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Where coders connect
Former UC student establishes a celebrated website in GitHub that simplifies coding collaboration for millions of users
by Marisa Whitaker
While developing the website that hosts the world’s largest open-source community, Chris Wanstrath, co-founder of GitHub, came to appreciate the power of collaboration. At last check, he had shared it with more than 3.4 million users.
In just five years since launching GitHub.com (a site that claims to be “the best place to share code with friends, co-workers, classmates, and complete strangers”), 27-year-old Wanstrath, a former University of Cincinnati student, has seen a simple idea grow into perhaps the most powerful software-development tool on the planet. GitHub is valued somewhere in the neighborhood of $750 million. Not bad for an English-major dropout, who decided he’d rather write code than go to class.
Akin to a blend of Wikipedia and Facebook, but for the programming world, GitHub has exploded into a center for developers to share and contribute to one another’s coding simply. In other words, the tool allows multiple contributors to work on the same piece of software without losing track of the changes or stepping on one another’s progress. Where GitHub has experienced financial success is by allowing companies the option to pay to use the tool privately, where developers can work together on proprietary software. Even WalMart is a customer.
Wanstrath and his co-founders never intended for GitHub to become so big. Nonetheless, they are proud of how well the website has helped so many people build better software programs together. GitHub has grown into the largest code host in the world with 5.9 million repositories and about 10,000 new users and 20,000 new repositories each day.
“I don’t think anyone else is close,” Wanstrath says.
From the beginning, what became most apparent was not just the need to share code, but the need to work with someone over the Internet.
“Collaboration was the real problem we were solving,” Wanstrath said during a return trip to UC to help launch the university’s mobile applications incubator on campus in February 2013, a move he hopes will inspire more people to take an interest in coding.
It has been a wild ride since he last left Cincinnati’s campus. After attempting a degree in English at UC, but instead spending all his time programming in his apartment, Wanstrath, minus a college degree, applied for a job in San Francisco at CNET taking a leap into professional programming.
“I didn’t go to class, and I programmed,” he laughs when asked how he spent his time at UC. “I don’t ever think I thought that a degree was going to be necessary. I thought skills were necessary. All I wanted to do was start learning a lot.”
He had taken one or two UC programming classes and even considered switching to a computer-science major, but with all the free time college life afforded him, Wanstrath got seriously invested in coding and realized he could make it into a job. Since he had been completely self-taught until moving to San Francisco, he knew CNET had taken a big chance on him.
“I didn’t think I was going to cut it as a programmer, but I’m sort of addicted to it,” he admits.
His former Cincinnati roommate, Mark Wilson, doesn’t let Wanstrath forget who did all the work around the apartment to give him ample opportunity at the biggest success of his life.
“He was always coding,” says Wilson. The two are still good friends and even played in bands together while Wanstrath lived in Cincinnati. Wilson describes Wanstrath as “kind, generous, hilarious and loyal.”
From a young age, Wanstrath loved video games and had aspirations to create some of his own until he realized how much math goes into making a video game. He played around on a computer at his grandparent’s house making it perform simple tasks, and in high school he was impressed by gamers setting up websites to coordinate online battles.
Wanstrath is thankful to have a family that was 100 percent supportive of his goals every step of the way. When he had the “I’m dropping out of college” talk with his dad, he never felt like his parents were disappointed.
“Do 20 year olds think about risks?” he wonders when asked about taking on a career without a degree. Wanstrath’s fear was that he wouldn’t succeed at CNET and he would have to move back in with his mom. Although, he concedes, he does have “a very cool mom.”
During his move to San Francisco, Wanstrath resolved that he would not let himself be tied down to unfulfilling projects in his professional life. The chance to work on really great things and interact with smart people on the same level pushed him to make his career into something wholly gratifying. He even dumped his World of Warcraft account to eliminate any chance of distractions.
He and GitHub co-founder Tom Preston-Werner came together in 2007 to solve the online collaboration problem as a side project. They had both been developers working on the Ruby on Rails web development community.
