- Matt Weinberger/Business Insider
The San Francisco startup GitHub, which has been called the Facebook for programmers, seems to have it all.
To date, GitHub has racked up 11 million registered users, over 36 million unique visitors every month, $350 million in venture funding, and a $2 billion valuation.
With over 21.1 million code “repositories” at last count, GitHub hosts more software source code than any other single service in the world.
So where do you go from here?
According to GitHub CEO Chris Wanstrath, in conversation with Business Insider at Thursday’s GitHub Universe event, the game plan is pretty straightforward.
If most of the world’s developers already use and love GitHub, then the company needs to help more people become developers.
“We’re thinking about the new developers,” Wanstrath says. “We want to lower the barriers to entry.”
What is GitHub?
Before GitHub, building software with a team could be a real mess. It required careful tracking of who was working on which piece of the code at any given time. The old processes also made it hard to integrate code from outside contributors.
“We’re really inspired by crappy tools,” Wanstrath jokes. “We were competing against the old ways of doing things.”
GitHub solves this problem in two major ways:
First, GitHub’s service takes advantage a piece of free software called “Git,” invented in 2005, to help development teams manage their projects and track who contributed which code and when they did it. Since it’s all based online, programmers from around the world can use GitHub to work on projects together.
That’s why companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and pretty much everybody else use GitHub to share their so-called open-source projects, in which developers are encouraged to build on and use their technologies for themselves free.
- Matt Biddulph via Flickr
Second, GitHub is a social network. Developers use it to network, to show off, to discuss, and to generally hang out and get stuff done.
In today’s Silicon Valley, a GitHub profile is more valuable to employers than a traditional résumé: If you need a Java programmer who is really good at networking technologies, just find a networking-software project on GitHub that’s written in Java, look for the top contributors, and start sending inquiry letters.
GitHub uses its own service for recruiting, Wanstrath says. GitHub’s success in that regard was a “happy accident,” he says, but regardless, it’s a powerful force.
Riding to success
Both of these pieces helped GitHub be in the right place at the right time.
Thanks to the rise of the smartphone, alongside increasingly ubiquitous internet access, demand for developers has never been higher.
At the same time, big enterprises are turning to free software to save cash and get up to huge scales. When you’re the size of Google or Facebook, you can’t afford to have Windows or Oracle software on every one of your servers. That means big and small companies alike need open-source developers to help build their infrastructure.
“Everyone’s building software,” Wanstrath says. “It’s kind of surprising the world is going that way.”
So lots of companies are hiring developers. But just because you hire 500 developers doesn’t mean you’re on the right track, Wanstrath says. They also have to work together.
“They’re not a software team,” Wanstrath says.
GitHub is the glue that lets those teams work together, Wanstrath says. By combining the social aspect with the code-tracking aspect, it’s a place for developers to talk to and learn from one another, even as they build a project.
And when the company sells its paid GitHub Enterprise software to businesses, teams of developers from across the company suddenly start working together, he says.
GitHub has made its fortune by enabling software teams to work more closely together. But now, with the ubiquity of software everywhere, the world is changing very rapidly.
“We have this sort of classic understanding of what a developer is,” says Kakul Srivastava, GitHub’s vice president of product who joined the company three months ago after stints at Yahoo and WeWork. “But our understanding of what a developer is, is changing rapidly.”
Even today, Wanstrath says, there are journalists and scientists who are using GitHub to find, build, and share data-driven applications that assist with research or interactive projects.
The goal, then, is to gradually make it a lot easier for anybody to get started on the platform. As more and more people get educated as programmers from an early age, Wanstrath wants GitHub to be the service of choice for the next generation to really get its feet wet.
“It shouldn’t be as hard as it is,” Srivastava says.
There’s no one big product shift or new software that will enable this future, Wanstrath says.
But, generally speaking, the goal is accelerate the best parts of the service – the collaboration and community aspects – to remove the friction from someone signing up, contributing their first project, and learning how to improve their skills from those 11 million members.
“Anyone can be a developer,” Wanstrath says.
GitHub’s growth is impressive.
But the company is facing competitive pressure from the likes of Atlassian, a $3 billion Australian company that is reportedly planning a $3 billion initial public offering, tiny startups such as GitLab, and Google itself.
Atlassian, for its part, likes to say that its BitBucket code-management software is better suited for the enterprise than GitHub’s, and that it is profitable.
Plus, the past year was not terribly kind to GitHub: In 2014, the tech industry was rocked by allegations from a top GitHub employee that she had been harassed at work. That incident led to the resignation of cofounder and former CEO Tom Preston-Werner and the installation of Wanstrath in the top spot.
Still, Wanstrath doesn’t seem too worried. He just wants GitHub to keep focusing on making life easy for the next wave of developers in any way it can, and keep that growth going.
“Success means your to-do list is getting too large,” Wanstrath says. “We have big ambitions.”