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"You don't need design thinking" - How GitLab made open source their management style

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 15, 2016
Open sourcing your code is one thing - openly sharing your roadmap, marketing playbook, and strategy is another matter entirely. In New Orleans, GitLab CMO Ashley Smith gave me the skinny on GitLab's business model, and how a radical open source style drives their growth.

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Want to know about GitLab's roadmap? That's online. Want to comment on GitLab's marketing strategy? Feel free - that's online too. And yeah, their employee handbook and hiring interview questions are online too.

At Collision 2016, GitLab CMO Ashley Smith shared how they aspire to "open" on every level - not just the code. Now a 90 person company, GitLab is growing like gangbusters, sticking with their "all remote workers" plan.

But can this type of radical transparency support a business model? What do customers say? Those were burning topics as Smith and I sat down for a final day chat at Collision 2016 New Orleans.

A remote worker culture with "no bros"

After stints at Parse, Facebook, Google, and Twilio, Smith is no stranger to funky tech culture. But even for Smith, GitLab is a different with a capital D. Smith's Brooklyn workday might start with a run, a batch of emails at the coffee shop, a team call, then a drive upstate to finish out the workday. But wait, no bro culture? Smith:

We don't have any "bros." It's nice. We somehow skipped that, which is refreshing because we just don't have a ping pong table, we don't have a coffee bar - but we do have an awesome remote culture.

For GitLab, open source isn't just a product strategy. It's a culture:

Not only are we fully remote, we're also open source. That means not only that our products are open source, but all my marketing campaign plans are public. Our community comments on them daily. The entire world can see what we're doing. Launching our road maps is public, and pretty much everything else.

Just about the only thing that remains private - for now - is salaries.

The open source enterprise is fueling growth

GitLab's growth is fueled by the growth of Git - in particular Git's repository management needs. GitLab provides Git repository management, code reviews, issue tracking, activity feeds and wikis. I asked Smith if there were other factors in GitLab's success. Smith:

We're the intersection of a few trends. Open source and the enterprise as you know are blowing up. GitHub and the enterprise is taking over. We're also on premises... Companies can put our stuff behind their own firewalls. You can fork the software you're using. (like GitHub itself, hosted GitLab accounts are also an option).

Are DevOps trends contributing to the success? Yes, but as Smith points out, you don't have to be a developer to use GitLab:

The DevOps mindset is taking over the world. It's a good thing. But the cool thing about GitLab is that it's for non-technical users also. There's always been this world that developer tools have been only for developers. Now we're seeing that it's trickled down into marketing, sales, project management, and whatever it might be.

How GitLab's freemium model works

GitLab provides a potent free edition of its software (one company supports 20,000 developers on the community edition, contributing a ton of code to the project). The enterprise edition is available free to an individual developer; companies pay for an enterprise grade license.

There are a whopping 500,000 downloads of GitLab's community edition per month. It's "never gated" - you can download it without providing an email address. Smith admits that if anything, GitLab errs on the side of giving too much away on the community edition. But they are not going to pull features away for pay:

The community edition will always be free. We're committed to being good open source stewards- you don't remove features and charge for them. A lot of companies have tried that, and it just blows up in your face.

The enterprise edition has the bells and whistles you might want for GitLab at scale. Security enhancements, premium support, integration with third party tools, international deployments - all fit under the paid edition umbrella.

So far, it seems to be working. Each month, GitLab releases new features for both editions. They're pretty reliable: they've released monthly on the 22nd for the last 55 months in a row.

Smith's team gave me an early look at a customer case study with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. CERN has over 2,500 developers using GitLab. The biggest benefit? The ease of launching a project. CERN's opened more than 2,000 projects on GitLab in the past few months - a fast adoption rate compared to other code hosting platforms they've used. Another good sign: CERN users have embraced the platform, moving to GitLab pro-actively.

"I didn't understand just how open this environment was"

Smith, live at Collision 2016

GitLab doesn't just run their company in the open; they do it on their own platform. Smith now runs her entire organization on GitLab. They edit their web site on GitLab. Their events coordinator now runs GitLab's events on the platform. It was hard to get engineers to reply to email - they lived on GitLab. So now she lives on GitLab too:

That's what they work in every day, in their native world. She was like, "Well, I'm going to start working in GitLab." So we all do that.

Smith confirmed they no longer have any internal emails - all their communication takes place in GitLab. Email is used only for certain external customers.

Reading critical feedback on your public roadmap and business strategy from community members all over the world takes some getting used to. Not to mention your competitors have access to the same info:

When I joined, I didn't get it. I didn't understand just how open this environment was. Everything I do is public. I have people from all over the world that don't work with us that will comment on my campaign plans. I'm like, "Thanks!"

Even the CTO is swayed by community feedback. Smith shared an example where an issue got 2,000 "upvotes" and caused a change in direction: "Our community completely changes our roadmap, which is not common."

You don''t need design thinking workshops when you work this way, I joked. Smith:

You don't need it. It's just this big cycle, people contribute what they want, and then they upvote it, and then you build it.

Smith believes companies like Apple could save themselves from some embarrassing rollouts if they worked like this:

It will never happen, but think about a world where Apple opened up their development. The entire world could say, "I wish this had that in it," and they could act on it... You see all these developer companies launching stuff that no one wants all the time. It would cut that out because you could actually see what people want.

The wrap - radical transparency isn't easy

Smith acknowledges this type of work style would come as a shock to most marketers:

It's scary as a marketer, because product launches are secret and you get excited about it. Or, "Oh my God, my competitors can see all my campaigns," or, "My competitors can see how I'm targeting people." They can see everything. We know that they read through our stuff, because we get feedback on it from them.

That keeps you on your toes:

You learn how to communicate in a way that is very direct and cannot be taken out of context.

That type of direct communication is essential for a remote organization:

Especially if you're fully remote, you have to communicate online all the time, so our communication styles are suited to this way of working.

GitLab's playbook for growth is no secret. It's all online:

People are curious how we're running because we've scaled so quickly. If you go into my Demand Generation Handbook in the Marketing Handbook, it's like an entire roadmap of how to run a demand program for enterprise developers. People pay a lot of money for that sort of thing. It's a quirky company, but it's fun. [Editor's note: there's a gold mine for marketers in that demand gen handbook].

It might be a bit too quirky for some, but it's just what Smith's career called for:

If you come from the open source world, you appreciate what we do in a way that is native to you. I just recently came out of Google, and I got really excited to join a startup that was working this openly... This change to an open source way of working is so incredible.

We'll see how this plays out for GitLab, but one thing we do know: we'll be able to track the details every step of the way.


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