GitHub CEO: We're helping software eat the world

GitHub CEO Tom Preston-Werner explains GitHub's appeal and what it means to 'optimize for happiness'

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When Andreessen Horowitz came in to GitHub, it was to help us succeed in the direction that we're already going. That was the understanding. And you can see from their writing and their commitment to charity and just through their service-oriented package that they deliver, they have a bunch of people within Andreessen Horowitz that can help you do various things. They're building a different kind of venture firm, just like we're building a different kind of company. They're not just investment bankers.

Knorr: It seems like there's a kind of an underlying philosophy at work here that ties in to GitHub's company culture, which is kind of unique. Would you like to describe that a little bit? I mean you're CEO, yet not really CEO...

Preston-Werner: There are very few titles. CEO is one title we have because it's useful for communicating with the external world.

Knorr: Certainly with enterprises.

Preston-Werner: Yeah. It turns out people want to know who the CEO of GitHub is. The way we've built this company is very much like open source itself, in that in the open source world people work on the things they find most interesting because nobody's forcing them to do so. What we try to do is hire the kind of people who are going to act in the same way. We hire them to work on something they're interested in, then help them to work on those interests without having a management structure that is sitting above them forcing them to get work done, otherwise they're on the chopping block.

Knorr: You have to find self-motivated individuals who are going to do that.

Preston-Werner: But if you can do that, and you can maintain a population of people who operate that way, then you will continue to attract that same type of person to that environment. Because the people who work well in that environment are desperate to have an environment like that in which to work. If we can do that, which we've been doing since the very beginning, then you can have a company that's built around happiness instead of just profit motive.

I call it "optimizing for happiness," which means don't start with the dollar as the motivating reason for the company to exist. Start with increasing the happiness of everyone involved. That's the employees, that's the customers, and it's the shareholders -- and every full-time employee here has some equity. This is the grand experiment of GitHub.

If you optimize for happiness, then I propose that profits will follow, because you'll have people motivated to work on the things that they're interested in, the things that will increase the happiness of the customers and the shareholders. As long as the company itself provides a vision that people can relate to, that they think is worth working on, that gives them a purpose to be there. A big part of what we do is try to work on the vision of the company and make sure it's well communicated. That's critical also to the way we work.

Knorr: We've covered a lot here, although I don't think I'm going to get much more out of you as far as your future plans are concerned.

Preston-Werner: Well, I can give you one tiny hint about the future. Before, you were asking what we were going to spend the money on and I said GitHub is just the beginning. The way that we think about the company as a whole is not just about developers, designers, and people writing documentation. The thing that best describes what we do is to make it easier for people to work together than to work alone. That is the crux of what drives the product development of In the future, things other than just writing code are going to be hard, all the easy problems will have been solved, and if we can apply the things that we know about development to other disciplines, then we can change the world in even bigger ways.

Knorr: Beyond code.

Preston-Werner: That's all I'm going to say about that.

Knorr: Well, that's a tantalizing way to end.

This article, "GitHub CEO: We're helping software eat the world," originally appeared at Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog. And for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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