Tales from the Trenches: GitHub

When it comes building a distributed company, some bosses do it to demonstrate the usefulness or their product, many to get the best talent and some simply because they want to live somewhere they can surf. But for online hosting company GitHub, the best reason to go virtual is more fundamental: their flexible, democratic, distributed work style simply makes for better products, CEO and co-founder Chris Wanstrath told GigaOM.
But that wasn’t why the company got its start as a distributed team. At first, they simply lacked an office. “We started GitHub as a side project, so there was no office for the first two years,” says Wanstrath. Instead, they used GitHub itself, along with Campfire, to build the company, hiring their first employee in distant Colorado. But what started as a matter of practicality is now baked into the soul of the company. “We’ve tried to keep that spirit alive over the past four years,” says Wanstrath, who along with his colleagues has built the company into a profitable and much chattered about firm employing around 60 people, 60 percent of whom work out of the company’s San Francisco office with the rest spread around the world.
Wanstrath’s approach to hiring is straightforward. Hire the best and, so far, questions of cultural fit and remote team-ready communication skills have followed naturally from that. “We’re focused on finding the very cream of the crop. They’ve all had those skills. It just comes with being a good developer or a good designer,” he says, though Jon Maddox, a GitHub developer based in Richmond, Virginia, detects a common theme in the personality types that get hired. Ego, apparently, is out.
“Everybody listens to everybody, so anyone who would come in thinking that they know everything, somebody that isn’t impressed by anything, that would be a turnoff,” Maddox explains. Sonya Green, a member of the GitHub support team agrees that enthusiasm is key: “We tend to hire A-level people, people who strive and want to work on the things they’re working on. That trumps a lot of personality flaws or wanting to sleep till noon – that is no problem with us.”
Location, like soft skills, takes a back seat to raw talent and excitement for the work. “We’re optimizing for making GitHub really great, so if there’s someone who lives in Atlanta and they can’t move, but they’re the best person we can find, then we’re absolutely going to hire them and let them stay in Atlanta,” Wanstrath says. Once a person is hired, GitHub is as relaxed about when they work as where they work. Hours are “not really tied to coming to the office and let me see your face. It’s all based on doing quality work,” says Wanstrath.
That translates to support workers organizing their schedules to cover 24 hours and creative folks getting an extremely free hand. “For designers and developers building a new creative product, we don’t believe that an assembly-type nine to five really makes any sense,” says Wanstrath. “We built a lot of GitHub at 1 a.m., so why should anyone here be different? It’s all about having high morale. We think that makes better products. If people are enjoying their work, they’re going to be more creative. They’re going to be thinking about it in the shower and it’s going to be a better end result for the people using it.”
Wanstrath and his co-founders relied on Campfire when starting the company and the chat application is still central to how the team works together today. “Chat is sort of our real office,” says Wanstrath, who explains that GitHub has dozens of separate chat rooms set up, ranging for spaces to tell jokes and kick back to product-focused rooms in which to talk shop.
This constant chatter is good for keeping remote workers woven firmly into the fabric of the team, but it’s also important for those based in San Francisco, according to Wanstrath: “One of the things that can ruin companies as they grow is lack of communication. We want to be able to work distributed even if everyone’s here because we think that is just a better way of communicating.”
“If you have a sick day, you’re not going to miss everything if our communication is set up to be distributed,” he says, adding the understatement of the century: “Employees have the freedom to go to Brazil for a week and work and not miss anything, which I think is really great as far as the company culture goes.”
GitHub is essentially a software company, of course, so it’s no shock that they’ve also built themselves plenty of cool tools to help the distributed team members feel fully integrated in the company, including a handful of iPhone apps, an internal Twitter-like tool employees use to share what they’re working on, and another cool gadget explained by Maddox:
“One of our guys built, basically, an application to stream radio. It allowed everybody to pick music via our chat app to play in the office. That was really great and everybody remote got to watch the music, but then one day we added streaming. Once we added streaming, every single person, no matter where they work, can listen to the music that is playing in the office. That immediately brought everybody together and made them feel like they were doing the same thing. It sounds like it’s not a really big deal but it’s amazing to see how big of a deal it actually was.”

The 'hubbernauts' bi-annual company summit.

Aside from cementing the team through communication tools, Wanstrath also believes it’s essential to bring the whole group face to face at regular intervals. New hires are flown out to San Francisco to get to know the team, and all employees meet up for twice yearly summits. “I think you have a better context of where someone’s coming from that you interact with through text or chat once you meet them in person,” says Wanstrath explaining the purpose of the all-hands get togethers. “Someone that you might find abrasive because of the way they text, when you meet them, you might be like, ‘Oh, he’s just very serious all the time. He’s not angry.'”
“You’ll also be a lot more empowered to jump in and disagree with someone if you’re confident that you’re on the same team with them and they’re not going to look at it as a power play,” he adds, noting that using video to connect everyone each Friday for a “Beer:30” hang out to watch the founders give short presentations also helps.
Wanstrath is clearly proud of the culture his company has built (and his employees seem to adore it as well, consistently using “we” to describe the company’s plans and policies – Green is even relocating her family from Boston to San Francisco to spend more time in person with her colleagues) but just because it works for them, doesn’t mean he thinks others should blindly copy their example. “Don’t do X because Apple did it or because Zynga did it. Try to figure out why Apple did it and decide if it makes sense for us, our company. I don’t think anyone should just copy GitHub,” says Wanstrath.
Nor does GitHub slavishly copy industry leaders. As of yet, the company has no managers, for example. “We just haven’t seen a need for them,” Wanstrath explains. “We didn’t add managers when we had 20 people because that’s what you do. We’ve been waiting until we needed people to work full-time on managing work, and I think that’s a byproduct of trying to develop our own unique product development process that makes GitHub as good as possible.”
The best advice, Wanstrath feels, isn’t a specific tool or practice, but to keep learning and keep focused. “None of this was just set up on the first day. It’s all really evolved along the way,” he says, and the evolution continues: “I hope that GitHub in three years looks completely different and more awesome because we’ve just gotten way better at communicating and handling a distributed team.” But what doesn’t change is the goal – a great product.
“We’ve never raised any outside capital, so everything is bootstrapped. We started charging three months after our beta, so the whole time that GitHub has been alive, it’s been funded by its customers,” he says. “We really believe that the most important thing is making GitHub high quality. It has to be something that people are willing to pay for, because if they pay for it, we can keep working on awesome stuff.”
Image courtesy Flickr user VanDammeMaarten.be