San Francisco startup GitHub has all the hallmarks of the next big social network. The company’s base of 3.6 million users is growing fast, and after raising $100 million last year, GitHub was worth $750 million, at least on paper.
Yet GitHub is not a place for socializing and sharing photos. It’s a site where software developers store, share, and update their personal coding projects, in computer languages like Java and Python.
“It’s a social network, but it’s different from the others because it’s built around creating valuable things,” says GitHub CEO Tom Preston-Werner, whose company has been called “Facebook for geeks.”
GitHub’s mix of practicality and sociability have made it into a hub for software innovation. People log on from around the globe (78 percent of its users from outside the U.S.) to test and tinker with new ideas for mobile apps or Web server software. For Ethan Mollick, an assistant professor at the Wharton School, GitHub is one of a new class of technology platforms, including the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, that allow innovation without the traditional constraints of geography or of established hierarchies. “Virtual communities have more influence on reality now,” he says.
What all this could mean for software hubs like Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley isn’t yet clear. Certainly, in the post-GitHub world you no longer have to frequent the right coffee shops and parties in the Bay Area to make a name as a talented coder. Companies get founded on the site, and it’s a favorite hunting ground for recruiters as well.
The features of GitHub’s service and community that have driven its popularity could appear opaque to non-coders. The guiding principle is that any and all possible barriers to one person contributing to someone else’s project must be stripped away. That means avoiding e-mail and conventional management. “That idea of not having to ask permission to be involved in something is really big,” says Preston-Werner.
Preston-Werner says GitHub, launched in 2008, has been profitable, and signs up around 10,000 new users every day. The newest feature of its business model is to rent out a version to companies they can use internally. In Marissa Mayer’s first company-wide memo after becoming CEO of Yahoo last year, she listed GitHub as one of the ways she intended to fix her company’s stifling bureaucracy.
GitHub’s most important feature is the pull request. It allows a person to suggest a modification to the code of someone else’s project, and shows that suggestion to the project’s owner in a way that makes it easy for them to review the changes. A single mouse click can merge them into the project or start a discussion about the changes. If a person’s pull request doesn’t stick, they can “fork” the project to create a parallel version on GitHub with their idea included.
GitHub’s only physical location is an office in San Francisco where about one-third of its 176 employees work (the rest work from their homes, coffee shops, or rented desks in the U.S. or overseas). No one at the company has set working hours. Some show up at noon and work into the night, others arrive close to dawn and disappear by midafternoon. Only Preston-Werner, as CEO, has a formal job title. Everyone else uses generic or frequently changing descriptors such as “Bad Guy Catcher” or “Señor Open Sorcerer.”
GitHub now plays a major supporting role in the creation of widely used open-source software, and the company uses it to maintain and expand its own service as well. Although Preston-Werner may set the overall goal of such projects, details of how it will be achieved are left to his workforce. Teams of GitHub workers form on an ad-hoc basis, growing, shrinking, and melting away as the company’s needs change and people find new things to work on.
Meetings are seen as a tragic waste of time, and thanks to the pull request, fewer are needed. “I don’t think we’ll ever have to hire managers,” says Preston-Werner.
Preston-Werner hopes his philosophy will spread and that more kinds of work will happen on GitHub. The platform already has features targeted at designers working on images. Some journalists, academics, and even the White House are also experimenting with GitHub to collaborate on articles and write research and policy documents. “Software is where we’re starting, but the vision can encompass a much broader scope than that,” says Preston-Werner.