Requiem for GitHub

pieterhpieterh wrote on 07 Feb 2016 12:51


Since its birth in 2008, GitHub redefined how software developers worked together. The firm was famous for several reasons: it had no middle management, it had a strong remote working culture, it made exactly what we needed, no more or less, and it was always profitable. These are interrelated. Today, GitHub has 500 employees, is valued at $2bn, and I think it is dying. Here is why.

A Prayer for the Dying

Let me start by saying I've been a fan of GitHub ever since I met a "GitHub guy" at a GitHub drink-up in Brussels. His job seemed to be to write code, and travel around the world drinking with other developers. I fell in love with company culture immediately.

Over the years, GitHub never disappointed me. Their platform was stable and reliable. Their UI remained minimalistic and as smooth fitting as a velvet glove. We switched our issue tracking from the venerable Jira to GitHub, watched with joy as it integrated with Travis and AppVeyor, and felt cosseted and safe with a firm that worked and thought as we did.

I've often turned to GitHub support for help. They have always been impeccable: fast, accurate service. It is unheard of for a web business. Obviously the staff loved their firm, loved their work, and loved their users. And we loved them right back.

Then in 2014 the drama started. It began with one recent employee making claims of harassment against the CEO and his wife. It turned nasty as anonymous rumors spread of this employee's manipulative behavior in the firm, and her public tweets about being blackmailed towards sex with the CEO. The employee produced no evidence to back up her claims.

The founder and CEO resigned, his co-founder took over, and a new wind started to blow in the firm. A VP of Social Impact was hired. Middle management started to creep in. These new managers began to crack down on remote working. The old guard started to leave.

This story goes far beyond a fight between Social Justice Warriors and the Patriarchy for control over our Open Source dollars. This is not simply Death by Code of Conduct, though the firm did adopt a controversial CoC that disturbed not a few of its users.

I've written extensively on living systems and power pyramids, and the war between these two organizational models. GitHub was a rare example of a successful living system growing out of the fruit basket that is Silicon Valley. It quickly became dominant in its market. It was profitable, free of debt, growing, loved.

I've learned one thing from being an entrepreneur for 35 years: when there is unguarded money on the table, the wolves arrive. Call these as you like, their goal is to take the cash and blame someone else. They always use the same strategies, which I've documented extensively in my book The Psychopath Code. Divide and conquer. Charm and distraction. Promises and lies. Stealth, and violence.

GitHub is a treasure. Its current valuation of $2,000,000,000 is just a baseline. It is worth ten times more, at least, if handled right. What it needs to justify a $20bn price tag are three things:

  • The right structure. That means a power pyramid instead of this strange "horizontal" network.
  • The right size. 300 employees is too few. Yahoo! has 12,500 employees, and is worth $33bn on the stock market. GitHub needs at least 5,000 employees.
  • The right product. The minimalist GitHub we open source developers know and love does not appeal to corporate clients.

The first two changes are already happening. I predict the third will start to appear over the next six to 12 months. We'll see acquisitions of firms like Travis, expansion of core features like the issue tracker, more sophisticated organization management, and so on. If you want to see what GitHub looks like in two years' time, look at its traditional competitors.

GitHub will become more profitable. If I had shares in the firm I certainly would not sell them yet. Wait a year or two, until the VCs and new managers find their acquisition target. Wait until the exit, and then sell. After that, it's over for the firm, and those who have stayed long enough to make their winnings will be looking for a way out.

There are people who will question my framing and the time-line. Let me explain this as a murder mystery. We see a healthy person suddenly falling sick. We see a massive insurance policy being taken out. This person's demise is going to be extremely profitable. As investigator, you assume malice. You assume there exist people capable and willing to do anything if the price is right. You look for motive, means, opportunity. You follow the money.

Look at the timing of VC investment, hiring of new employees, internal political fights, ousting of old CEO, and hiring of new managers. Look at a climate in which political outsiders use the weapons of gender and race against meritocracy. What emerges is the picture of a slow fight between the owners and investors, and the founder/CEO. The owners want their billions. The founder/CEO wants to keep GitHub alive.

Unfortunately our data is incomplete. People are unwilling to speak publicly about what happened. We rely on claims and anonymous counter claims. Only time will tell.

I wish I was wrong. Yet we are seeing large-scale interference in a successful, and essential platform. This is not idle tinkering to solve diversity issues. This is not idealism. We are watching a fight over money and power. No, that's wrong: there is no more fight. The founders of GitHub have already given in, one way or another. The fight is over. The users of GitHub won't fight. They will either accept, or move away.

If my speculation is right, what will the impact be? GitHub have established themselves as The Place to host our public projects. Surely losing this will be a major blow to free and open source. Well, happily, no. This is how it happens: we construct, and then when we reach a plateau, the wolves come along, destroy what we make, and liberate us to go forth and do better. Psychopaths are the garbage collectors of human society.

Whither the ZeroMQ community? I'm going to begin using GitLab for my own projects, and if that works, I'll aim to move the ZeroMQ projects that I care for, to GitLab, after discussion and consensus.

Thanks for all the fish, GitHub. And to all GitHubbers, thank you a million times. You did the impossible, and you did it right, and I wish you all the best for your next projects. Hugs. :)


To my surprise, Julie Ann Horvath (JAH) commented on my tweet:

Julie Ann Horvath: @hintjens CEOs are very rarely (see: never) removed from a company without a claim being backed by substantial evidence.

So her argument is this: TPW agreed to step down, meaning he was "removed." The implication is that TPW admitted guilt by quitting, despite GitHub's investigation showing JAH's two claims of harassment were false.

