One Year At GitHub

company culture, personal, github 0 comments suggest edit

As of today, I’ve been a GitHub employee for one year and I gotta tell you…


Please forgive me a brief moment to gush, but I really love this company. I  work with a lot of great people. Crazy people for sure, but great. I love them all. Just look at these crazy folks!


I once told a friend that I’ve long had the idea to start a company that would be my ideal work environment.

GitHub is better than that company.

What Makes it Special?

One of my co-workers Rob Sanheim recently reached his seven month anniversary at GitHub and wrote a succinct post that answers this question. And I’m glad for that as it saves me from the trouble of writing a longer more rambling unfocused version of his post.

Rob breaks it down to five key points:

  1. Great people above all else
  2. Positive Peer Pressure
  3. GitHub Hiring
  4. Culture of Shipping
  5. Anarchist Structure

Optimize for Happiness

Then again, if I didn’t write a long unfocused rambling post, folks would wonder if they were at the right blog. So I’ll continue with a few more thoughts.

All the points Rob mentioned fall under the overall principle: optimize for happiness. This is not some pie in the sky hippy Kumbaya sing-along around a campfire (though if you’re into that, that’s totally cool). I think of it as a hard-nosed effective business strategy.

You might argue that every company optimizes for happiness in one way or another. But often it’s only the happiness of the owners, founders, shareholders, the executives, or the customers. Sure, we want all these people to be happy too! But not at the cost of employees as it too often happens. Happy employees are more effective and do a better job at making everyone else happy.

For example, as Tom Preston-Werner notes in his Optimizing for Happiness talk:

There are other really great things you can do when you optimize for happiness. You can throw away things like financial projections, hard deadlines, ineffective executives that make investors feel safe, and everything that hinders your employees from building amazing products.

At GitHub we don’t have meetings. We don’t have set work hours or even work days. 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. We don’t have expense account audits or an HR department.

Businesses can be successful when they decide that profit is not their only motivation and treat their employees well (ironically putting them in a good position to make more profits in the long run). Costco is a great example of this.

We’re Not Alone

People ask me if I think having no hierarchy and managers will scale. So far we’re at around 130 employees and we haven’t yet killed each other, so I think it’s promising.

I can understand the skepticism. For most people, a hierarchical management model is the only thing they’ve ever experienced. Fortunately, we’re not the first (and hopefully not the last) to employ this model.

Recently, Valve (makers of Half-Life) published their employee handbook on the web. It’s a delightful read, but the striking thing to me is how similar GitHub’s model is to theirs. In particular this section resonated with me.

Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and  repeatability. It simplifies planning and makes it easier to control a large group of people from the top down, which is why military organizations rely on it so heavily.

But when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most  intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates  99 percent of their value.

I think you can replace “an entertainment company” with “a company in a creative industry.” Writing software is a creative process. Your job is not to write the same line of code over and over again. It’s always creating something that’s never existed before.

Ok, so Valve has around 300 employees. But what about a “large” company?

Gore (makers of Gore-Tex) is a company of 8,500 “associates” that works without managers as well. So apparently this model can scale much larger than we are today.

On a Personal Note

I can pinpoint the moment that was the start of this journey to GitHub, I didn’t know it at the time. It was when I watched the RSA Animate video of Dan Pink’s talk on The surprising truth about what really motivates us. Hint: It’s not more money.

That talk profoundly affected me. I started bringing it up at work every chance I could get. Yes, I was the guy that just wouldn’t shut up about it.

As I reflected on it, I realized it’s so common to spend so much effort and time trying to climb that ladder and earn more pay just because it’s there! I stopped to ask myself. Why? At what cost? Why am I using a ladder when I can take the stairs? Am I stretching this ladder metaphor too far? You know, the big questions.

I later read Zach Holman’s series How GitHub Works and realized that GitHub embodies the key principles that Dan Pink mentioned. That inspired me to try and figure out a way I could add value to GitHub. Before long, I started growing these tentacles and joined GitHub.


After a year at GitHub, I’ve noticed is that I’m much less stressed out now, much healthier, and spend a lot more time with the wife and kids than I used to.

A big part of this is due to the family friendly and balanced work environment that GitHub’s approach results in. I still work a lot. After all, I love to code. But I also spend more of my work time actually, you know, working rather than paying “work tax.” Jason Fried of 37 signals has a great TEDx talk entitled Why work doesn’t happen at work.

That’s kind of bad. But what’s even worse is the thing that managers do most of all, which is call meetings. And meetings are just toxic, terrible, poisonous things during the day at work. We all know this to be true, and you would never see a spontaneous meeting called by employees. It doesn’t work that way.

The Year Ahead

I’m really excited to see what the next year has in store for me and GitHub. I’ve had the great pleasure to ship GitHub for Windows with my team and talk about it, along with GitHub, NuGet, and Git, at various conferences. I’ve met so many great people who love what we do, and folks who’s work I admire. It’s been a lot of fun this past year!

I’m looking forward to continuing to ship software and speak at a few conferences here and there on whatever people want to hear in the upcoming year.

Before anyone gets their underparts in a tussle, I’m not trying to say every company should be exactly like GitHub. Or that GitHub is perfect and what we do is right for every person or every company. I’m not making that claim. But I do believe many of these ideas can benefit more software companies than not. Every company is different and your mileage may vary.

But wherever you are, I hope you’re working at a place that values you and provides an environment where you can do great work and be happy and balanced. And if not, think about finding such a place, whether it’s at GitHub or elsewhere.

Found a typo or error? Suggest an edit! If accepted, your contribution is listed automatically here.



