I’m joining GitHub

Nadia Eghbal
Aug 2, 2016 · 5 min read

2016 has been a wild ride. I had no idea when I published my first post in January that so many people were this jazzed about building and sustaining software for the public domain. To be honest, I was pretty terrified to make that initial post 😏

I recently wrapped up my work with the Ford Foundation, and I’m excited to announce that starting August 15th, I’ll be joining GitHub. Together, we’re working across departments to design programs that support project maintainers.

Why I’m joining

When I first started exploring and writing about these topics, I framed it as a funding problem. My mind was (is!) boggled by the paradox that nearly every sector of modern society benefits from open source software, yet open source projects struggle to find funding and support.

This year, a number of people and organizations came forward to offer resources. I took those opportunities seriously. I spent months trying to figure out how to turn resources into solutions. I even drafted up some ideas.

But after cutting the problem a million different ways, I realized that, simply put, we still don’t know how to fund projects in a sustainable and repeatable manner. Grants are not enough. Businesses aren’t the whole answer. Umbrella organizations only provide limited support.

After a lot of (mostly self-imposed) angst around not being able to find an answer, I realized that I had set myself up for an impossible task. Big, complicated problems take time to unravel. And, more importantly, they require a lot of unglamorous work.

Reading this HN comment about a new funding platform really drove this home for me (h/t Leo Polovets):

[It’s] nice, has the easy feeling of providing some value, but is IMO typical of many startups. You just used whatever API was available to you, and used them to build a product on top that some people may want, but does not solve a hard problem. There exist competitors (gittip, code bounties), albeit not as integrated with Github.

Solving a hard problem in this case would be doing the things that don’t scale. That is, providing the tools to oil the development process by incentivizing the boring yet essential tasks that I talked about (QA, triaging, etc.).

When I was honest with myself, I realized that starting a new organization, at this stage, was premature, driven by my own ego and fear around having to “make an impact”. I felt pressure to start something new because that’s what others were telling me to do, not because I believed it was necessary.

What did I think was important? In short, I’ve come to realize that sustainability = money + best practices. The more I dived into the stories of open source projects, both successful and struggling, the more I learned that sustainability was inextricably tied to people, not just money.

There are some problems that best practices do not solve. Sometimes, maintaining a popular open source project is just a full-time job. Sometimes, big, audacious projects need dedicated funding to give the author time and space to work. Sometimes, potential talent is wasted because people can’t afford to contribute on a purely volunteer basis.

By bringing projects up to speed, however, we can better understand which problems are not addressable through knowledge and resources. And that makes funding opportunities easier to identify.

How can projects adopt best practices? In nearly every conversation I’ve had on this topic, I’ve noticed that while many people knew what the best practices were, nobody had the ability to enforce them, other than encouraging others through speaking and writing. I felt this pain myself.

Only a few platforms have the ability to reach and influence millions of people at once. GitHub is one of them.

There are an estimated 18.5 million software developers in the world; 14 million people (mostly developers) use GitHub today. Anything that happens on GitHub has the potential to affect nearly everyone who builds open source software.

GitHub already defined a new generation of open source. With that success comes a responsibility to support an unprecedented level of demand and guide best practices. And that’s the chapter I’d like to help write next.

What my role will look like

Conversations about a role at GitHub started back in the spring of this year. I was just starting to write publicly about open source sustainability. GitHub wanted to do more to help maintainers, following a “Dear GitHub” open letter, written and signed by community leaders.

Both of us felt there was an opportunity to work together, but we wanted to be thoughtful about what that role looked like. So I spent the next few months meeting different teams at GitHub, getting to know GitHubbers better, and even working on a project together this summer.

Across the board, I was struck by — to be blunt — how much people cared. There was more self-awareness around GitHub’s strengths and shortcomings than I had expected. After spending many hours at GitHub and with GitHubbers, I feel that this is a priority for the company, and that together, we can do a lot to make things better.

Personally speaking, these are people I want to work with every day. I have never been around so many people in tech who are driven by passion rather than ego. This is the kind of place I want to be in and where I think we can get things done.

My work will focus on finding ways that GitHub can empower open source maintainers to create and nurture thriving, healthy open source projects. While I believe in GitHub as a powerful distribution platform and testing ground, this work expands beyond any one company or place. I’ll continue to write here and make my learnings public.

I’ll be joining forces with @bkeepers, @kytrinyx, @arfon, @mlinksva, @jjhonson, @kakuls, and a bunch of other incredibly awesome GitHubbers. And I’m excited to serve you!

What I’d like from you

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be doing some serious brainstorming around how to turn maintainer needs into useful programs and partnerships. (For inspiration, GitHub has already experimented with programs aimed at supporting new developers, such as the Student Developer Pack and their recent Campus Experts program.)

I plan to spend my first weeks and months on the job listening: listening to GitHubbers to understand what’s worked and what hasn’t, and listening to you to understand how you think GitHub can better support your work.

If you have ideas or feedback, no matter how big or small, shoot me an email: nayafia@github.com. I’d love to hear from you!

Finally, thank you again for all your enthusiasm thus far. I am overwhelmed by the warmth and kindness of so many people across communities and sectors. I feel lucky to be able to do this work, and I owe it to everyone who’s ever taken a moment to share my work, write a nice email, or give me feedback. Thank you ❤️ I can’t wait to work together in this new role!

I’m working on ways to better support open source infrastructure. If you want to stay involved, you can sign up here to get updates when I post something new, or follow me on Twitter.

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