Their goal at first was to improve Git, a version control system, that allowed for online collaboration, but lacked easy of use. Along the way they added two more co-founders in PJ Hyett (whom Wanstrath met at CNET while working on the Chow and Chowhound projects) and Scott Chacon. Their site became not only a functioning collaboration tool, but it also looked great and provided a unique customer experience. The uniqueness of their startup may be best represented by the mutant company mascot, the “Octocat” — a cat head with tentacles for a body and often found wearing a space suit on site graphics.
Equally as hip as the Octocat is their office space — a 14,000-square-foot loft — where 150 GitHub workers spend their days. The office, complete with air hockey, ping-pong, gaming systems, a Kegerator, standing desks and even a café where both employees and guests can bring their laptops and work on projects.
Before they had a physical space, work was mainly conducted through Campfire, a private chat service accessible with a browser, desktop application and mobile apps.
“We have about 100 rooms (in Campfire),” says Wanstrath. “Most of them are specialized rooms, but we also have regional and topical rooms — rooms for people who exercise together, or make music together, or live in the same part of the country or work with similar technologies.”
In full respect to the collaboration philosophy, there are no formal managers at GitHub. The projects are fueled simply by individuals with their own goals and motivation. Employees are not made to focus on deadlines and are instead encouraged to complete their projects promptly and comfortably. All public projects are viewable and if a programmer wants to help someone working on a separate project, they are allowed to offer insights and assistance.
Wanstrath’s well-worn style of tan jackets, pale face and shaggy reddish hair makes him look more the part of a blues-rock star than a programmer. He claims to be introverted, yet he has a genuine interest in working face-to-face with people and listening to their needs with earnest consideration.
Everyone around him – as soon as they realize who he is – scrambles to put a bug in his ear and a chance for that big connection. When talking, Wanstrath speaks so rapidly, it is easy to get lost in his discourse. When not the center of attention, he is reserved, plays a guitar and enjoys reading science fiction and physics books.
“Trying to be a writer and coder uses the same parts -- in front of a monitor, hands on a keyboard -- all day,” he laments. “Music is a different part of the brain.”
He likes going to shows and dabbling in electronic dance music, as well. Among alternative career goals, Wanstrath wanted to become a musician.
Upon every return trip to Cincinnati, like the good Queen City native he is, Wanstrath gets Skyline Chili about five times, he says. He also has his parents send Graeter’s ice cream and seriously considered opening a franchise in San Francisco even though he has zero restaurant experience.
Today, Wanstrath doesn’t directly work with his co-founders but they continue to collaborate over GitHub and are still close friends. Although he has not felt a big change in his life as a result of his success, he has traveled all over the world and loves the camaraderie between GitHub users that he comes in contact with. He thinks it is remarkable that people are using his site all over the world.
“It’s really awesome that people like GitHub,” he says with unequivocal modesty.
GitHub hosts events at local bars around the country called “drinkups” and going to those events has become one of Wanstrath’s favorite things to do.
“Everyone will say ‘Hi’ to you and you don’t have to worry about any social anxiety,” he says. “It’s just a really welcoming environment.”
At a drinkup in Austin, he was chatting with a man who was enthusiastically using Resque, a program Wanstrath wrote. Turns out, the man had no idea he was talking to the brains behind the program.
“I’ve met people who are way more technical than me,” he says. “Being able to meet other smart people is a huge job perk and some even like GitHub.”
As for the future, Wanstrath is not really sure what is ahead. If anything, he hopes more people become involved in personalizing their technological experience.
“I think that’s how you get to technological breakthroughs -- by focusing on real issues,” says Wanstrath. “Now we have millions of people signing up; it’s unbelievable the scope of GitHub.”
The culture of professional programming has grown from convoluted and boring to an engaging hub in which people enjoy their work. Wanstrath and his co-founders were able to breathe new life into working as a coder and simplified the process for people all over the world.
He puts it this way: “It’s really cool to get up every day and know that you’re making people’s lives better.”
Marisa Whitaker is a writing intern with UC Magazine.
Associate editor John Bach contributed to this article.