In recent months, we’ve seen the slow, gradual growth of open-source to quell the irony of GitHub: GitLab, a FOSS GitHub-style piece of software that also offers a subscription model, has been getting a lot of press. Perhaps relatedly, GitHub have been making organizational changes which do not strike me as innocuous. This would not be the first time that FOSS’s free (as-in-beer) hosting sweetheart has turned its back on the community: SourceForge, once a place much like GitHub today, made some changes that arguably opened the market for Github. From Wired:
In the years since career services outfit DHI Holdings acquired [SourceForge] in 2012, users have lamented the spread of third-party ads that masquerade as download buttons, tricking users into downloading malicious software.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about profit-seeking behavior, it’s only natural for a company to grow, to return value for its investors, and to, I suppose, conquer the world. What is a problem is when that companies product is, at least in part, software that was created with the utmost good intention: unconditional sharing. GitHub’s enterprise business of selling subscriptions per-repository to enterprise is great because programmers know-and-love GitHub, and enterprise IT can manage permissions and source code long after programmers move elsewhere. This was a magnificent aligning of incentives by GitHub: programmers get to share their code unconditionally (or whatever nerdy stuff they want to do), and their employers will pay to keep the lights on because the employees will ask to use the service at work. Superb.
A turn for the worse
What’s going to happen next with GitHub, however, I fear will not be so win-win. From Business Insider:
We also understand that [GitHub CEO] Wanstrath is working extremely closely with Andreessen Horowitz’s Peter Levine and Sequoia’s Jim Goetz, talking with one or both of them almost daily. These are two of the industry’s most respected VC investors.
One person familiar with Wanstrath’s relationship with these VCs told us they are “thrilled” with him and with the changes he’s been making at the company.
“Chris wanted to change leadership structure and he made a set of changes. You’re going to see a bunch of announcements where new folks are joining,” this person said.
The rest of the article discusses how GitHub are clearing house of longtime employees and removing the existing “meritocracy” in favor of “hierarchy.” In and of itself, I wouldn’t fear either of these changes: companies regularly undergo change and hierarchy is perhaps necessary at a certain scale. The reason this worries me with GitHub however is that they, in the eyes of the FOSS community and in the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, were supposed to be the chosen one. Despite not being open-source themselves, GitHub have always (in my eyes) been a programmer’s company and a company of programmers, with great community outreach and geektastic stuff like Hubot. These changes and cosiness with VC people make me suspect that GitHub is looking to take on another round of funding and to monetize its “social” aspect.
At risk of self-aggrandizing, I’m going to quote myself from earlier today, where I was talking about Facebook:
I cannot imagine that a highly technically literate consumer base would be willing to subject themselves to the policies of many of today’s Internet giants. In particular, Facebook, and social media with similar business models, sell your attention to advertisers. In the early days, these services are great: they’ve usually received a huge amount of capital and provide a service users want to get their attention. When the capital runs dry, the investors want their 100x return, and the service has the user’s attention, they sell the user’s attention using information the users inputted themselves.
I may have to eat these words, because precisely what we have is a “highly technically literate consumer base” that’s “willing to subject themselves” to some VC-backed giant looking for “100x” return: me and developers like me. When I first began programming, I was so fickle, I bought fully into GitHub’s marketing of being a merit-based community of programmers, isolated from all the bullshit of corporate politics. Of course, there were problems with GitHub: it felt like the world stopped turning when it went down and there’s a whole slew of annoyances that maintainers of large projects have to deal with. But I looked past these because of the goodwill of the community.
The need to grow
The reason things have changed now and that it’s past time to get off of GitHub is that it’s not enough for groups like Andreessen Horowitz or Sequoia that company’s be merely profitable: an agency making Flash-based websites can be profitable. It has to be exponential. Here’s Matt Henderson, founder of Makalu, talking about what it’s like to take on venture capital:
[VCs are] not looking for a profitable business; instead, they’re looking for growth that provides the opportunity for a 100x exit. And their expectation is that you, the founder, will work to achieve that at any cost. And since their investment also brings the expectation of participation and inclusion in the running of the business, any company owner considering taking on investment would be well advised to make sure at the outset that everyone’s on the same page in terms of objectives.
Perhaps GitHub is seeing a downturn in growth of their enterprise business. Perhaps they fear competition from GitLab and need investment to fend it off. Perhaps they’re greedy and want to be as big as Facebook one day. I don’t know. But I’m certain that if the recent trend continues, we’re going to see GitHub positioned as a product that has the worst parts of LinkedIn and SourceForge. A programmer’s professional status will be tied to their open-source contributions and public side-projects, but when anyone downloads them, the software will come bundled with some browser plugin or “GitHub installer” or something ludicrous. Or maybe not, maybe GitHub will find a way to grow profit without selling out their users. I’m just not going to wait around to find out.
My thanks to Michael Tsai for the links.