10 innovators changing the game for Internet infrastructure

The Developer: Tom Preston-Werner, co-founder of Github

by Barbara Darrow

If there’s a theme to Github co-founder Tom Preston-Werner’s career, it’s that he likes to get things done collaboratively. And he’s excited about what the growing adoption of cloud computing can do to help software developers — who are often scattered across time zones — work together.

Some background: Preston-Werner and co-founder Chris Wanstrath launched Github, the project hosting web site and code repository in 2008. Fast forward four years and over a million and a half people now use Github to host close to 3 million projects — many of them open-source, according to the latest tally. (I would ask who’s counting except someone clearly is.)

Cloud + open source

The confluence of cloud computing and open source software development — which calls for a lot of code-reuse — fuels demand for a repository and versioning system that lets people find the code they need, collaborate on projects without stepping on each other’s work, and fork those projects as needed.

Today, open source has become an accepted way for even traditional companies to work, says Preston-Werner, and that is most definitely a good thing. “We use a huge amount of open source at Github and in return we release a ton of stuff to open source — I love that we can contribute back in a really major way. I see open source truly as a rising tide that raises all boats.”

In the open source world, instead of writing everything from scratch, developers can mash up applications using code snippets that are already written and tested. That’s great from a productivity standpoint. And cloud computing eases deployment and distribution of those applications. Win, win.

One novel offshoot of cloud computing is that it enables a software subscription delivery model. In the old world, a company bought licensed software and then had to manage a helter-skelter of patches all the time and major updates every two or three years. The beauty of constantly-streamed updates is that end-users have the latest-and-greatest software and developers writing software don’t have to tweak code to handle a zillion different versions.

Accordingly, Github updates the paid Github Enterprise version continuously. “It takes the support headache away because you know your people are on the newest stuff and you won’t have the IE debacle where people are still using a 10-year old browser. That sucks for the user and it definitely sucks for the developer,” Preston-Werner said.

Collaborative environment

Github’s San Francisco offices reflect this collaborative view of work. The company, which was born in coffee shops, has 80 employees about half of which live in the area. No one cares if people come into the office, but Github marketing exec Brian Doll (his title is apparently marketing badass) said 20 to 30 show up every day, though not necessarily from 9 to 5. “Some come in at 5:30, have dinner and code all night,” he said.

The company runs on Hubot, an open-source chat application it developed that does more than chat. Hubot can tell team members who’s in the office by pinging MAC addresses. A person who forgets his keys can call Hubot’s Office.me application, which sees who’s onsite and sends a message to them to open the door.

As cloud computing gets entrenched it will enable even more goodies like this, because in ten years, developers won’t have to worry about compute resources or where they are. They’ll just be a utility, like electricity, says Preston-Werner.

That frees up cycles for development. The availability of powerful cloud infrastructure, open-source software, and a way to manage complex and far-flung projects will give developers what they need to work on extremely complex projects.

But open source no longer stops at software. Preston-Werner is excited that the model is reaching beyond software into hardware projects like the Arduino effort that aims to open source the design and production of electronics: “Hardware is where software was 20 years ago in that hobbyists are getting involved and making it a collaborative effort.” That’s the kind of effort that excites Preston-Werner.