GitHub's Code For Workplace Happiness

The utopian workplace that is GitHub didn't just materialize. CEO Tom Preston-Werner shares the intentional choices it made to boost happiness--something any company can emulate.

GitHub CEO Tom Preston-Werner is on the phone from San Francisco speaking with the cordial certainty of a professor. Halfway through our conversation, I read to him something he blogged back in October 2010:

At Github, we don't have meetings. We don't have set work hours or workdays. We don't keep track of vacation or sick days. We don't have managers or an org chart. We don't have a dress code.

Things have gotten more sophisticated since then, he says. Founded in 2008 by Preston-Werner, Chris Wanstrath, and PJ Hyett, GitHub's grown from 10 people to 160. A Most Innovative Company, it recently received $100 million in funding at a $750 million valuation. And as a social network for programmers to share code--and the largest host of code in the world--it's increasingly an integral part of the software that's running the world.

What GitHub solves for.

GitHub acts like a cross between Wikipedia, Google Docs, and Facebook, letting programmers share code and, crucially, discuss the differences between builds. Preston-Werner says that when projects grow, managing complexity becomes the center of software development--making the decision of what code goes in where is more important than the code itself. By keeping the discussion close to the code, GitHub accelerates the engineering process.

But GitHub--like another social network--didn't begin with the intention of becoming a company. It was a passion project that he and cofounder Wanstrath built on nights and weekends until it grew into their own company.

"We wanted to make GitHub a place where we wanted to work; that was part of the deal," he says, noting that he and Wanstrath were coming from gigs with a lot of process, rigid departments, and inflexible job descriptions. "That's what makes it interesting to us to build a company, not just the product that we're building, but the company itself."

From the CEO's description, GitHub exemplifies the connected company: a kind of arch-meritocratic, libertopian ant colony. He told us how to build one.

How to build your own GitHub-ian utopia.

To start, optimize for happiness. "Optimizing for happiness is nuanced," Preston-Werner says. Listening to him talk about the theory--which he's blogged and spoken about--reminds listeners of how positive psychology is infusing organizational management. You get the feeling that when consultancies talk about sustainable high engagement and GitHub stresses happiness optimization, they're barking up the same value-creating tree.

It's simple, really. When you optimize for happiness, you optimize for the happiness of three groups: team members, product users, and shareholders.

"If you do that, then profits will arise naturally because happy team members create great products," he says. "Great products have users who love those products and are willing to pay for them. A wide user base willing to pay for great products--well, that makes shareholders happy. And then the virtuous cycle continues."

If you want people to be happy, let them do the work they want.

An Emersonian sense of self-reliance animates GitHub: You choose the work that you do individually, but you are responsible to the collective--which is at the center of how projects get made, who gets hired, and what, exactly, the CEO of such a place does.

GitHub is radically flat. Though there is of course "implicit hierarchy" with a company of its size, Preston-Werner describes the organization as a self-organizing, organic arrangement--no one points at you and says, "you're a manager and these are your reports." Instead, teams self-organize: People decide they want to work on a project together.

This, Preston-Werner says, allows leadership qualities to "arise naturally" rather than be assigned via promotion. Some people are more strategic, some people are more focused on implementation--in this way, the right mix of skillsets and mindsets can combine. If a team finds they're lacking in a skill, they'll recruit from elsewhere in the company; if there's no one in the company, that's when they ping the CEO to hire that skill.

How to get hired.

Aside from doing press, spacing out the timelines of projects, and leading the weekly all-hands Beer:30 talks, Preston-Werner says that he spends most of his time with hiring. And among the skillsets and experience, Preston-Werner looks for people who match GitHub's "taste."

For GitHub, "taste" means the same set of values that allows for GitHub's open autonomy. He reels off a list of feeler questions: Do they care about improving as a person? Do they believe in products? In supporting users? In making developers' lives better? In making it easier for people to work together? Are they self-motivated? Do they value communication skills? Do they appreciate the freedom to self-direct and make the best possible decision?

"If all of those things are true," Preston-Werner says, "whatever they're working on is valuable."

By bringing in this kind of self-directing personality--and encouraging people to do the work that most satisfies them--the company arrives at features that never would have come from its leadership. (For evidence, check the blog.) Preston-Werner wants GitHub to be the best place to design, build, and ship software, which means making it the best place to work.

"We're in a different kind of situation than we were a hundred years ago," he says. "We're not factory workers anymore, and we need to behave differently in order to optimize what matters to us--creativity and quality of life."

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Leth-Olsen]

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2 Comments

  • aschambers

    Root Inc shares a similar philosophy about create a great environment for both the people that work there and the clients that visit.  It's designed to create an experience. Someone in the organization recently said: "Clients almost always comment on how the relaxed and informal atmosphere is a great way to be very productive and the lack of hubris makes it comfortable for everyone to share thoughts and ideas.  It's so ingrained in the company culture and environment, it's hard to pinpoint what exactly the organization is doing different to create it. Coming into the office can create a sense of ease... that's the best way to describe it". 

  • Rkennedy

    Who's going to clean the toilets? Who's going to work in Bangladesh? This mindset isn't utopian it's unreal. FC shouldn't encourage or promote blind thought.