Tom Preston-Werner – Github 3 of 3

“Code is about the people who are writing it.” Github is the leading social network that empowers programmers to collaborate, share, and write beautiful code.

Matthew: What are some traits or talents or skills that come easily or intuitively for you? What’s been difficult and how have you managed that?

Tom: The easy stuff so far has been building something that we love and really just staying true to what we want, as developers. And realizing that there are a lot of different people in the world and they all want different things. But, I think looking forward, looking to the future, saying this is how we think things should be. And thinking outside of what is currently available. That has always been I think pretty easy for us as a company. And personally it’s nice to be able to do that. 

More difficult is dealing with enterprises and large companies. I’ve not had much experience with that before. And just learning about how those organizations work, and how slowly they work, and realizing that. We have an enterprise version now that we sell that’s installable within companies. kind of a boxed version of get GitHub. And we went into that sort of naively, saying, well all we have to do is just provide them an installer and then everything will be fine. And I think while we had some notion of how different that would from getting people to pay $7 a month, we still underestimated how difficult it would be in reality. And how different it would be from what we normally do.

So understanding those things and understanding how much legal work would be involved, has been super challenging. Scaling was really difficult in the early days as well, because of some constraints that we had with a previous host. We worked those out though so that was fine. That was, that’s something that I think, that’s the double edged sword. You don’t want to optimize prematurely because then you’re doing a whole lot of work for possibly nothing, but you don’t want to optimize the opposite, too late. Because now you’ve got a popular service that everyone is complaining about being down. 

Judging where that transition needs to be made and preparing for stuff at the appropriate time, that also sort of took me by surprise a little bit. And we paid for it. But we addressed it. And I think as long as you have a great service, and it has some heart in it, and people understand that you really care and you’re being transparent, that is, people will allow you a lot of leeway. 

And that’s another thing that took me by surprise a little bit, is, you can make huge mistakes as long as you take ownership for them and are transparent about them. Transparency for us has been just huge. We’ve always been transparent. Even when we have just massive screw ups we say, hey we screwed up, here is what we’re going to do about it, and we’re sorry for this having happened to you.

And in doing that you can see just in the comments, people are very supportive. So I think being, presenting yourself as a human business. As a group of people working on something that you love, and that you really care about. Other people can sense that. And when they sense that it allows you to really push forward at a very rapid rate and break things every once in a while. And still come out ahead in the end. So that was something that we learned, that was pretty cool.

Matthew: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since launching GitHub?

Tom: I think for me it’s just pay attention to who you hire and then invest in them as people, as employees. Everywhere that I’ve ever worked before, even something as simple as attending a conference has been a huge procedure. And at GitHub we do things differently. At GitHub if you getting a talking spot at a conference, we will send you there. And not only will we send you there but we’ll send another person from the company with you to accompany you, because traveling along kinda sucks, it’s nice to have a companion. 

And these kinds of things which, yeah, they cost money. Sure it costs a good chunk of money at the end of the year. But it’s something that we cherish ourselves to be able to do. And we want our employees to have that same benefit. And at the same time if you hire really great people, those great people are going to. The reason that they are great is because they’re insistent on learning and getting better as developers, as people, getting to the next level of wherever they want to be. 

And if you hire them and you don’t allow them to do that, then you won’t keep them very long. And that is, I think, that’s the best lesson that I’ve learned from this. And seeing how effective it is, the culture that we have that is based on personal responsibility instead of management and control from the top. We don’t have managers and we don’t have meetings. People basically form small groups and take on projects that they think are important. 

And seeing that great people can do that and sustain that in the long run, we have 30 employees now. And we still work the same way that we did, essentially, that we did when we were just three people. So that is, I think that is a huge lesson that a lot of people can benefit from is, hire great people and treat them like they’re great people. And then amazing things can happen.

Matthew: What bit of advice do you wish you would have known before diving into GitHub?

Tom: I wish I had been more, I wish I had known more about the specific kinds of things regarding creating a company. Like how to stock, how does granting stock work? What does it mean to be a C-corporation versus an S-corporation. What does it mean to not take funding and still need to grant stock, because how do you know what you’re worth until you have evaluation. Which most companies, most start ups get through an investment round, but we never had. 

And so figuring out those kinds of things, understanding all of the legal stuff around hiring people and granting stock and dealing with incorporation and what it means to incorporate in Delaware versus California and how you deal with your accounting and what all of those things mean, I think would have benefited us. Because we made some mistakes. And we fixed them but they cost money to fix, and stress. 

So understanding that legal stuff, and understanding, and even as an employee. Understand what it means to get hired at a start up and what options mean and how they vest and the different kind of things that go along with that agreement that you’re about to sign. Don’t just go in and be like, I’m about to work for so and so, amazing, sign on the dotted line done. No, I mean, like read that and understand because down the road it can mean the difference between a really great experience when that company exits and a really sort of depressing, crappy, horrible experience. 

So that for me has been something I wish I knew a little bit better. Save yourself some stress when you start a company. Figure that stuff out before.

Matthew: What mentor has played a significant impact in your professional development?

Tom: I don’t, I’ve never really had a specific mentor so to speak like a lot of people have. I think it comes from just being insanely independent and untrustworthy of authority. So I would say my mentors generally are books and the Internet. 

Matthew: What advice would you like to share with our audience about launching a startup? If you have to distill it to the key elements, what are they?

Tom: Thinking big is important. I see a lot of companies start around ideas that are already, that are established and they’re too small in scope. I think you want to pick something to do as a company that is large enough in scope to where you don’t have to reach a, it’s just really frustrating to start really small and then have to go much, much bigger. 

So for instance we picked coat hosting, which is a quite large thing. And we started very specific in that. But we’ve been able to expand to things like, well we have the enterprise version. So there’s the hosting in the enterprise version. We’re putting on conferences now so we can get in the conference circuit. Because it’s about developers working better together. And what better way to do that then getting people in the same room and talking about stuff that they love. 

It’s also the reason that we do the GitHub drinkups which are just, we invite all of the developers in town to a bar every month and then buy them beer. Great for creating loyal customers and for getting developers together talking about stuff. That’s what GitHub came from. 

And so, I think, when you’re thinking about launching a company think about what that means, and what that means several years from now. Are you going to be able to get enough customers to do idea X that is as restrictive as you think it is? And maybe you need to start very specifically. But know that you have to grow as well. I think that’s, I mean off the top of my head. That’s one important thing that I would think about for launching.

Matthew: Tom before we close I would love for you to give our audience your vision for GitHub and how you hope it will change the world.

Tom: My vision for GitHub is that we keep doing what we’re doing. We make it as simple as possible for developers to work together on code. Whether that be open Source or in companies And just figure out ways to extend that, even to designers and to administrative people and to anyone that’s involved with a company that works with code and needs to version documents. And maybe you don’t have to stop at code. Maybe you can go towards images and Photoshop and even documents of various sorts. 

So in the long run I think GitHub will be the way that people work together and understand how different documents change over time. Because those two things are at the core of creating new things. Working together with other people and keeping track of what happened. Without those two things everything is chaos. And I think that’s our goal at GitHub is to reduce the chaos.

Matthew: Excellent. Tom it’s been a pleasure having you as a guest on FounderLY. We’re rooting for your continued success at GitHub. For those in our audience who’d like to learn more and sign up for their free in service and participate in their community you can visit their website at This is Matthew Wise at FounderLY. Thanks so much Tom.

Tom: Thank you.


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