How Do Software Developers Use GitHub Actions?

Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2021-10-07
Keywords: Automation

Today is my fourth day in the first full-time programming job I've had in ten years. Some things have stayed the same (meetings, t-shirts, and package management problems), but others have changed: I'm finally going to have to learn how to use Docker and cloud-based microservices, and where pre- and post-commit hooks were a rarity a decade ago, almost every step of development is now supported by automated checks.

Kinsman2021 looks at how teams use GitHub Actions to implement those checks and support development workflows in other ways. They found that the most common operations are (in order) continuous integration, miscellaneous utilities (such as reading configuration files), deployment, publishing, and code quality/code review, with a long tail of other kinds of actions. (Almost 40% of the actions they found fell into the "Uncategorized" bucket.) As for impact, they found that after adopting GitHub Actions, projects had more rejected pull requests and fewer commits on merged pull requests; adopting Actions didn't affect the number of merged pull requests, the rate of comments on PRs, or several other variables.

Actions were still fairly new when the study was done, so I hope the authors will do a follow-up. Better yet, I hope they will automate their data collection and analysis to provide continuous updates, which would be in the spirit of what they are studying.

Kinsman2021 Timothy Kinsman, Mairieli Wessel, Marco A. Gerosa, and Christoph Treude: "How Do Software Developers Use GitHub Actions to Automate Their Workflows?". Proc. International Conference on Mining Software Repositories (MSR), 2021, 10.1109/msr52588.2021.00054.

Automated tools are frequently used in social coding repositories to perform repetitive activities that are part of the distributed software development process. Recently, GitHub introduced GitHub Actions, a feature providing automated work-flows for repository maintainers. Although several Actions have been built and used by practitioners, relatively little has been done to evaluate them. Understanding and anticipating the effects of adopting such kind of technology is important for planning and management. Our research is the first to investigate how developers use Actions and how several activity indicators change after their adoption. Our results indicate that, although only a small subset of repositories adopted GitHub Actions to date, there is a positive perception of the technology. Our findings also indicate that the adoption of GitHub Actions increases the number of monthly rejected pull requests and decreases the monthly number of commits on merged pull requests. These results are especially relevant for practitioners to understand and prevent undesirable effects on their projects.