BEFORE YOU BEGIN
This guide builds on the foundation laid by these presentations:
- Contributing to Bitcoin Core, a personal account by John Newbery (2017)
- A Gentle Introduction to Bitcoin Core Development by Jimmy Song (2017)
- Understanding the Technical Side of Bitcoin by Pierre Rochard (2018)
- A hardCORE workout / transcript / slides by Jeremy Rubin (2018)
"Reviewing is the most effective way you can contribute as a new contributor (and also will teach you much more about the code than opening PRs)"
— John Newbery, Bitcoin Core PR Review meeting, September 4, 2019 at 13:52
Reviewing and testing can be the best ways to begin contributing to Bitcoin Core.
Experienced review and testing are regularly cited by long-term Bitcoin Core developers as both
- resource bottlenecks, and
- the best and most helpful way to begin contributing and earning reputation in the community.
Yet the process and learning curve can seem intimidating and in practice very few new contributors do it.
As a newcomer, this article represents my understanding after a few months, a couple hundred PRs reviewed, a few issues tested or handled, and a few dozen commits.
Some of this understanding was gained from
- contributing to a large open source project, Ruby on Rails, and co-editing its blog and newsletter, This Week in Rails
- development and lead maintainership of Ransack, a popular Ruby search engine
- daily discussions on this topic of mutual interest with my good friend and colleague, Kasper Timm Hansen, a developer at Basecamp and since 2016 a member of the Ruby on Rails Core Team.
Yet much of it is unique to Bitcoin Core and came only with time. I would have preferred to know these things from the start.
PR: An acronym for pull request, sometimes called a merge request. A proposed change to the code or documentation in the source code repository.
WIP: An acronym for work in progress.
As a newcomer, the goal is to try to add value, with friendliness and humility, while learning as much as possible.
A good approach is to make it not about you, but rather "How can I best serve?"
One of the most challenging aspects facing new contributors is the breadth of the codebase and the complexities of the technologies surrounding it.
Be aware of what you don’t know; long-term contributors have years of experience and context. The community has built up a deep collective wealth of knowledge and experience. Keep in mind that your new ideas may have already been proposed or considered several times in the past.
Remember that contributor and maintainer resources are limited — ask for them carefully and respectfully. The goal is to try to give more than you take, to help more than hinder, while getting up to speed.
Try to figure things out on your own, at least sufficiently to respect others' time.
More IRC channels to follow can be found here.
Before jumping in, take plenty of time to:
- understand the contribution process and guidelines, not only by reading the documentation in the repository, notably Contributing to Bitcoin Core and everything in the doc and test directories, but also by observing interactions on the #bitcoin-core-dev IRC channel and the ongoing code review in the repository
- get to know the maintainers and regular contributors: what they do, what they like and want, how they give feedback
Participate in the excellent Bitcoin Core PR Review Club weekly meetings on IRC. The club was launched in May 2019 by John Newbery. You'll benefit the most if you prepare for each meeting in advance by studying, building, and testing the PR under review — and then actually reviewing it! Go through the notes, questions, and logs of the previous meetings; there is gold in there.
Many newcomers begin by opening pull requests that add to the hundreds already awaiting valuable review. In many cases, it may be better to begin by reviewing the existing pull requests and starting to understand what kind of pull requests and review are most helpful, while slowly gaining the big picture.
The big picture
The big picture is more important than nits, spelling, or code style.
Steps to improve understanding of the big picture:
- do the Chaincode Labs study guide
- read and do Programming Bitcoin
- study the Bitcoin Improvement Proposals (often referred to in singular form by the acronym "BIP"), and return to them frequently
- subscribe to the Bitcoin Optech newsletters and read their Scaling Book
- do Learning Bitcoin from the Command Line
Aim for quality over quantity and a balance between deep work and quick wins.
Documentation is important, e.g. high-level documentation of how
things work and interact, clear and accurate code docs, whether
a function has a good description and
test logging (both
and so on.
Be a contributor. Help PRs move forward by reviewing, proposing tests or fixes in a helpful way, proposing to rebase, or even offering to take over the PR after months of silence. In short, help each other!
Try to avoid overly commenting in PRs about nits, minutiae and code style, particularly with PRs labeled as WIP, or when a PR has just been filed and the PR author is mainly looking for Concept ACKs and Approach ACKs, e.g. general consensus, not nitpicking.
Long-term contributors report that activity like this repels them, and it can diminish your social capital on the project. Try to understand what kind of review is needed and when to do what.
The best time for any nit comments is after the Concept/Approach ACKs and consensus on the PR, and before the PR is finalised and has tested ACKs.
