Why is GitHub not open-source? with Zach Holman (ex GitHub & GitLab)
Discover key insights from Zach Holman (ex GitHub & GitLab) on why GitHub is not open-source, its growth strategies, developer community building, and the differences between GitHub and GitLab.

Why is GitHub not open-source? with Zach Holman (ex GitHub & GitLab)

Jonathan Reimer
Jonathan Reimer
CEO & Co-Founder,

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GitHub, a widely popular platform for developers, has revolutionized the way code is shared, collaborated on, and managed. However, despite its commitment to open-source software, GitHub itself is not open-source. In a recent interview with Zach Holman, an engineer who worked at GitHub for five years and later advised GitLab, we gain insights into the factors that contributed to GitHub's success, its approach to building a developer community, and the decision to keep the platform closed-source. Let's explore the key takeaways from this conversation.

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Timing and Building a Developer Community

One of the significant factors that played a crucial role in GitHub's success was timing. Zach Holman emphasizes the importance of seizing the right moment to launch a product. GitHub's founders had a deep understanding of the Ruby community, which allowed them to build a strong initial user base. By capturing the attention of influential developers and providing a valuable platform, GitHub started gaining traction organically.

Culture and Developer Evangelism

Zach Holman sheds light on the role of culture and developer evangelism in GitHub's growth. GitHub embraced an open-source approach internally, modeling itself after successful open-source projects. This approach fostered a culture of collaboration and transparency, resonating with developers worldwide. Zach Holman played a pivotal role in promoting this culture through conference talks and advocating for the open-source way of working.

Transitioning to a Larger Organization

As GitHub grew from a small team to a company of 250 employees, it faced unique challenges in maintaining its culture. The addition of managers and the need for more structured processes became inevitable. Zach acknowledges that scaling the company culture while maintaining productivity and innovation was a complex task. The transition from a managerless organization to one with a hierarchical structure required careful implementation and adjustments.

The Open-Source Dilemma

The decision to keep GitHub itself closed-source, despite its focus on open-source software, was a subject of ongoing discussion within the company. Zach Holman acknowledges the merits of both approaches. While open-sourcing aspects of the product can promote transparency and community collaboration, it also presents challenges in managing contributions, dealing with potential negativity, and maintaining a competitive advantage. GitHub's experience and exposure to various scenarios influenced the team's perspective on open-sourcing their entire product.

GitHub vs. GitLab: Differences and Perspectives

Having also advised GitLab, another prominent platform for developers, Zach Holman provides insights into the significant differences between the two companies. GitLab's strong commitment to open-source principles and its transparent decision-making processes set it apart. Zach acknowledges that GitLab's open-sourceness has a significant impact on its culture and product development pace. However, he emphasizes that both GitHub and GitLab have found success by employing different approaches, proving that there isn't a single correct path.

Transitioning from Engineering to Angel Investing

Zach Holman's journey from engineering at GitHub to angel investing brings a unique perspective to the discussion. He highlights the advantage of having technical knowledge when investing in tech companies. By advising and investing in different startups, Zach gained valuable insights into diverse industries, broadening his perspective. Investing became an extension of his advisory role, allowing him to leverage his experience to make informed decisions.

Wrapping up

The interview with Zach Holman provides valuable insights into the growth of GitHub, the challenges of scaling company culture, and the decision-making process behind keeping the platform closed-source. GitHub's success can be attributed to factors such as perfect timing, a strong developer community, and an open-source culture. While GitHub remains closed-source, the conversation also highlights the merits of open-sourcing aspects of a product. Ultimately, the success of platforms like GitHub and GitLab showcases that different approaches can lead to remarkable achievements in the developer community.

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