JAH backs up her argument by stating as a fact that CEOs are "never" removed from a company without substantial evidence. Thus, she implies, there was in fact substantial evidence against TPW. Note that she doesn't actually say this, not has she ever produced such evidence.

From my own experience, CEOs and other managers tend to fight with shareholders and boards, and it's this politics that forces them out. The role CEO is always temporary, annually renewable. Fired, or step down, it's much the same. Anyhow, let's look for some research on why CEOs get fired. Bingo: Forbes reports on a study of 286 organizations. Nothing about harassment. Rather:

My team and I interviewed 1,087 board members from 286 organizations that fired, or otherwise forced out, their chief executive. And we found that most CEOs get fired for “soft issues.” Thirty-one percent of CEOs got fired for poor change management, 28% for ignoring customers, 27% for tolerating low performers, 23% for denying reality and 22% for too much talk and not enough action.

I tweeted this to JAH.

Pieter Hintjens: @nrrrdcore that is false: study of 286 organizations showed majority fired for "soft" reasons:

JAH dismissed this study using the "true Scotsman" argument:

Julie Ann Horvath: @hintjens in public companies, perhaps. Rerun those numbers against privately held/vc backed startups.

I pressed F5 to "rerun" the numbers and got exactly the same results. I'm not sure what else JAH would expect, as I did link her to the Forbes site. Nowhere does the article say it looked only at public companies. Nor is there any logical reason it would be different in a private firm from a public firm. I'd expect the standards of evidence to be higher in a public firm, if anything. I suspect she didn't RTFA.

Here is a telling quote from Leadership IQ's the original article:

"A more accurate explanation for why they get fired," he added, "is that the Board of Directors or shareholders have lost confidence in their ability to generate sufficient financial returns in the future."

In other words, it's about money. And my hypothesis that TPW was pushed out in order to turn GitHub into a cash cow still stands.

Undeterred, JAH now attacks my motivations, instead of providing any real information:

Julie Ann Horvath: again, you're reaching to make an argument that suits your interests and currently held position.

What position? I'm a writer. My position is, I write what I see. My interests are truth and knowledge. There's no profit in this. Maybe JAH is projecting her own viewpoint.

Then JAH continues in a flood of tweets, presumably playing to her audience:

Julie Ann Horvath: @hintjens also, I don't identify as an SJW, I'm merely a tech worker who happens to be a woman.

Did I call her a SJW? No, I said the situation at GitHub "goes far beyond a fight between Social Justice Warriors and the Patriarchy." If anything I was saying, to the Reddit crowds, don't read this as a classic SJW drama. It's not.

JAH continues, to applause from her admirers, I assume:

Julie Ann Horvath: @hintjens I'm vocal, yes. But please don't label me in a way that's been known to incite violence against women.

Ah, here is the payload. She implies (no accusation, it's the implication) that I've placed her in physical danger by labeling her. "Violence against women," seems oddly specific coming from someone who doesn't "identify as an SJW." Why not simply "violence?" Is there a specific form of violence that… ah, yes, men the aggressors, women the victims. "Don't call me SJW, that's so cishet!"

Julie Ann Horvath: @hintjens all I'm asking for is the same respect you would award your own peers or employees.

Well, for a start I have no employees, and any peer who made unfounded accusations of sexual harassment would get the same treatment from me. This has happened to friends of mine, male and female, and my first response is: "do you have evidence, and if not, how can I believe your word over theirs?"

If someone abuses, harasses, or threatens you, get evidence any way you can (pull out your smartphone!) and then proceed.

There is a classic pattern here. Woman claims sexual harassment from powerful man. Man denies it. Woman goes to social media and makes her case in court of public opinion. Man cannot disprove a negative. Woman gets crowd of sympathetic admirers. Some may hate men. Some may feel guilt at their own misdeeds. Some may hate what that powerful man stands for. Some may just like being part of a mob.

The court of public opinion is not a court, and street justice is not justice. It is above all, the vulnerable and weak who get abused in such systems. We worked hard and long to build justice into the State.

If you are harassed or abused, you do not shout about it. You take it to the police and if they don't act, you still have the choice of a private lawsuit. This is what courageous women and men do, when they are abused. What JAH did was something different. If you go to the public with a private matter, you lose your right to privacy.

JAH insists on dodging the reason we're exchanging tweets: her public allegations, and her failure to produce any material evidence.

Julie Ann Horvath @hintjens I hope this conversation helps you better consider the implications of statements like these in the future.

Well, my statements stand, and now I have more to back them up. Talking to a professional victim always leaves one with a nasty, unpleasant feel. There's no honesty there, just a shadow person who is good with charm and words. See, I didn't made any accusations. Just the implication. Neat, isn't it?

Julie Ann Horvath @hintjens and I also hope you have an awesome week 😊

Sweet. I'd have expected a little more backwash from 24.6K followers, yet there we are.

I then stumbled on Daniel Tennner's article on GitHub. This is worth reading. A few choice quotes:

These are all very clear signs of an open culture that’s being ripped to shreds. It’s tragic. It’s also terribly ironic to see the old bullshit excuse that “well, it just doesn’t work at this scale” being deployed.


When did the dream start dying? Who knows. But I have a hunch that it started before Tom Preston-Werner was ousted from the company, a couple of years ago, in a case of sexual harassment that was later dismissed as groundless. This smacks me of political play, a scenario very similar to what played out at AES, where an unrelated incident is used .. to weaken, attack or destroy it. GitHub was an open culture at the time. What did Tom do there? Why was it important to get him out?

This story isn't over.

Update 2 (2016/02/25)

GitHub hires another political commissar, this one famous for enforcing political correctness on open source projects. The combination of charm and deniable brutality is familiar.


Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License