Keeping track of CLI commands in software projects
6 min. read

Code repositories usually offer a certain set of operations for developers to carry out on the command line: for example running the tests, fetching dependencies, building the project, checking code style, or seeding a local database with mock data.

From a developer’s perspective, such CLI commands are the main entrypoints for interacting with a project. (That is, besides browsing the code.) In that sense, they can be perceived as some sort of development API of the repository.

The available tasks are usually well-defined, and they likely even need to be configured in a certain, project-specific way for them to work properly. Therefore, it’s common to somehow keep track of the commands in the repository, to ensure that all developers are able to use them in the same fashion.

In this post, I want to discuss a few approaches that I have tried myself over time. Eventually, I came up with a pattern that I’m using since a few years already, and which have worked quite well for me, especially in small to mid-sized projects. I share it in the second part of this article.

Makefiles, npm scripts & Co.

The most straightforward approach is to document and describe operations in a README file. While this is the most flexible way, it can be inconvenient to having to copy-and-paste chunks of commands from a text file to the terminal. Configuring and supplying runtime parameters needs to be done manually, which can be repeatitive and prone to error.

To avoid the copy-and-paste hassle, the commands can be stored in individual shell scripts.1 These can either be located in the project root, or they can be stashed away in a dedicated folder such as scripts/. While the former can become quite messy, the latter is less discoverable. Having one file per task is generally less concise, and it introduces overhead when it comes to sharing code between the files.

With JavaScript projects, it’s common to define npm scripts in package.json. The popularity of this technique clearly shows that there is a need for storing tasks in a structured way. However, cramming CLI commands into a single-line JSON string isn’t particularly nice to work with. Outside of the JavaScript world, you also need to find a different solution.

A more universal approach is to use a Makefile, which allows you to define procedures in a tidy and structured fashion. However, GNU Make is a build tool originally, not a task runner, so there are some quirks that you may run into. It might also not be obvious to other people to inspect a Makefile to look for tasks.

The creators of just were inspired by the Makefile concept and adopted it for task management. While justfiles look sophisticated and powerful, the idea of inventing a whole new language only for the purpose of task definitions feels a bit too heavy for my taste. Using it also enforces the installation of a separate tool.

Back to the shell

The longer I’ve been thinking about solutions to this problem, the more I realised that there are mainly three boxes I need ticking:

The way to make all this happen neither requires a new tool nor a dedicated file format. All it needs is a shell script that follows a certain convention. What I came up with is a file called that lives at the root of the repository.2 It contains the available tasks which are defined as shell functions.

For a NodeJS project, a could look like so:

# Start web server
run::server() {
  node src/index.js \
    --port=8001 \

# Execute unit tests
run::test() {
  ./node_modules/.bin/mocha \
    --recursive \
    --parallel \

There are two rules for files:

Apart from that, the file is just an ordinary shell script. All regular shell features like variables, conditionals, or sub-routines can be used without restriction. Additional input arguments are passed through to the respective task.

Utility tool

Such a file convention is neither novel nor ground-breaking in itself. It’s really more of a pattern than anything else. However, sticking to a common format makes it easier to work with, and it also allows for utility tools to increase the developer experience. I created a small tool (Github / Docs) that helps to explore tasks, and that makes it easier to invoke them.

For the above file, you could use it like so:

$ run --list
server   Start development server
test     Execute unit tests

$ run test


In order to see real-life examples of files, you can either find one in my time-tracking tool “klog” (a mid-sized Go CLI application), or in the repository itself.

A tool would not be mandatory, though. Since the format is self-documenting and meaningful on its own, the tasks can still be found and copy-and-pasted manually. Alternatively, the file can be sourced, and the tasks can then be invoked via their canonical names. I find that important, because it allows re-using the configurations of test or bootstrap procedures in the CI or production environment.

  1. I use the term “shell script” in a generic sense here, and do not refer to only the Bourne Shell for example. ↩︎

  2. Two years ago, I already dabbled with the idea of such run scripts. ↩︎

  3. This assumes that the is in the current working directory. You could otherwise reference one via the --file flag. ↩︎

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