What a Former GitHub CTO Learned About Scaling – The New Stack

For the 447th episode of the Stack Overflow podcast, the former Chief Technology Officer of GitHub Jason Warner shared fascinating stories of technological transformation. The conversation focused on both the massive scaling effort to GitHub from May 2017 to July 2021 and the story of Warner’s own “non-traditional” path in Connecticut’s “farm country” programming.

Perhaps both stories offer a lesson in the power of scaling and the importance of an engineering mindset, culminating with some projections on the technologies that will shape our future.

Beyond agricultural country

Warner took on the role of CTO of GitHub after more than three years as VP/Head of Engineering at Heroku and nearly four years as Head of Engineering for Ubuntu Desktop. And Warner has now become managing director of Redpoint Ventures, sporting an online profile who says “I’m excited about companies where founders try to do something that seems unimaginable to most people.”

But how did this journey begin? In this farming country of Connecticut, the mid-1990s was a time when IBM got tax breaks for hiring high school students in so-called “co-op” jobs (where students get real-world experience on the job). work in addition to classroom instruction).

So in 1995, “I literally joined IBM to haul printers and computers around the building and hook them up,” Warner recalled on the podcast. “And they ended up saying, ‘Hey, if you go to school and you figure out how to program and learn computer science, we’ll give you a job when you’re done.'”

Or, as Warner would later put it, “The only way I got into programming was because I was able to take printers, transport them, and plug them into Token Ring networks.”

Warner still remembers writing that fateful first line of code in BASIC. “I was kind of diving into what was available to me,” he said.

Warner acknowledged that he started late compared to other programmers. “I was a little scared about my ability to hang out with other people.”

“The only way I got into programming was because I was able to take printers, transport them, and plug them into Token Ring networks.”

In college, in the mid-1990s, there was also C and assembly language, but the recently created Linux operating system “didn’t exist yet.” Warner didn’t discover Linux until later through “a sub-community” at Pennsylvania State University – though it gave him a broader perspective on the technology.

“That’s when I started to realize that there were a lot of other programming languages ​​available to me. And then the open source world opened up and I started making things like Perl, for example,” he recalls.

But even beyond that, Warner admits that despite having a BS and a master’s in computer science, “I honestly thought I was probably an average developer.”

So much so that now, even with hindsight, “I have learned since I was very has been an average developer,” Warner said on the podcast. “But I was an excellent, excellent architect… an excellent engineer. You know, systems!

Later, Warner said, “I came to peace with it because I think I took a much more holistic view of what it takes to build successful businesses,” adding at another point a self. -assessment as a “distributed systems person”.

It’s interesting where this leads, since Warner sees human systems (like organizations) as “just more losing versions of distributed computing systems.”

“Since then, I learned that I was very has been an average developer, but I was an excellent one, excellent architect… an excellent engineer. You know, systems!

“So I happen to know how to manage them well, but weirdly, inherently, I knew how to scale them. I knew how to make them work and I knew how to make them more efficient through what I did on the systems programming side.

And all of that would play out when Warner becomes the CTO of GitHub…

Beyond programming

Soon Benjamin Popper, Chief Content Officer of Stack Overflow, asked the obvious question: “What’s it like to be the CTO of one of the most widely used development tools and do you also consider yourself a mediocre programmer? »

But it was an even greater challenge, as the position keeps expanding. Warner has become something of a de facto product manager taking care of a whirlwind of other responsibilities, including engineering and design, as well as security, support and infrastructure.

The consuming question was always what to build – and why – ultimately leading to the creation of GitHub Actions, the GitHub packages hosting service, advanced security scans, and “all those types of things, and possibly even Copilot and Codespaces.”

By the time Warner arrived, GitHub’s developer community was already “thriving” – so the biggest issue was simply scaling.

GitHub had “around 20 million” accounts when Warner began its tenure in May 2017 and estimates the site had around 1.5-2 million daily active users, with another 10,000 signing up every day.

But by the time Warner left in July 2021, that figure had grown to 50,000 daily signups – and 7 million daily active users. For meeting this scaling challenge, Warner credits “a stellar, stellar, stellar… just world-class infrastructure group.” (And, Warner later adds, it was “full of excellent programmers.”)

Together, they were able to think of ways to evolve further. But beyond that, they had also discussed ways to “really take GitHub from a site where you could collaborate on software, to a full-fledged, end-to-end software development platform – which can evolve up to the planet.”

This is where Warner’s engineering skills were perfectly suited. “I could actually sit and listen and really contribute to the overall architectural approach.”

Know what they build

Podcasters have been asking about moving from technical to financial roles (as a managing director at Redpoint) – but the response has been surprising. After 12 years of experience with VC-backed startups, Warner concluded that “Honestly, VCs don’t know what they’re doing!

“They don’t know what they are supporting. They look at a spreadsheet — they don’t understand why a technology is important. The great ones do, and a lot of them are incredibly lucky, but if you notice the track record of VCs, there are very few people who have more than one successful investment.

So, given that perspective, “it didn’t seem like it would be that hard to get in there and have fun.”

But seriously, adds Warner, “entrepreneurs deserve better. They deserve to have someone who understands what they’re building and why they’re building it and really What comes next.” Someone with ideas on building the business – and how to mitigate problems – while making an impact. “That’s all CTOs do on a regular basis. and CPOs, and I don’t think they have a partner at all on the other side of the table on the financial side.”

“If you look at the track record of venture capitalists, there are very few people who have more than one successful investment.”

So when Popper asks which companies Warner is attracted to as a VC, the answer is high-tech infrastructure companies, the ones that “build the fundamental plumbing layers of the Internet or the next generations of software, all that kind things”.

One of Redpoint’s recent investments was analytics platform Cribl, while Warner has also invested in crypto infrastructure company called Alchemy, which is a perfect fit with its strengths.

“A whole new thing has emerged in the market, emerged in the world – they are doing fundamentally new and interesting things. You know, I’m investing in it and helping them grow it and scale it to a degree that nobody’s ever seen before,” he said.

While Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto may envision a decentralized system, Warner thinks it’s impractical, saying “all great decentralized products need a centralized person to make it accessible.” Warner is actually looking for “the centralized component of this that I can invest in”.

Next, Popper asks what trends and technologies excite Warner today – and where they will take us over the next five to 10 years. And in responding, Warner argues that the cloud data platform Snowflake “has ushered in a new era of cloud-like computing and whole new mechanisms”, predicting an era with a proliferation of real-time streaming systems and “much easier and easier movement of data, which will unlock new types of ‘apps’.

Warner imagines combining this potential with state-of-the-art networks. Warner hopes to see edge networks flourish, perhaps in healthcare and other “regulated spaces.” And that leads to hope for privacy on the blockchain, to unleash its full potential.

Or, as Warner put it towards the end of the podcast, “the only thing I wake up thinking about is what’s next.

“So I’m talking about developers, I’m talking about infrastructure, and I’m talking about what’s coming.”


Featured Image by Dean Moriarty of Pixabay.

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