GitHub CEO: We're helping software eat the world

CEO Tom Preston-Werner explains the appeal of his cloud-based code repository, why Andreessen Horowitz invested $100 million, and what 'optimizing for happiness' really means

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Knorr: It is. So what in your personal background led you to launch GitHub?

Preston-Werner: I come from a development background. I actually went to college for physics but switched to computer science when I realized that physics was just math and I'm not that big of a math fan. Then I dropped out to join a startup after my second year of college. I was in the startup world.

I discovered Git, which allows this really cool style of development with your friends, because you can all branch, you can all work together. It was very elegant, and yet it was still very hard to share that work because there wasn't anywhere online that you could just put your repositories and give other people access to them. That's what we saw as being missing.

Knorr: As a means of distribution, the cloud part of GitHub has obviously been huge. But in terms of the affinity the developers have for the product itself, you think it's probably more the branching and merging functionality?

Preston-Werner: I think the branching and the merging was the killer feature of Git in the beginning, and now GitHub is the killer feature of Git. I say that because people don't work alone anymore. All the easy problems have been solved. What remains are the hard problems, and in order to solve those hard problems we have to work together.

GitHub is about enabling people to work together better on code. That is what we do. That is what GitHub the product is designed to do, and it turns out that Git is an excellent technology upon which to build a collaborative layer, because it has things like branching that allow people to work simultaneously without stepping on each other's toes -- and not having to fear that they're going to lose their work or they're going to break the build for other people.

Back then it was a huge pain in the ass to get your repository back and forth between your friends. It's like -- where would you put it? There weren't any good services; you didn't want to set up your own Linux box. This is the whole SaaS revolution. We provide an easy way for you to just get your work online and decide who you want to share it with.

Knorr: What was the business model when you started?

Preston-Werner: Let's make it free for open source because we love open source and open source contributors don't want to have to pay money. That's kind of the whole point -- it's all free. Let's make the whole service free for open source and charge the people that have money -- that is, companies. So we charge for private code. If you want to do everything in the open, it's totally free. If you want to have your code accessed only by the people that you say and so it's private to your organization, then you pay us money. Enterprise is another level, which is an on-premises product that you purchase from us, install on your own hardware.

Knorr: It's my understanding that you've built quite a successful business.

Preston-Werner: That's correct.

Knorr: So why would you need such a big influx of capital? You have a successful company; you seem to have a company culture that everyone likes.

Preston-Werner: The biggest answer is that and GitHub as a product are just the beginning of what we want to do. Step one is really doubling down on enterprise and pushing forward in enterprise and pushing forward in ways that the enterprise world hasn't seen before. That means the way that we sell it, the sales process. The way that you install it, we built from scratch technology that allows you to upgrade your enterprise installations very easily and we have releases very often, more often than most enterprise companies.

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