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 forever.

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 ever.

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 features.

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 3 million registered users, with around 5 million repositories between them. Redmonk’s Donnie Berkholz calculated 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 ever.

This growth has been despite of – or, more likely, because of – GitHub’s radically flat management structure. 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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