One of your project’s dependencies just released a new version you want.

You run bundle update as you ritualistically cross your fingers.

All your tests are now broken.

What do?

Your kneejerk reaction would be to open an unhelpful issue on the offending gem’s GitHub site, offering little more than “version 3.4.0 of your gem broke my app. Fix it!”


Though cathartic, that approach is decidedly unproductive. It’s a bummer for the gem’s maintainer, to start. It comes across as entitled, too, as if you’re requesting warranty service for something you almost certainly never paid for. Doing so wastes your own time, because the maintainer will probably ask you to reproduce the issue, which you won’t be able to easily do, since you can’t just upload your employer’s super secret proprietary app to the public (sidenote: loads of people actually do this anyway, out of apparent ignorance or desparation).

So, the issue ends in a stalemate with neither party providing the information needed to definitively fix or dismiss the problem. Months pass as the issue whithers on the vine, never to be closed due to the ambiguity surrounding the failure’s root cause.

A better way

Turns out, there’s a better way to go about this. Instead of dredging up the entire breadth of how you’re using that particular dependency and then hunting for the offending change outside-in, you can instead tell git to dig through the history of changes made to the dependency and find the exact commit that caused the break. From there, it’s not hard at all to demonstrate how your usage’s behavior differs before and after that commit, and have a narrow, fact-based conversation with the maintainer.

Today, I effectively experienced the above scenario with Jim Weirich’s rspec-given, which I do my best to lovingly maintain. A test started failing when RSpec 3.3 was upgraded to 3.4—and I had no idea why—so @myronmarston suggested I use git bisect’s run command against the failing test of my code.

[Note: this guide is about using git-bisect to debug dependencies using RSpec as an example, and is not related to RSpec’s own rspec bisect command.]

In case you’re not familiar, git-bisect is a git command for finding the commit that introduced a breaking change. It takes a known working (“good”) commit and a broken (“bad”) commit as initial configuration. From there, you can specify a shell script (usually an automated test) for git-bisect to run automatically. It starts by literally “bisecting” to find the halfway-point in history between the known working & broken commits, checking out that reference, running the specified test script, and marking the reference as “good” or “bad” based on whether that script exits cleanly before bisecting the remaining history again. This process repeats until the commit that introduced the breakage has been isolated to a single commit. It’s pretty neat!

Below, I’ll show the steps I took to bisect through the history of rspec-core, which was the specific gem whose gem triggered the failure in rspec-given in this instance.

Update the Gemfile

First, clarify to Bundler that you want to load the offending gem from a local path in your Gemfile:

gem 'rspec-core', :path => '../../rspec/rspec-core'

Clone the gem’s repository at whatever path you specified and bundle its own dependencies (you may want to git checkout a relevant release tag first) to make sure everything looks good there.

Next, run bundle from your own project to verify things are wired together right. Before you consider automating anything, verify you can reproduce the issue at this point.

(Note: because of how RSpec versions its inter-dependencies between releases, I had to engage in some further, less relevant shenanigans at the instruction of @samphippen.)

Write a bisect script

Next, write a little shell script that will be run every time git-bisect checks out a new reference to determine whether the test succeeds (a “good” commit) or fails (a “bad” commit).

I was able to get away with a relatively simple script in this case:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

cd ~/code/rspec-given/rspec-given
rm Gemfile.lock
bundle exec rake

I saved the script in the working copy of the gem itself, because git-bisect operations have to be run from the root directory of the repository whose history is being bisected (which in our case is the rspec-core gem). I also ran chmod +x it to make it executable.

Running the bisect

Unlike most git CLI commands, git-bisect is awkwardly stateful. One must be “in” a bisect just as one might be “in” a multi-step rebase operation, which retains knowledge of the “good” and “bad” commits. I normally start by doing a dance like this to ensure a clean slate:

$ git bisect reset
$ git bisect start

Next, because I knew version 3.3.0 of the gem worked fine, but 3.4.0 broke, I told git-bisect to set them as the “good” and “bad” starting points, respectively:

$ git bisect good v3.3.0
$ git bisect bad v3.4.0

In response, git-bisect reported: Bisecting: 89 revisions left to test after this (roughly 7 steps), indicating that there were 89 commits between the two points, and a naive bisect algorithm would require about 7 steps before isolating the exact commit.

Finally, it’s time to let loose git-bisect run! To kick off its automated history spelunking, run:

$ git bisect run ./

A minute or two later (bisect is a great example of why it pays off to have a fast test suite), the process will end with output like: aadd33… is the first bad commit, along with that commit’s message.

This gave me everything I needed to show Myron the exact commit that triggered the change, and was enough to jog his memory as to what change in RSpec had impacted me. Victory!

When to bisect

Bisecting is an oft-overlooked tool that’s good to have in your arsenal. It’s not the sort of utility that ought to be needed very frequently, but on the occassions when it is, it can save hours of effort.

Keep in mind that bisect is better at answering the question “what change to the code introduced this behavior?” than simply “why is my thing broken?” It can be used to troubleshoot failures, to be sure, but in many situations, the cost of controlling variables outside of the code proper (e.g. databases, third-party APIs, system clocks) in your bisect script can easily exceed the insight you might glean from a successful bisect.

That said, when you’re sure that a failure was introduced by an isolated bit of code, git-bisect can be a great asset in identifying what exactly caused it.

Justin Searls

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