27 responses

  1. Avatar for Tim
    Tim December 7th, 2012

    Very well said. This is what attracts me to GitHub and lead me to contacting you earlier this year. This is the culture I long to be a part of.

  2. Avatar for Jeff Putz
    Jeff Putz December 7th, 2012

    Right on, Phil. I love to hear stories like this because it validates so much of what we know is true, but employers are so reluctant to embrace. Keep stories like this coming!

  3. Avatar for the wife
    the wife December 7th, 2012

    Your wife and kids appreciate and approve of this happier and healthier you! You're lucky to work in Utopia. Viva le Github!

  4. Avatar for Vintharas
    Vintharas December 7th, 2012

    Beautiful and inspiring post! Keep on rocking ^^

  5. Avatar for James Manning
    James Manning December 7th, 2012

    Rob breaks it down to five key points

    Seems like leaving out 'Anarchist Structure' was unintentional?

  6. Avatar for Bryan Siegel
    Bryan Siegel December 7th, 2012

    Great post. I'm glad to see you're happy there and wish that more companies would put a tiny bit of effort into employee happiness.

  7. Avatar for haacked
    haacked December 8th, 2012

    @James thanks for the catch! Definitely unintentional. Sometimes I think WLW is intentionally trolling me.

  8. Avatar for Spikeh
    Spikeh December 8th, 2012

    A little bit of me dies inside every time I read a post like this... It's jealousy, more than anything else. I am, however, ecstatically happy that these kind of companies do actually exist.
    Personally, I'm way beyond bureaucracy, politics, poor management decisions, and keeping up appearances for the sake of it. I'm self employed, but I unfortunately have to deal with people who don't enjoy their jobs, take no ownership, and seem to thrive on creating blockades. I truly wish all companies would adopt this kind of business model :(

  9. Avatar for Andrei Rînea
    Andrei Rînea December 8th, 2012

    Spikeh : So true. My workplace (I B M) confirms your findings..

  10. Avatar for Spikeh
    Spikeh December 10th, 2012

    A lot of places are like that... both big and small. I'm not even sure if this kind of company exists in the UK - hence why I'm planning to move to the US as soon as physically possible!
    Seriously though, Phil's worked hard to get where he is, and I don't begrudge him any of it - it's well deserved. It's just a real shame that businesses are what they are - slow, predictable murderers of any passion a developer has. Thankfully, as bitter and twisted as I am, I still love everything about Development itself; just not the surrounding bullc**p :)

  11. Avatar for Craig Schwarze
    Craig Schwarze December 10th, 2012

    Nice post Phil! I have a little bit of a "manager's response" on my blog - Click here

  12. Avatar for Roel
    Roel December 10th, 2012

    thanks for this post! some inspiring stuff!

  13. Avatar for Jim
    Jim December 10th, 2012

    How is initial pay and pay raises handled? Who decides who gets paid how much?

  14. Avatar for haacked
    haacked December 10th, 2012

    I believe the founders handle that at the moment as appropriate.

  15. Avatar for Ben R
    Ben R December 10th, 2012
    I believe the founders handle that at the moment as appropriate.

    I guess that means you haven't had a pay review yet? Not saying that's a bad thing, but it's typical that most companies (in my country) do pay reviews annually.
    Is there any type of review process? Is there someone helping you become better or is that left in your hands? Again, not a bad thing, just different which makes me curious.

  16. Avatar for Liam G
    Liam G December 12th, 2012

    GitHub is a company I've wanted to work at for a number of years too, though all the vacancies they have get snapped up so quickly!

  17. Avatar for Kent
    Kent December 13th, 2012

    The Valve handbook link is bad.
    Great article. I, like others, died a little reading this as well as the Valve handbook. Command & control and predictability be damned!
    Thanks for the peek inside.

  18. Avatar for haacked
    haacked December 13th, 2012

    Thanks Kent! I fixed the link.

  19. Avatar for Rodrigo Caballero
    Rodrigo Caballero December 15th, 2012

    Thank you so much Phil!
    I'm absolutely inspired by your words and links as well.
    I also want to turn my job into a healthier place to work at

  20. Avatar for Chris
    Chris December 17th, 2012

    Well said Phil. Good to see you so happy with your work environment. Not many people (in jobs) are in a position to say the same. Hope it goes well for you for many more years.
    Oh and btw, your blog has been mentioned here-> (look for entry #10 in the list)
    Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  21. Avatar for Sam
    Sam December 19th, 2012

    Just saw Zach Holman doing his github talk at YOW 2012 a cpl of weeks ago. That preso and these blog posts are just depressing the shit out of us ordinary consultancy workers :(

  22. Avatar for Alejjak Darkok
    Alejjak Darkok January 9th, 2013

    great article, i'd love my company to be at least 1% like this, where i work it SUCKS, it is the total opposite, the teams are 80% management 20% developers, it takes them 80% of the projects time to estimate how long is going to take, and is a micromanagement nightmare, i gotta account for every 15 mins of my time ... wish i had a choice

  23. Avatar for joey
    joey January 15th, 2013

    Command & control and predictability be damned! 

  24. Avatar for Somedude
    Somedude March 10th, 2013

    Why are there 130 employees for just a simple site like this?

  25. Avatar for CSharpNoVB
    CSharpNoVB March 10th, 2013

    To All Devs: Look for XP (Extreme Programming) shop as well if you want a supportive fun dev environment.

  26. Avatar for Guilherme Oderdenge
    Guilherme Oderdenge June 3rd, 2014

    Are you kidding?

  27. Avatar for utopia
    utopia March 8th, 2015

    It looks amazing. I love how easy it is to clone and work with github repos. My one concern is that it may oversimplify some things. It is not particularly clear what the magical sync button does. Does it attempt to merge in any way after pulling?