Three and a half years after his return, Chris Wanstrath will step down as CEO of popular developer platform GitHub after leading the search to find his own replacement.
Wanstrath will continue as chief executive until the new leader is found, at which time he’ll move into an executive chairman role, he told employees at an all-hands meeting on Thursday. Staff had convened at GitHub’s San Francisco headquarters to celebrate the company passing $200 million in annualized revenue and reaching new user highs for its popular code repository site valued by investors at $2 billion.
The decision to step down was one that Wanstrath has been considering for months, he told Forbes in an interview. The beginning of 2017 marked the ten-year anniversary of the first commit of code getting pushed to GitHub (the company was formally founded in February 2008). Around that time, Wanstrath began speaking with investors, advisers and friends about the long-term future of the company. “GitHub has a great brand and we have a great community,” Wanstrath says. “We could find someone really seasoned to take the CEO role and lead us for the next ten years, and we wouldn’t need to lose me.”
Wanstrath plans to focus on product strategy and the GitHub community after stepping down from the CEO role, working directly on products and meeting with customers. “I want to spend time traveling and getting to know how people are using GitHub,” he says. “And I want to be in the code.”
The decision to announce the move with the replacement search still under way came to avoid distractions for employees, according to its cofounder. “I didn’t want this to be a secret, I want them to meet the people and know this is how I’m spending my time,” Wanstrath says. “And I’m hoping people read this and say, GitHub, I love that company, I didn’t think that could be an opportunity.”
GitHub and its venture capital investors had hired a search firm in recent weeks for the hunt after casual conversations led to Wanstrath’s decision, says investor Peter Levine of Andreessen Horowitz, which led the company’s Series A round in 2012. “There’s no urgency to do this,” adds Levine, who says the company will have a “very high chance of success” in a transition because of Wanstrath’s involvement in the decision and the company afterward. “When these types of things typically go wrong, it’s because the CEO doesn’t want to leave,” the VC says. Though GitHub has raised a total of about $350 million, most recently a $251 million round led by Sequoia Capital in 2015, Wanstrath maintains voting control.
Wanstrath and his investors are hoping for a partnership similar to the one at LinkedIn, where founder Reid Hoffman yielded the CEO seat for a second time in 2009 to Jeff Weiner, who then led the company with Hoffman’s support all the way to an initial public offering two years later and a $26.2 billion acquisition by Microsoft in 2016. To achieve that, Wanstrath says he’ll be looking for leaders who are not just veteran operators but are fans of GitHub’s service and buy into its mission. “If they don’t know how to code, we’ll teach them,” he says.
The last time Wanstrath stepped down at GitHub didn’t go as planned. Cofounder Tom Preston-Werner would resign following a harassment investigation in 2014, and when Wanstrath returned to the top job, he did away with GitHub’s flat organizational structure and made a priority of returning the company’s mission to helping developers, he says. GitHub had launched an enterprise product in 2011; Wanstrath brought it to the cloud earlier in 2017. The company recently passed 20 million registered users on its service, Wanstrath told employees on Thursday, and 50 million monthly visitors to github.com.
A new CEO will need to navigate the at-times prickly developer community while supervising new products to reach eventual targets of 100 million users and revenue of $1 billion. GitHub may seek to become more of a marketplace that can help developers show off their work and take on additional projects, with GitHub taking a portion as a fee, says Sequoia investor Jim Goetz. Wanstrath says he’s interested in how GitHub can harness improvements in automation to help people who aren’t coders write software. “We talk a lot about how automation is eating all these other industries, but I don’t hear about how it’s changing software development,” he says. “If we can give a little bit of intelligence to merge what’s been done, it can open the gates to hundreds of millions of more people.”
For loyalists who might worry about the long-term alignment of GitHub the company with the broader Git community under new leadership, Wanstrath says the transition will allow him to spend more time addressing developers’ needs. “We’re not changing direction, we’re doubling down,” he says.