Back in 2008, Tom Preston-Werner, Chris Wanstrath, and PJ Hyett came together with a collective vision: to simplify sharing code. Before long, they launched GitHub, a wiki for programmers that’s become the largest code repository in the world. Now in its fifth year, GitHub has 4 million users, snagged $100 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz, and has a burgeoning staff of 211 scattered in offices across the globe.
For most companies, growth—of revenue, customers, products, or staff—is a pretty good indicator of success. For startups like GitHub, that growth can often be explosive (as with anything starting from zero). But it needs to be smart in order to stave off the crash and burn that typifies so many new endeavors. The Small Business Administration estimates a quarter of startups fail in the first 12 months and about half of new companies don’t make it to their fifth year.
Speeding the pace of software development wouldn’t have been possible without GitHub’s frustration-based approach to innovation and a manifesto for hacking growth. But they also believe in the power of their people—specifically the first five hires—all of whom are still with the company.
"Always hire someone who is better at something that you are," Preston-Werner tells Fast Company. While he and his cofounders were bootstrapping the growing enterprise, they quickly realized they couldn’t do everything. "The whole point [is to hire] new skills to fill out the breadth of what needs to be done," he says.
Rather than pull in five talented developers to fill up the network with a metric ton of great code, the starting cadre of staffers was chosen strategically to cover multiple areas of expertise from design and customer support, to HR compliance.
When you’re a bootstrapped company, and you’re hiring one person every six months, every single one has to count.
To find them, Preston-Werner says they reached out to existing networks. "It wasn’t so much about interviewing," he explains, "We already knew these people were awesome because of the work they’d already done."
Pooling their varied strengths laid the foundation for GitHub’s culture: a radically flat organization optimized for happiness.
Here’s how the process unfolded.
Hire No 1: Scott Chacon, The Expert
If you ever doubted the power of clever networking to land a dream job, consider the case of Scott Chacon. As a developer with (now defunct) Reatrix Systems, Chacon and Preston-Werner rubbed elbows at their local Ruby on Rails meetups. The informal gathering of enthusiasts allowed people to talk about their latest projects without the pressure of a high-stakes pitch for work.
"I was thinking Git—an open source distributed version control system—might be really cool and could get really popular," says Preston-Werner, but even he could see that it was pretty complex and needed to be simplified for more people to use.
Through the meetups, Preston-Werner says it became clear that Chacon was not only an expert in Git’s inner workings, he also wrote one of the first books about Git, and his talks became legendary within the developer community. He would, that is, be the ideal candidate to take on the task.
Unfortunately, as a bootstrapped startup, the founders didn’t have the resources to hire him full time right away. So Chacon worked as a contractor to build out the first iteration of Gist, a snippet site.
Within a few months of leaving their day jobs to build GitHub full time, the founders convinced Chacon to join the team—good timing since Reatrix was going out of business. Today he’s the company’s CIO.
What clinched my decision to join GitHub was having the freedom to be able to work on what I wanted. I wanted to delve into the guts of Git and be able to help the growing Git community in a more specific and practical way than writing books, and I knew that building GitHub would allow me to do that. It was a huge risk leaving an established company for a tiny bootstrapped startup, but once I understood the freedom I would have here, it was an easy decision.
Hire No 2: Tekkub, The Customer Whisperer
As the network grew, Preston-Werner says the team of four started "getting buried in support requests." Hanging out on GitHub’s Internet relay chat (IRC) trying to field as many questions as possible, Preston-Werner noticed there was one user who was doing double duty, managing dozens of open source projects while answering questions on the IRC.
Rather than just let him do his thing independently, Preston-Werner got in touch with Tekkub (his full name is a secret known only to the founders) to discuss joining the team on a part-time basis. "There was no interview," says Preston-Werner, "We already knew he could do the job."
Tekkub was working remotely from Colorado, so Preston-Werner says they corresponded through email and chat just to nail down the details. Tekkub would become the first of many remote GitHubbers. Seventy percent of the staff works elsewhere, a strategy the company embraces, partly because it helps to have people in different time zones to be most responsive to customers. It would take a year before the founders would meet Tekkub in person, though, to offer him a full-time job.
The moment that sealed the deal was when I first visited San Francisco and finally met folks face-to-face, and was trolled by Chris Wanstrath for the entire trip. He waited until the last possible moment to offer me a full-time job.
