Scaling GitHub's Employees

September 28, 2011 holman

GitHub has been pretty public about how we work. We love to write about it, tweet about it, and give talks about it. But there’s usually a lingering question of whether this type of workflow scales.

It does.

It scales.

We do things differently at GitHub: we work out of chat rooms, we don’t enforce hours, and we have zero managers. People work on what they want to work on. Product development is driven by whoever wants to drive product.

I’m GitHub employee number nine, and although I wasn’t there at the beginning, I’ve been hearing and reading the same things since even before I was hired a year and a half ago: GitHub really has a great work environment, but it’s not going to scale as they grow. The common sentiment was once GitHub grew past five employees, they’ll have to start changing their strategy.

Once we made it to five employees, we heard the same thing about ten employees. Once we made it to ten employees, then they talked about twenty. Then thirty. Today we’re at forty employees, and, if anything, we’re even happier with our way of working than ever before.

Code gets shipped fast

Central to scaling GitHub’s humans is a streamlined way to deliver code. With each additional employee added, you’re exponentially growing potential pain points as communication paths inside the company get more complex. Building more barriers to product development is not the answer.

Pull Requests are our major breakthrough. Scott Chacon went into great detail about how we use Pull Requests at GitHub. I gave a talk on it, too. Pull Requests mean we can do away with code review meetings. Pull Requests mean we can quickly and safely deploy features. Pull Requests mean our designers and developers work together in one place.

Pull Requests are the way we’re able to continually improve our product quickly without sacrificing code quality.

Break apart the company

Companies like Instagram, Quora, and Reddit get a lot of press and buzz, but GitHub’s bigger than all of them. Combined. We’re still a small company, but at 42 employees and counting, we’re no longer a tiny company.

We have very little hierarchy in GitHub — on some days our CEO ships more code than the rest of us do — but as we’ve grown larger we’ve let natural breaks in overall development happen. Embracing these as they happen is critical. We’re far past the point where any single person can monitor every changed line of code.

We have natural groupings: a dozen or two work on the main Rails app, a small team works on GitHub Firewall Install, a couple are in charge of GitHub Jobs, one works exclusively on the Git core team, and we break out into a number of platform-specific teams like the iPhone app, the Mac app, and open source projects like Eclipse, libgit2, and others. There aren’t a lot of barriers between teams, so we encourage you to move between teams as your interest allows.

These natural groupings let specific people focus on and own those areas. Those teams are in charge when things break. Those teams are in charge of improving the product. Our ability to trust individual teams to work independently allows us to tackle more and more projects.

Automate, automate, automate

Another thing GitHub does well is automate tedious — and important — tasks. There’s a very strong culture of building mini-apps and Hubot scripts if it helps with automation.

There’s two reasons for why we push hard on this. The first is most obvious: you’re letting a scripted process save you time so you can focus on doing real work. The second is more subtle: automation reduces institutional knowledge. Institutional knowledge leads to a minority group inside of the company retaining answers. That forces new employees to bother those few in order to make impactful changes. It becomes a very verbal, synchronous process, which we try to avoid.

By automating deploys, a brand-new GitHubber can type hubot deploy github to production and deploy changes on their first day without needing to read up on how our deploy script delivers code updates to 60+ servers. By running tests automatically for each pushed Git branch, each developer doesn’t have to find out how to get CI to run their tests. By scripting commonly-used Graphite queries into Hubot, each employee can generate graphs of application exceptions, deploys, and Twitter mentions to @github to visually determine if there’s a problem with a recent deploy without having to learn the specific Graphite syntax.

The Uphill Battle

This stuff doesn’t come easily, but it unfortunately leaves easily. Figuring out ways to streamline, to improve your process, to grow your company as you grow your employees is a constant struggle. It’s something that should be continually re-evaluated.

Is this workflow going to work for us when we’re 500 employees? Likely not. But core values and ideas last. Figure out what your core values are, and adapt and refine them as you grow.