Fork me!

GitHub turns five: A retrospective

Elliot Bentley

The house of Octocat’s first half-decade has changed software development forever – but can its incredible success last?

It’s five years this week
since GitHub’s founders pushed a commit that opened the site to the
public. A side-project between Tom Preston-Werner, Chris Wanstrath
and PJ Hyett, it quickly developed into a highly profitable
business – and changed the nature of open source software

GitHub practically needs no introduction, but in case
you’ve been living under a rock for the past half-decade, it’s a
code-hosting service with social features emphasising rapid,
open-source development. Its mascot is the “Octocat”, an eight-legged hybrid
often found accompanied by the phrase “Fork me!”

Its success has been inextricably tied to Git, the
version control software developed by Linus Torvald that encourages
frequent branching and merging of code. By providing a slick,
social, web-based dashboard for Git repositories, GitHub provided a
much-needed overview to Git’s sometimes-obtuse CLI.

More than just a place for teams to get a bird’s-eye
view of their code, GitHub has also become a de facto standard for
showing off a project in public. Markdown-based Readme files,
built-in wikis and Jekyll-powered GitHub pages now mean that projects
can be shared – and collaborated upon – with less friction than

It’s blazed past competitors such as Sourceforce and
Google Code, which in comparison now seem positively old-hat:
filled with adverts, dogged by clunky interfaces and lacking social

The company has also branched out beyond just code
hosting, running code-centric pastebin clone Gist, presentation hosting site
Speaker Deck, a jobs board and even a web traffic
analytics service called Gauges.

In January, GitHub announced that it had reached
million registered users
, with around 5 million repositories
between them. Redmonk’s Donnie Berkholz
that, at its current rate of growth, GitHub will
probably hit the 5 million mark before the end of this year. In
comparison, SourceForge – which has been kicking around since 1999
– has only mustered 3.4 million individual accounts.

It’s not just user numbers that have skyrocketed –
GitHub’s profits have
increased 300%
annually since 2008, all without any initial
funding from outside investors. It was only in its fourth year that
GitHub accepted any cash, and it was a big one to boot:
$100m from Andreessen Horowitz
, best-known for well-placed bets
on Facebook, Skype and Twitter – the VC’s largest investment

This growth has been despite of – or, more likely,
because of – GitHub’s radically flat management
. Like
game developer Valve
, there are no managers or no bosses, with
every employee free to choose what to work on. Famously, not a
single “GitHubber” has ever quit the company (although
a handful have been fired
). With GitHub’s headcount now over
150 and continuing to rise, it will be interesting to see if this
model, and perfect no-quit record, can last.

Indeed, GitHub’s biggest challenge is maintaining its unique
culture in the face of its incredible success. With the suits now
jumping on board, and its scale ever-increasing, something will
surely have to give.

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