Give nits and style advice in a friendly, light, enabling way — as in, feel free to ignore, feel free to adjust if you happen to rebase, etc.
Keep in mind that no one is forced to take your review comments into account; it's perfectly fine for the author to reply that they don't want to do something if they feel it is outside the scope of the change, especially if your comment is nitpicky.
When you can, scale up the difficulty and priority of the PRs you review.
You can add more value and learn more by taking the time to do deep, quality review of the high-priority PRs and the more difficult PRs. These PRs tend to intimidate people and can stagnate for months, killing their author's motivation with death by a thousand cuts from lack of quality review, nitpicking/code style bikeshedding, and rebase hell. Reviewing them well provides a true service to Bitcoin.
The process of ramping up takes time; nothing can substitute for months and years invested in gathering context and understanding from following the code, issues, pull requests, #bitcoin-core-dev IRC channel, and the bitcoin-dev mailing list.
Step by step
Keep ego and hopes out of the process. Don't take things personally and keep moving forward.
When in doubt, assume good intentions.
Be patient with people and outcomes.
Persistence helps. Work on it every day.
These are all much easier said than done. Be forgiving with yourself and others.
- A good rule of thumb is to review 5-15 PRs for each PR you make
- Start small
- Have a plan, don't spread yourself too thin
- Sharpen your tools
- Ask for and offer help, like rebasing for people or adding test cases
- People are generous with their time because they care
- Contribute by understanding what others want and being respectful
Don't trust, verify. Minimise dependance on GitHub in your review process. Use the GitHub website only for the GitHub metadata, e.g. reading comments and adding your own comments — not for reviewing the commits and code, which you should do in your local environment.
Pull down the code locally
Therefore, a review begins by pulling the PR branch down to your computer to build and review locally. There are different ways to do it depending on what you want, your needs, disk space, internet bandwidth, etc. Here are a few:
Pulling down remote PRs with
git checkout pr/<number>as described in this nice little gist which can be modified to suit your needs.
fetch = +refs/pull/*/head:refs/remotes/origin/pr/*
Bitcoin Core contributor Luke Dashjr's version: "To avoid all
the merge branches, configure the origin-pull remote as":
fetch = +refs/pull/*/head:refs/remotes/origin-pull/*/head
- Bitcoin Core documentation for referencing PRs easily with refspecs.
as branches on the upstream repository with
pull/<number>/head(contributor branch) and
pull/<number>/merge(merged into master), e.g.
git fetch origin pull/17283/head && git checkout FETCH_HEAD. That said, I prefer to depend as little as possible on GitHub.
You can test a PR either on the contributor's branch or with the changes merged on top of master. Testing the latter can be useful to see if anything merged into master since the last PR commit breaks the changes.
Next, launch the build and tests while you begin reading the code locally. You'll need to become comfortable with compiling Bitcoin Core from source and running the unit tests and functional tests since you will need to do it for many of the PRs you test. For this, the Bitcoin Core productivity notes are indispensable.
Read and know the Bitcoin Core developer notes.
While the build and tests are running, begin reviewing each commit separately in your local environment using a diff tool like gitk, meld, meld for macOS, GNU ediff for Emacs, vimdiff or vim-diffconflicts for Vim, opendiff on macOS, or diffoscope (here are some diffoscope usage tips).
If you use gitk and like dark mode, I recommend Dracula for gitk.
Become adept at searching the repository with
git grep. You'll use it constantly to find stuff
in the codebase. Run
git grep --help on the command line for help or
If you're not sure where to start
Read the code, read the PR comments, then re-read both. Find something that doesn't make sense and try to figure it out. Repeat.
Once it all starts to make sense, run bitcoind on testnet (or on
mainnet with very small amounts), and tail or search through the
relevant logs (run
bitcoin-cli help logging for the various bitcoind
logging categories and how to toggle them on/off).
Maybe add some custom logging, LogPrintfs, or asserts; it's
always a privilege to add these into other people's code (to see
git grep -ni logprintf or
assert in the repository).
Run the relevant functional tests and look through the debug logs. Verify that they fail in the expected way on master. Back in the PR branch, inverse or change the new tests to make them break and understand why.
Check if any call sites, headers or declarations have been overlooked in the PR.
Try refactoring the code to be better or prettier, and discover why that doesn't work. Expect it to take twice as long as you planned it to. Yes, it's work.
Maybe run strace (
man page strace) to trace system
calls and signals.
Depending on the changes, contributing benchmarks, memory profiling/valgrind or flame graphs to a PR review can sometimes be very useful, and even decisive.
