Combine Team and Personal Dotfiles with rcm

Our team has a set of dotfiles at thoughtbot/dotfiles. They contain vim, git, zsh, and tmux configuration that many of us use every day.

Each of us also have personal sets of dotfiles. They augment our team dotfiles with configuration such as aliases for our personal workflow, our name and email for git, and vim syntax highlighting for languages such as Go or Elixir that we aren't using yet on client projects.

We recently released rcm which, among other things, allows a workflow where those two sets of dotfiles co-exist in harmony.

Team dotfiles as primary

The team's dotfiles could be considered the primary dotfiles repo. It is well-vetted and we can depend on it matching the latest conventions and practices agreed upon by our team.

mkdir thoughtbot
cd thoughtbot
git clone

Note the directory convention is to keep local git repos matching the {user,organization}/project GitHub structure, which also matches a Go convention.

Once we have our team dotfiles cloned, we should install rcm. On OS X, we can use the Brewfile:

brew bundle dotfiles/Brewfile

See the docs to install on other platforms.

Next, we use rcm's rcup command to symlink files from thoughtbot/dotfiles to ~/.aliases, ~/.gitconfig, ~/.psqlrc, ~/.tmux.conf, ~/.vimrc, ~/.zshrc, and others:

rcup -d dotfiles -x -x LICENSE -x Brewfile

The -x options, which exclude the, LICENSE, and Brewfile files, are needed during installation but can be skipped during future rcup updates because we are symlinking the ~/.rcrc file during installation, which knows to exclude those files.

If we reload our shell at this point, we'd now have all the great features from thoughtbot/dotfiles available to us. The most obvious immediate change would be the look of our prompt.

Personal dotfiles as secondary

Now, we need our personal dotfiles, for example croaky/dotfiles:

mkdir croaky
cd croaky
git clone
rcup -d dotfiles -x

That's it! Our two sets of dotfiles are living in harmony. But how does it work?

The .local convention

At the end of the files we symlinked from thoughtbot/dotfiles are lines such as this in ~/.zshrc:

# Local config
[[ -f ~/.zshrc.local ]] && source ~/.zshrc.local

Or this in ~/.vimrc:

" Local config
if filereadable($HOME . "/.vimrc.local")
  source ~/.vimrc.local

These lines say "now, look for a file of the same name as myself, but with an extra .local extension." This convention makes it clean to have a second set of dotfiles around without one trampling on the other.

Most of the files we have in personal dotfiles end in .local. They are additive to the team dotfiles, which is why it can help to think of the personal dotfiles as "secondary."


In some cases, the .local convention isn't available, so we need to completely overwrite the file.

For example, if we use the fail-fast option in our personal rspec config but it is not popular amongst the team, it is inappropriate to live in the team dotfiles, which should represent only a reasonable subset that is valuable for everyone.

In that example, when we next update team dotfiles, rcm asks if we want to overwrite the file:

rcup -d dotfiles
overwrite /Users/croaky/.rspec? [ynaq] n

This demonstrates how rcm lets us pick a winner, and prefer our personal preference in this case.


We recommend creating and evolving a set of team dotfiles. We can each learn many workflow tips from our teammates in team dotfiles pull requests.

With rcm's ability to manage both team and personal dotfiles together, there's no reason to be afraid of using team dotfiles, because we can always override the decisions in our personal set.