on the “+” sign then New repository. Give your repository a name and description and select the option to initialize the repository with a README. The README file will be the first file created in your repository. Then click Create repository.

3. Add a branch

Now that you have a repository, you can create a branch of it. Your first repository has one branch called main. Create and use additional branches to experiment with changes or updates before committing them to this main branch. To create a new branch, go to your new repository and click on the drop-down menu at the top of the file list. Type in a branch name, then click the blue Create branch box.

4. Make updates and commit

You now have the main branch and second branch in your repository. In your new branch, click on the pencil icon in the upper right corner to edit the file. Add some text to the editor and then leave a commit message. A commit message simply describes the changes you’ve made to the file. When you’re done, click the green Commit changes button at the bottom of the screen.

5. Open a pull request

In your repository, click on the Pull Request tab. In the Example Comparisons box, select your edited branch and your main branch for comparison. Review the changes and then click the green Create pull request button. You’ll have to give your pull request a title and description.

6. Merge pull requests

If you are the owner of a repository, you can merge pull requests. Click the green Merge pull request button and once the two branches are merged, you can delete the second branch, as it’s been incorporated into the main branch.

Learning to use GitHub

When you’re working on collaborative projects, GitHub can be an indispensable tool for you and your team. GitHub accepts all types of files, so theoretically, you don’t have to be a developer to use it. You can track versions of a long word processor file, such as a book manuscript. But GitHub is most optimized for teams of developers and coders. If you’ve got a big collaborative project coming up, why not give GitHub a try?

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