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Leading Through A Crisis with GitHub’s CTO Jason Warner

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At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies around the world were asking the same question: How do I mobilize my workforce and give them the tools and skills they need to work from home?

GitHub employs more than 1,000 employees, all of whom work remotely. So we invited their CTO, Jason Warner, back to the program to discuss how he advised companies on adapting to their new normal. He shares some best practices he’s learned about leading through a crisis, as well as explains why GitHub is one step closer to achieving its mission.

Key Takeaways

  • In many cases, once a company and its leaders became comfortable with remote environments, they begin to embrace it.
  • It’s important to be transparent and honest with your employees during a crisis — they are struggling and sharing the truth can help them set realistic expectations.
  • GitHub’s mission is to make sure every developer has access to its software, and as the company continues to expand its reach, it is getting closer and closer to achieving that goal.

For a more in-depth look at this episode, continue below.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies around the world to shutter offices and deploy work-from-home strategies. As companies searched for help implementing those new strategies, IT Visionaries invited GitHub CTO Jason Warner to the show to provide some perspective. GitHub has always been a remote company, so Warner was the perfect person to offer advice to companies that were forced to move to a remote environment. Warner discussed some of the leadership consultations he has done, and the best practices he’s learned throughout his years as a remote leader.

GitHub, a global company that provides hosting for software development, is a remote-first organization that employs  1,000 individuals remotely. Warner himself said he had been working remotely for the last decade.

“GitHub has been remote forever,” Warner said. “Super mobile friendly, super remote-first. It feels like business as usual in a lot of ways.” 

Except business had not been “as usual” for a majority of companies and their employees. While GitHub cruised along, Warner noticed his counterparts were not operating with the same efficiency. So he offered his expertise by organizing phone calls, scheduling meetings, and lending advice to anyone who needed it.

“One of the things that I did is I jumped on as many calls as possible with companies and talked about you [not] having a choice,” Warner said. “‘Now you’re suddenly remote, here’s what to expect. Here’s what to do. Let’s walk through this. Let’s do this again in two days. Let’s do this again in a week because it’s so important that you get up and running fast.’”

What Warner noticed was that after companies made the move to mobilize and equip their employees with the tools and software necessary for them to do their jobs, those calls became less about how to operate and more about dealing with growing marketplace concerns.

“Prioritization is job number one,” Warner said. “If you have that lined up right, you basically just say, ‘Hey, below this line we don’t care anymore.’” 

According to Warner, because GitHub had its priorities in-place prior to the beginning of the pandemic, the company leaders were able to have candid conversations with their employees about the realities of the situation. Warner said his management style is to be as straightforward and transparent as possible during conversations, noting it’s important to show empathy in times like these.

“Once you get past some of that initial worry with everyone and they realize that you’re an actual caring human being, you’re doing your best, and you’re showing what you do know in a transparent process, people give you a lot of slack,” Warner said. “If you don’t do that, [you get] no slack whatsoever.”

One of the biggest pieces of advice Warner offered was that employers need to understand their employees and convey that the company understands what they are going through, noting their new reality is vastly different from their previous work environment. 

“The expectation is vastly different from a normal work from home situation,” Warner said. “There is zero chance that I have the same expectation for you right now than I would have had five weeks ago. I think once you do that a couple of times — and it does take a couple of times to have those conversations — people put themselves a little bit at ease.”

While the rest of the world was working to mobilize, GitHub was still working on its main mission – to get its software into the hands of developers at no cost. Warner said the timing of the announcement was convenient, but the free platform was something that the company had been working toward for six months.

“In an ideal world, I think we would all just love to give GitHub away if we could, but it’s just not sustainable or how the world works,” Warner said. “So we give as much of it away as we possibly can. It’s in line with the core philosophy that every developer in the world should have access to GitHub.”

It’s an initiative that Warner said makes him proud to work for a company that understands that the relationship between the developers is as important as the economic part of the business.

I would say that what we actually care about is that we have a relationship with the developer,” he said. “We want to think that we understand developers who want to serve developers, and have a responsibility to the development community. And this is a move that gets us closer to the relationship.”

So with GitHub’s new platform, and more companies and employees embracing a work-from-home environment, what impact does GitHub hope to have with its new platform?

“I’m super transparent when I say that our long-term ambition is to make sure that every developer in the world has access to all the software that’s produced and they can consume as much of it as possible in a safe and effective manner,” Warner said.

After the launch of their latest platform and as companies continue to embrace remote environments, GitHub is one step closer to that mission.

Episode 191