5 Takeaways from GitHub Universe

Posted by Kiera Radman

4 October 2016


I’m a developer for Snap CI who, like many of you, uses GitHub daily. Here are the favorite quotes I heard while attending GitHub Universe last month. Hopefully you will find them as useful, inspiring, and interesting as I did.

1. “The curse of knowledge is that you are blind to what you already know”

Jim Kohl from Great American Insurance identified this as one of the most difficult things about spreading tribal knowledge among developers. The irony is that from the perspective of the unknowledgeable, you don’t know what you don’t know. I can’t tell you how many times throughout my journey to become a better developer I’ve discovered how much I don’t know. It’s one of the things that makes developing software so fun: there’s always an opportunity to learn more. To Jim’s point, it’s one of the things that makes teaching other people so difficult.

2. “If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist”

This quote, from Mathias Meyer of Travis CI, is something I think that all distributed teams should keep in mind. It’s clear you can’t rely on oral communication when you have a team like Mathias described in his session on Building and Scaling a Distributed and Inclusive Team. With 40 team members spread across 15 different countries and many time zones, it’s just not feasible if you want to include everyone. However, I think most teams often rely too heavily on oral communications. Don’t get me wrong, it has its advantages, but you trade speed and efficiency for impermanence and exclusivity when you don’t write things down. We should be more thoughtful when determining if in-person is the most appropriate means of communication. As Mathias noted, less oral communication (and more written communication) has lead to incidental documentation that his teams began compiling into a “builder’s manual” for new team members. That’s another potential benefit to consider.

3. “This isn’t our data. It’s the people’s data” -Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo


Clarence Wardell of the White House’s U.S. Digital Services division shared this quote as part of his featured talk on the Police Data Initiative. The data he’s referencing is the machine readable data that more than 53 police departments across the country have commited to releasing to the public. Clarence’s ask of developers is that we use this data in creative ways to help drive conversations in the community. The hope is releasing this data will increase transparency and build trust. This quote struck me because it is our data and we have the right to know what is happening with our police departments. That said, we also have the obligation to inform ourselves with it.

4. “The first follower turns a lone nut into a leader”

This quote is from Jim Kohl. Trying to drive change on a team or in an organization can be overwhelming. Jim broke down the daunting task by reminding us that making changes begins with one follower. If there is something that you’ve been wanting to do, but haven’t been able to get traction, start by recruiting a follower to help perpetuate your idea. Not convinced? Watch this Ted talk on How to Start a Movement.

5. “Ask for clarification”

This was from Jason Chen of Quill. Enlightening, right? The quote itself isn’t much to write about, yet I am writing about it. Why? In practice, it is actually pretty powerful. Jason referenced it as a lesson he learned as a maintainer of an open source project. He found GitHub issues have the classic characteristics of a Denial of Service attack since anyone can create them and it often takes time and effort for maintainers to craft thoughtful responses. This left him spending more time addressing issues than actually contributing to his project. Until one day he asked someone to elaborate. Asking for clarification prevented him from wasting time answering the wrong question. He began doing this more often and found he was actually able to more effectively answer people in a shorter amount of time. As a bonus, prodding people further often lead them to answer their own question. While Jason’s case seems very specific, I actually think the concept is applicable in so many situations. I personally find it incredibly helpful when answering support requests.

Top image via CreativeCommons / Flickr user highlander411. Map image via White House and Police Data Initiative

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