The six types of pull requests you see on GitHub

Whether collaborating on code, data, or prose text, there are lots of different strategies for using pull requests on GitHub. I once saw a post that outlined a handful of ways teams use pull requests, that seems to be subsequently lost forever, despite looking high and low. Here’s how I see pull requests used at GitHub:

Just a heads up

How it works: Create a pull request and immediately merge it yourself without others’ review.

When to use it: When you’re making a change so uncontroversial or straight forward that no review is required, but you want to let your teammates know that you’ve made the change. Dependency bumps are a good use case.

Sanity check

How it works: Submit a pull request with a minor change, wait a short period for a sniff-test review, and self merge.

When to use it: When you’ve got a small change, potentially in a part of the codebase outside your area of expertise, and you’d like someone with more experience to provide a quick :+1: before your merge the change.

Work in progress (WIP)

How it works: Prefix the pull request title with WIP:. Optionally add :warning: emoji and “DO NOT MERGE” in bold if you’re ultra-paranoid.

When to use it: When you’ve started a new feature, document, or bug fix, that’s not quite ready for others to review, but you want to let your teammates know that you’re working on the feature. This can be used to prevent the duplication of effort, save work that you’ve started, or complement your team’s workflow.

Early feedback

How it works: Roughly spike out a feature by creating a proof of concept or rough outline that expressed your idea in its final form.

When to use it: When you want feedback on your general approach or the idea itself. Is this a dumb idea? Is there a better way to do this? The content of the pull request exists to convey the idea, and will likely not be the final implementation. This may start as a WIP and may end with a line-by-line review.

Line-by-line review

How it works: Submit a feature-complete pull request and cc relevant teams, asking for their review. Team members will comment line-by-line and re-review as you implement their changes.

When to use it: When you’re ready to :ship: the thing. It may have been started as a work in progress, or for early feedback, but you’ve made it clear that unless you hear otherwise, you’re going to hit merge.

Pull request to a pull request

How it works: You submit a pull request, that instead of requesting a merge into the master branch, requests that its changes be merged into a branch that is the basis of another pull request.

When to use it: When you don’t have write access to the source repository (e.g. open source), and would like to make substantial changes to an existing pull request created by another user. For smaller changes, use line-by-line comments with the proposed code.

Did I miss any? How does your team use pull requests? Submit a pull request or let me know in the comments below.


Prior to GitHub, Ben was a member of the inaugural class of Presidential Innovation Fellows where he served as entrepreneur in residence reimagining the role of technology in brokering the relationship between citizens and government. Ben has also served as a Fellow in the Office of the US Chief Information Officer within the Executive Office of the President where he was instrumental in drafting the President’s Digital Strategy and Open Data Policy, on the SoftWare Automation and Technology (SWAT) Team, the White House’s first and only agile development team, and as a New Media Fellow, in the Federal Communications Commission’s Office of the Managing Director. His paper, Towards a More Agile Government was published in the Public Contract Law Journal, arguing that Federal IT Procurement should be more amenable to modern, agile development methods. More about the author →

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