Two good gists about debugging Bitcoin Core:
Add missing tests
While you're reviewing, writing tests yourself can help you understand the behaviour and verify the changes, and if they add useful coverage you can propose them to the author for inclusion in the PR. Proposing automated tests is a really helpful way to start contributing. Authors appreciate it when someone reviews their PR and provides additional tests. Here's an example.
Big picture > nits
Remember, the big picture is much more important than nits, spelling, or code style. Re-read the Nits section above. Try to avoid commenting on these while reviewing, even if you have no other comments to make. I know, it's hard — I've done it too many times — but there's a better alternative:
A good thing you can do as a reviewer without specialised knowledge of the code is ask questions. A PR author is usually happy to discuss their work or see interest in it. So, spend 20 minutes or so looking at a change, find the thing that seems most confusing or surprising, and ask about it politely in the PR comments or on the #bitcoin-core-dev IRC channel. Chances are other people wonder about the same thing and it could be clarified or documented better. In this way you can learn and help make the project more accessible, too. (Credit for this paragraph: Russ Yanofsky).
Concept ACK means the reviewer acknowledges and agrees with the goal of the change, but is not (yet) confirming they've looked at the code or tested it. This can be a valuable signal to a PR author to let them know that the PR has merit and is headed in the right direction. As a corollary, a Concept NACK would indicate disagreement with the goal.
Approach ACK is a step further than Concept ACK and means agreement with both the goal and the approach used in implementing the change. Approach NACK would therefore indicate agreement with the goal but not the approach.
Manual testing of new features and reported issues is always welcome. A comment that is really helpful in review: "Here's what I tested and my methodology", particularly to back up an ACK.
Some PRs can be difficult to test or ACK due to complexity, context, or possibly a lack of tests or simulation framework. That shouldn't discourage you from reviewing. For example, if you've reviewed the code thoroughly, a comment like "the code looks correct to me, but I don't feel confident enough about behaviour to give an ACK" is a perfectly helpful contribution.
When giving an ACK, specify the commits reviewed by appending
the commit hash of the
HEAD commit. The trustless
way to do this is to use the hash from your local
checkout of the branch and not from the GitHub web page. That
way, unless your local tools are compromised, you ensure you are
ACKing the exact changes. This is also useful when a force push
happens and links to old commits are lost on GitHub.
A full ACK could look like: "ACK
fa2f991, I built,
ran tests, tested manually by doing X/Y/Z and reviewed the code
and it looks OK, I agree it can be merged."
The Bitcoin Core merge script currently copies into the merge
commit all ACK comments pertaining to the
commit at the time of merge. Keep in mind that anything you
write in an ACK comment that is copied by the merge script will
be in git history forever.
A complex PR usually requires at least 3-4 experienced ACKs before merging.
Apache voting system
Go easy on the people
When you disagree, state your point of view once and move on. Don't flood the comments section, browbeat others or overreact. Remember that the most important thing is probably not the issue being discussed, but your relationship with the other contributors.
As a new contributor, be cautious with giving a NACK. Assume by default that you might lack understanding or context. If you do NACK, provide good reasoning. Here's one example.
Signing commits with Opentimestamps
Some Bitcoin Core contributors sign and OpenTimestamp their ACKs. While that is beyond the scope of this document, it is surprisingly trivial to sign your commits using the OpenTimestamps Git Integration.
A special thank you to John Newbery for launching the Bitcoin Core PR Reviews Club and to the long-term contributors who participated so far: Andrew Chow, Anthony Towns, Bryan Bishop, Dave Harding, Gregory Sanders, James O'Beirne, Karl-Johan Alm, Marco Falke, Mark "Murch" Erhardt, Michael Ford, Mike Schmidt, Pieter Wuille, Samuel Dobson, and Wladimir van der Laan.
Thanks to Steve Lee (moneyball) for reviewing this write-up and his suggestions.
This article includes observed comments on GitHub and IRC by the following Bitcoin Core contributors/maintainers who deserve to be credited: Wladimir van der Laan, Marco Falke, Pieter Wuille, Gregory Maxwell, Anthony Towns, and Russ Yanofsky.
Over the years I had become disillusioned by the central influence of BDFLs in programming languages and open source projects. Wladimir van der Laan's long-standing humble service to Bitcoin sparked the possibility to me of perhaps doing the same.
Finally, a big thank you to the Bitcoin Core contributors for their patience with my review attempts so far, notably John Newbery, Marco Falke, João Barbosa, practicalswift, Gregory Sanders, Jonas Schnelli, Pieter Wuille and Wladimir van der Laan, and to Adam Jonas and John Newbery for their guidance and advice from the start.