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Interview with Marko Berkovic & Matthias Wiesen of GitHub

“At GitHub, we collaborate far more than just between Devs and Ops”

Hartmut Schlosser
Marko Berkovic and Matthias Wiesen

“We actually believe that to collaborate, you don’t need to come from the same actual culture and background and heritage, but you just need to have the same vision.” JAXenter editor Gabriela Motroc talked to GitHub’s Marko Berkovic and Matthias Wiesen at DevOpsCon 2016 about how to create a company culture, the challenges involved in enforcing it, and some tips on how to make remote teams work.

JAXenter: Hi and welcome to DevOpsCon. I’m here with Marco and Matthias. Hi! How was your keynote?

Marko Berkovic: Don’t ask me, you should tell me! I delivered, I hoped it was enjoyable.

JAXenter:  It was great. But I would like to ask what’s the secret behind GitHub’s success?

Marko Berkovic: If there was a short recipe, I think everyone would be starting their own successful big businesses and companies. I guess it’s a thing that is kind of hard to put in a short answer. But trying to put it in a short answer, I’d probably say it’s allowing people across the globe to collaborate and work on the same project, to be part of the same team even though they maybe don’t know each other, don’t meet each other and aren’t even able to speak each other’s language. So, it basically creates a global community of enthusiasts of all ages, from young kids who are just starting to code to super experienced engineers who actually meet together to create cool repose and great code together. I think that’s the major success criteria of GitHub, right?

Matthias Wiesen: Exactly, and that all upon an awesome version control system.

JAXenter: So now that you mention it, how is the collaboration between Devs and Ops at GitHub?

Marko Berkovic: How I would put it in this way, it’s seamless. We actually collaborate far more than just between Devs and Ops within GitHub. In GitHub, the entire company lives on GitHub. For us, everything is code. Every single piece of text. Even an email or response to a customer is seen in regarded as code, just coded in the language of English. The collaboration goes way beyond just Dev and Ops. It’s actually including the whole company and every single department.

Matthias Wiesen: Exactly. By that, everything is under version control and every document can be incorporated on. You can write pull requests, you can comment on it, you can ask other people, invite people to join, in chime in, ask them for the opinion. So all knowledge that is available within Github can be focused to answer single questions, which is very mighty and it is one cornerstone of DevOps.

JAXenter: And since people are scattered all around the world, is the culture coherent or perhaps you have multiple cultures somehow?

Markus Berkovic: I would put it in this way. There is the thing that I would say that is definitely coherent within GitHub is the so-called “GitHub culture”. I would say we’re a great group of people who actually are on the same cultural path and on the ideology of wanting to collaborate. We want to make it as easy for everybody in the world to collaborate while having an extremely diverse number of cultures within GitHub.

So, we’re truly a global company. We have different nationalities. We have different religious beliefs. We have all the genders that you can imagine. So, basically from this perspective, it’s extremely culturally diverse as a company. We actually believe that to collaborate, you don’t need to come from the same actual culture and background and heritage, but you just need to have the same vision.

Matthias Wiesen: And also it’s very important to be open to other cultures and to be diverse and to include everybody. The more people with different mindsets you have within your company, the better the ideas everybody in sum is coming up with. This is very important, so you don’t get kind of locked in into one culture or into one-way thinking.

JAXenter: And what is the glue that holds all the people together in the cultural aspect?

Markus Berkovic: Well, to make it very simple, the glue is GitHub itself. It’s the one thing that enables us to collaborate, cooperate and put all the information and the context of it in the history of it into one place visible for everyone.

I think what really helps us actually focus on this collaborating and creating this culture are tools that automate. We have a special tool that we all kind of specifically care for and it’s called Hubert. We almost treat it like dear friend and colleague of ours. We love Hubert so much because he actually takes away a lot of work and automates so many of our tasks. That way, we can actually focus on the essence and getting the work done and collaborating, as opposed to getting the repetitive manual tasks done. So I try to describe it this way. I don’t know if that hits it.

Matthias Wiesen: It hits it quite well. And again, perhaps the culture again is also kind of the glue. Yeah, the glue between every [Git]Hubber. So, we have the same understanding of the same goals and also the same values. The majority of GitHubbers are working from remote. Of course, there are a lot of Hubbers in our offices in San Francisco or Amsterdam or Tokyo, for example, but more than fifty percent are working remote. It’s essential that you have the same shared values that everybody agrees upon, in order to have that kind of glue to work together effectively.

JAXenter: I see. And what is the challenge of bringing all the cultures under one roof and making one big happy family?

Markus Berkovic: I think for me personally, and I can only speak for my own sake, is to really filter out the information in this avalanche of information available for what is really relevant and where you want to go. On such an open culture such as GitHub, you have the possibility to contribute to anywhere you would like to. And there is more than just one project.

Sometimes, in a classical environment, you’re isolated to your own team, to your own task, into your own mini world that you do you exist within. In GitHub, you actually have the possibility to be part of anything you wish for. For me, the hard part is finding the right balance between actually collaborating and also taking some time out for myself then, which is non-company time to be honest. But that is I think different for everyone individually.

Matthias Wiesen: Yeah.  Because we have that remote culture, another challenge is to also not forget to have a kind of private chat with your colleagues every now and then, or also to meet them in person on mini-summits or at the office.To make sure that you also have actual in-person interactions and not only via chat or hangouts or videos.

Markus Berkovic:  So, it’s we need to bring in the human touch so we actually proactively need to work on setting up meetings to have face-to-face time with colleagues to still keep the human factor in.

JAXenter: And finally, do you have a tip for making the cultural change transition smoother?

Matthias Wiesen: So you’re talking about cultural change towards DevOps for example or…?

JAXenter: Towards DevOps at Github specifically.

Matthias Wiesen: Well, I guess this is a classical question towards change management. If larger companies make the transition, that often implies also cultural transition. It is very important to be very transparent, to tell everybody where you are going to and why are you going there, how are you going there. Then, it’s very important to find out people who are kind of early adopters and early movers. They can then motivate others, take others with them, and convince them of advantages of a new solution.

JAXenter: Anything else to add?

Markus Berkovic: Well, I think there is no easy cookbook and recipe for somebody to become DevOps. I think that having a DevOps environment means something different for every single company. I think the most important part is that you need to have your own will, that you want to get there. This will be either driven by management, which means the top down approach, which we with our customers see, let’s say in twenty percent of the cases. That is where we see the bigger successes because it has a top-down support. Eighty percent of the time, we see actually proactive individuals and individual contributors who implement new technologies, bring in the new culture to their team, set up new processes. Very soon after they become very successful within the company, other businesses or other business units want to replicate and to jump on this train.

So my message that I would send on to management is to open up your vision, have a look where do you want to be with your company in a few years time, and drive those changes. My message to individuals is to just do it, go and try and maybe fail on one or two things, but you will ultimately succeed and bring yourself, your team, and the company into a better position.

JAXenter: Sounds great, thank you very much and enjoy the conference!

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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Author
Hartmut Schlosser
Hartmut Schlosser is an editor for JAXenter and a specialist in Java Enterprise-Technologies, Eclipse & ALM, Android and Business Technology. Before working at S&S Media he studied Computer Science, Music, Anthropology and French Philology.

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