Editorial Note: I originally wrote this article for the SmartBear blog. Click here to check out the original. If you like this content, take a look around at their offerings and their posts from other authors.
There’s a word out there that you’d be a lot more likely to hear from journalists, pundits, and authors than you would from techies: zeitgeist. The dictionary definition of the word, “the general beliefs, ideas, and spirit of a time and place,” is straightforward enough. But when used by the people I mentioned, zeitgeist, as a descriptor, imparts gravity on the thing it describes. It I say that Github captures the zeitgeist of the programmer world of the 2010s, I am thus saying that Github is at the absolute core of the software development universe.
And I do say that.
If you’re not familiar with Github, I’ll offer a brief description. It is a website that wraps a software version control system called “Git” and allows software developers to host their code online for free (though there are paid models available). If you’re a software developer, Github is a repository for you to store, exchange, trade, and talk about code. This may not sound like the stuff of which zeitgeists are made.
The sheer, raw popularity of Github alone doesn’t explain this classification, either, though it is popular. Alexa, a web analytics company (not to be confused with Amazon’s Echo personality), ranks Github as the 83rd most popular site on the planet, as of the time of this writing. That’s particularly impressive when you stop to consider that Github’s audience is the slice of software developers that feel like freely exchanging source code with one another. Other popular sites occupying top rankings, like, Facebook, Amazon, or Google, on the other hand, have an audience of literally everyone on Earth.
It isn’t the improbable, raw volume of traffic to Github that elevates it to Zeitgeist level, however. It isn’t even the growth or the market cap of the company or the number of contributing developers. Those things alone can’t explain why Github is a zeitgeist — why it’s taking over the world. To do that, let’s look at it in a bit more detail.
From Improbable Beginnings
Let’s take a little known, somewhat pedantic approach to storing code, wrap it in a cute user interface package, sprinkle a little social media on it, compete with an entrenched market dominator (sourceforge), give it away largely for free and change the world!
If I could go back to around 2008, when Github was just starting out, I can’t say I’d be clamoring at the bit to become an investor. At least, not without 20/20 hindsight. It doesn’t really sound like a game-changer, and yet that’s what it became.
And yet, if you look at tech trends, the makings were there, if subtle.
Distributed Version Control for a Remote World
If you’ve been writing code for a long time, you no doubt remember the bad old days of remote work when it comes to source code version control. At the time Github first started attracting notice, centralized version control schemes were the standard, and when you were somewhere the source control server wasn’t, things could get painful. I remember using a tool called Rational Clear Case that was setup in such a way that it took me most of the morning to commit a few files to source control if I was working from home. As bad as that sounds, it could be worse — if you were on a plane or somewhere without internet access, you wouldn’t be able to work at all, unless you had planned ahead of time to acquire an “offline” version of the code. And then, getting it back online could be quite painful once you re-connected.
Git, the version control system upon which Github is based, changed all that with distributed version control. Git was the version control of Linux — a decentralized, democratic tool that could support ad-hoc, global collaborations. Github, the website, wrapped Git up and encouraged you to work with the full safety of source control wherever you were. And, don’t worry, they reassured you, it’ll be a breeze to sync back up when you’re connected again. And it was.
Github offered remote coding to an increasingly remote workforce.