Hire No 3: Melissa Severini, The Administrative Guru
With development and customer support squared away, Preston-Werner says the growing team was still handling administrative tasks in an ad hoc way, at best. "You learn whatever is necessary to get the job done and screw up as little as possible," he says, laughing.
Coming out of survival-only mode meant that it was time to start thinking about legal stuff ("Did we do that incorporation thing right?"), travel, and the daily maintenance of an office. Enter Melissa Severini. Preston-Werner asserts that they knew her from the developer community, too, since she was managing operations at Planet Argon, a web design firm specializing in Ruby on Rails.
What impressed Preston-Werner the most? "She knew everything about how to put a company in order," he recalls. At the time, Planet Argon employed about 20 people, a number that seemed huge to Preston-Werner, he confesses. But more than that, he says, "She was very confident. She could make things happen."
Severini also created the first tensions among the small team when she asked them to start keeping receipts. Preston-Werner says he initially balked because it seemed to go against their philosophy to keep things as simple as possible. "She challenged us to think [about] what was really necessary," he says. (They eventually reached a compromise.)
I’d heard that GitHub might be looking for a person to handle business operations, so I sent them a résumé and cover letter. Their response was very straightforward if somewhat mysterious—meet us at Kilowatt at 8 p.m. on Thursday. I’d never done an interview at a bar before, but I’d heard great things about the founders from my friends in the Ruby community, so I went with it. Within a few minutes of meeting them, I knew these were people I wanted to work with. They were very down-to-earth and fun—we spent part of the evening discussing one of the founders’ plans for a sleeve tattoo—but they were also really excited about building something important and I wanted to be a part of that.
Hire No. 4: Kyle Neath, The Master of Design
User experience and design are close to Preston-Werner’s heart as he was GitHub’s first designer. But after spending more time on the back end (and enjoying it more) design for new features started to suffer.
"Before anyone starts writing code, you have to have design," Preston-Werner asserts. "If you start building technology without usability, that’s how you’ll have crappy product." Someone needed to "spend every day thinking about design, how things worked, and how they looked," he said.
With three hires under their belt, the founders reached back into their networks to find their next designer. They were already fans of Kyle Neath’s work at the consulting and incubating company ENTP. He had designed the product GitHub used for support at the time. "When you actually use the product someone designed, that means something," Preston-Werner says.
Neath had initially discussed the design role at a GitHub drinkup with cofounder Hyett. A few days later, he got a direct message on Twitter asking him to come immediately to Kilowatt (the same San Francisco bar where they met with Severini) and before the last drink was drained, Neath was officially part of the team.
To be honest, I didn’t know that GitHub could afford to hire people—so the idea of working on my favorite product with some of my favorite people was a no-brainer. Then again, maybe it was learning how to make butter with Melissa Severini at the GitHub Meetup the night PJ first asked if I'd be interested in working at GitHub (buttering me up, if you will).
Hire No. 5: Ryan Tomayko, The Badass Developer
Neath’s hire was the start of a big night for GitHub. They hired Ryan Tomako, a bit later in the evening, but his connection to the team is rooted in the early days of GitHub.
While still in beta and yet to bill its first account, GitHub gained a bit a notoriety because Tomayko, a well-known developer in the open-source community, dubbed the nascent network "Myspace for Hackers."
Preston-Werner still sounds awed by Tomayko’s skill as a developer. "He is a badass, technically masterful in a way I dream of being," says Preston-Werner. Unfortunately, he was already employed by Heroku, the cloud application platform that built itself solidly around the squishy idea of vibes, and part of the multibillion dollar enterprise Salesforce.
"It was risky for him," admits Preston-Werner, "but I think he understood that GitHub was going to be awesome." It helped that Tomayko was the epitome of the type of engineer GitHub wanted to encourage—one dedicated to reliability, stability, and performance.
The moment I knew I wanted to work for GitHub happened one day when I was working from a cafe along with one of GitHub’s founders, and he showed me the chat room that essentially served as the office in the days before there was an actual office. At that moment, someone posted a "pug bomb"—a series of gifs of adorable pugs—into the chat conversation, and I was hooked. Not only were these guys wicked smart, they were fun, too.
How would or did you build a team from scratch? Tell us about it in the comments, or tweet to us with: #FirstFiveHires.
[Image: Flickr user Ding Yuin Shan]