If you’re not a developer and you’ve heard of GitHub at all, you probably only know it as an online space where developers work together on coding projects—one that’s only useful to the geekiest sector of the population.
But GitHub is actually an incredibly useful tool that could be used to organize any group project online. And the day that “regular” people begin adopting it is closer than you think.
On Wednesday, GitHub CEO Tom Preston-Werner said normals are welcome to join the party. “We want to make [non-development] use cases possible,” he said at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2013 conference. “Now, we still optimize GitHub for software developers. This is something that’s very important to us. Software is the future of the world.”
With a lackluster welcome like that, you could be forgiven for not rushing to sign up for an account right this instant. From a technical standpoint, though, GitHub isn’t at all specific to code projects. It’s open to anyone. If only GitHub made more of an effort to make those others feel more welcome.
The World Outside Of Code
When you sign up for GitHub, the first thing you do is built an online repository, or “repo”—a storage locker for your current project. You can tuck away any kind of files, from code scripts to blueprints to text documents. You and other collaborators work on these files locally, then upload—or “push”—them to the online repository, logging changes as you do so.
That way, everyone in the group can see the latest changes to these files, plus each file’s entire change history. This is called version control.
Usually on GitHub, this sort of project focuses on coding a program or building a website. But it doesn’t have to. Imagine a team of lawyers researching a case and using GitHub to upload and annotate legal documents. Or co-authors writing and editing chapters of a book. Or even an online brainstorming session on GitHub, which would be stored and documented far more efficiently than a mess of flustered emails ever could be.
Even better, GitHub is especially good at making sure you and your collaborators retain sole ownership of your projects. (See Section F of the Terms of Service.) Plus, while GitHub is lauded for promoting open source, you don’t have to make your own repositories public.
GitHub For Knowledge Workers
On GitHub’s official YouTube channel, trainer Matthew McCullough explains that the tool can be useful for anyone who is considered a “knowledge worker.” A knowledge worker could be a researcher, designer, editor, inventor, creator, or anyone who is involved with creating, editing, or handling information. (Including developers, of course.)
Lawyers, writers, journalists, researchers, and academics all fit that mold. So why aren’t non-developer knowledge workers on GitHub in larger numbers?
According to Preston-Werner, the problem is the site’s forbiddingly technical approach. “We’ve got a lot of educating to do,” he said. GitHub is built on top of Git, an eight-year-old source-code management tool that most users still manage via a command- line interface, like movie hackers from the 1990s.
While technology is certainly a hurdle, it’s not that bad. There are plenty of free tools for learning Git online. Don’t want to bother? No problem. GitHub comes with graphical interface tools that you can download and use without knowing a line of Git.
Invite The Non-Geeks
The biggest hurdle to broader GitHub adoption might just be its belief that geeks come first. Preston-Werner is fine with non-geeks using the service, but he’s not going to roll out the red carpet for them. He just wants it to be “possible.”
During the discussion, Preston-Werner acknowledged that GitHub is not currently a profitable company. While he didn’t say if profitability is his end goal, I have just the idea to introduce an influx of new adopters to this useful but misunderstood tool—market it as something for everyone.
See the entire discussion on TechCrunch.
Image of GitHub co-founder and CEO Tom Preston-Werner by Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite