Julie Ann Horvath struggles with Github

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

I suspect this story will be one of those stories that we will talk about for many years, sort of in the same way some of us still reference the treatment that Blaine Cook got in the media, and how unfair it was to blame him for the technical problems in Rails, at a site that was growing 1,000% a year. Some stories reveal a lot about the mood of the tech community in a given year. The Blaine Cook story revealed that people were uncomfortable criticizing David Heinemeier Hansson for the problems in Rails, or perhaps people didn’t want to criticize Rails, which was still going through its honeymoon period back then. It is worth noting that the 2 most popular anti-Rails rants of that era were almost immediately taken down. I’m thinking of Zed Shaw’s “Rails Is A Ghetto” and Mark Pilgrim’s “Translation From PR-Speak to English of Selected Portions of Rails Developer David Heinemeier Hansson’s Response to Alex Payne’s Interview” which is complete gone from the web since Mark Pilgrim’s info-suicide (though there are lots of links to it, which goes to show how popular it was).

I suspect Julie Ann Horvath’s story will be like that, a story we look back at, 10 years from now, and think about all it implied about the state of the tech community in 2014.

ValleyWage offered this summary:

Julie Ann Horvath, an outspoken and well-known engineer at GitHub, a mega-successful social network for coders, says a toxic workplace forced her out. She’s telling her story of harassment on Twitter, right now.

Horvath seems to have been spurred by a post on Secret, apparently by an anonymous coworker, accusing her of “raging against professional criticism” at GitHub:

Only a dysfunctional organization would allow an employee to pursue, in public but anonymous, a vendetta against another employee. We do not need to know if any of the accusations are true, we can say with great certainty that Github suffers terrible management if they allow this behavior to go unpunished. This goes far beyond merely unprofessional, this is borderline psychotic.

Julie Ann Horvath says “It’s interesting watching someone try to destroy my professional reputation and collect gossip about me from others.” That is a remarkable amount of restraint. If I had a private disagreement with a co-worker and they decided to take it public, but they choose to remain anonymous, I would devote my time to bringing them out into the public as well, undermining their anonymous protection, and making my case.

The wife of the co-founder seems to have played a big role in the conflict:

The wife of the founder asked Horvath out for drinks, which she agreed to. In her own words: “Of course I agreed, seeing as she was my boss’s wife and I’m always looking to meet women I can look up to.”

According to Horvath: “I met her and almost immediately the conversation that I thought was supposed to be casual turned into something very inappropriate. She began telling me about how she informs her husband’s decision-making at GitHub, how I better not leave GitHub and write something bad about them, and how she had been told by her husband that she should intervene with my relationship to be sure I was ‘made very happy’ so that I wouldn’t quit and say something nasty about her husband’s company because ‘he had worked so hard.’”

We are awaiting comment from GitHub regarding these allegations, and GitHub says it is looking into it. It’s not clear why this founder or his spouse appear to have felt threatened by Horvath’s employment.

According to Horvath, the wife went on to claim that she was responsible for hires at GitHub, and asked Horvath to explain to her what she was working on. The wife also claimed to employ “spies” inside of GitHub, and claimed to be able to, again according to Horvath, read GitHub employees’ private chat-room logs, which only employees are supposed to have access to.

Horvath called the situation, aptly, “bananas.”

In her email to TechCrunch, Horvath says she felt “confused and insulted to think that a woman who was not employed by my company was pulling the strings.” She also said she felt bullied by someone with perceived power and influence over her personal relationship and her career at GitHub.

In retrospect, Horvath said she feels like she should have handed in her resignation following the episode.

Horvath then told her partner, also a GitHub employee, about what was happening. She warned him against being close to the founder and his wife, and asked him not to relay information to them. According to Horvath, her partner “agreed this was best.” He had talked with the founder’s wife, who agreed to give Horvath space.

Instead of the issue blowing over, Horvath received a meeting request from HR at GitHub, and was asked to “relay the details of that personal conversation that took place out of the office.” Horvath recalls that she was “uncomfortable with this but complied to the best of my ability.” Her partner was also asked to relay past events.

Radio silence ensued for a month, according to Horvath, while rumors cropped up that the founder was asking other employees about her, as well as her relationship with her partner. To Horvath, the silence made her think that she was “being bullied into leaving.”

At this point, Horvath said she began to feel threatened. She said that having her personal relationship dragged into her work life and put on show for her coworkers didn’t sit well with her. The aforementioned wife began a pattern of passive-aggressive behavior that included sitting close to Horvath to, as she told TechCrunch, “make a point of intimidating” her.

This stalemate ended when the founder asked to see her. Horvath said that she “wasn’t going to put myself in a position like that, so I required HR be present if we were to meet.” The meeting did not go well.

According to Horvath, the founder accused her of threatening his wife, who she had not interacted with or contacted since the wife asked her out to drinks. Horvath cried during the episode, as she said the founder both “chastised” her and called her a “liar.” Horvath said the founder ended the meeting by saying that it was “bad judgement” to date coworkers (referring to her relationship, which was with another employee at GitHub) and then left. Horvath recalls sitting there after his departure both “crying and shaking uncontrollably.”

We are waiting for comment from GitHub about these allegations.

Horvath later learned that the founder had a similar talk with her partner and demanded that he resign. Her partner is still at the company.

In Horvath’s view, her options were limited, given that “HR and the other founders had allowed this to happen, even after being made aware of his and her behavior.” It wasn’t clear whom she could turn to.

While the above was going on, Horvath had what she referred to as an awkward, almost aggressive encounter with another GitHub employee, who asked himself over to “talk,” and then professed his love, and “hesitated” when he was asked to leave. Horvath was in a committed relationship at the time, something this other employee was well aware of, according to Horvath.

The rejection of the other employee led to something of an internal battle at GitHub. According to Horvath, the engineer, “hurt from my rejection, started passive-aggressively ripping out my code from projects we had worked on together without so much as a ping or a comment. I even had to have a few of his commits reverted. I would work on something, go to bed, and wake up to find my work gone without any explanation.” The employee in question, according to Horvath, is both “well-liked at GitHub” and “popular in the community.”

His “behavior towards female employees,” according to Horvath, “especially those he sees as opportunities is disgusting.”

Seeking to create something positive out of the above complexity, Horvath decided to start Passion Projects, an initiative that she now claims “wasn’t just to fix tech,” but was also something designed to “fix GitHub and to strengthen the support network for women who might be experiencing similar things.”

Yet things failed to improve internally. Horvath calls the next period “uglier.” She says that the wife of the founder continued to show up at the office, sit next to her and “glare” at her for extended periods of time “as if trying to provoke a reaction.” After a spell, “spending a lot of time in the women’s bathroom crying,” Horvath spoke to a different founder who was “sympathetic” and promised to “address” the situation with the other founder and his wife.

The first founder asked to meet. Horvath accepted. The founder apologized, and admitted to having “inappropriately escalated the situation.” His wife, he said, would work from home from then on. The wife, to be clear, was not a GitHub employee.

Instead of getting gone, the wife appeared the next day and “planted herself right in front” of Horvath. Horvath pinged various executives who were “busy” but willing to help eventually.

The situation wasn’t merely passively painful; according to Horvath it became virulent:

The next thing I knew the wife was in my face at my work station verbally attacking me. She demanded to speak with me in private to which I said no. I asked her in a very calm way to leave me alone and told her she was making me uncomfortable. There is an eye-witness to this event.

I was shaking in horror and felt my adrenaline pumping harder than ever before. I was proud of myself for not reacting, though.

I decided to work from home for a while.

HR eventually asked the wife to not be on the same floor as Horvath. But according to Horvath’s recount, “she continued to find her way in and plant herself right next to wherever I was working.” This continued until her exit from the firm this past Thursday.

ValleyWag identified the married couple behind this explosion:

Tom Preston-Werner co-founded GitHub, and accordingly ran the place. But in a detailed report provided to TechCrunch by Horvath—one that only described a GitHub “founder” and a “wife” as chief antagonists—we can see that Tom Preston-Werner’s wife, Theresa, positioned herself as a workplace bully and power-tripper beyond any actual GitHub executive.

…We’ve confirmed with a GitHub employee that “the wife” is in fact Theresa Preston-Werner, making her husband complicit in covering up (or at least condoning) repeated allegations of harassment and abuse at the company he helped create. We’re told this is certainly not the first time the Preston-Werners have treated a female employee this way: Melissa Severini, the company’s very first hire, was allegedly paid to sign a non-disparagement agreement after being victimized by Theresa Preston-Werners and subsequently terminated. Other employees have been pressured to do pro bono work for Theresa Preston-Werner’s own startup, Omakase.

Github prides itself on its lack of management structures. Lack of structure can facillitate abuse. Keep in mind Jo Freeman’s essay The Tyranny Of Structurelessness and in particular this line:

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness — and that is not the nature of a human group.
This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power.

Now consider how Github promotes itself to the media:

Imagine you could run a company on autopilot: no tier of “managers,” just people creating value by doing what they love and letting the rest fall into place. How much money would you save by eliminating all that bureaucracy? How much faster could you move? How much conflict could you erase? How much bigger could you grow? How much more creative would the culture be?

There is at least one company that has been experimenting to get closer to the ideal: GitHub.

…What GitHub has done is taken the practice of open-source collaboration–which is done on something akin to a volunteer basis–and applied them to the organization of their entire company. And the outcome has been a product that is universally beloved and relied upon among technology-industry types and university computer science groups, which are bunches of people who can be (ahem) somewhat picky. The question I was interested in when I started this story was: What is the connection between the structure of the startup and the quality of its product?

This is a story about how to run a company, but more specifically, how to run a company that embraces open-source culture–and how the seemingly counter-intuitive principles behind open-source culture seem to be good for GitHub, which is growing quickly, and also apparently just good for its product. And its marketing. And its hiring strategy. And its culture.

At GitHub, people work on an open allocation basis. Unlike traditional companies where projects are assigned top-down, GitHubbers tackle whatever projects they want, without any formal requests or managerial interference.

Off-topic: the tone of voice at FastCompany has not changed in almost 20 years. I used to read it in the 90s, and the breathless utopianism of no-management, free-agent-nation, be-your-own-boss, creativity-revolution is exactly the same now as it was then.

For now, Github has put some people on leave:

In response to those claims, the company is putting the co-founder in question on leave and banning his wife from the GitHub office. Another engineer, who Horvath claims ripped code out of projects that they worked on together after she rejected his romantic advances, has also been put on leave.

For now, we do not know the answers to the important questions, such as:

1.) Who made this decision? The Board Of Directors? The investors? Someone in management at Github?

2.) Will anyone be punished? Do the co-founder and the spurned programmer simply get a month vacation and then they are allowed back? Is Github simply waiting for the media to forget about this story? Or will there be some real changes at Github? I am especially wondering if the person who posted to Secret will get fired? If I was running a company, I would certainly consider that post to Secret to be the kind of thing I would consider firing a talented programmer for. I would be tolerant of accusations made in public, with a name attached, but going on a fishing expedition, for any dirt you can find, while remaining anonymous, suggests a set of social skills that are dangerous to any organization that hires that individual. Maybe today that anonymous dirt-digging is directed at someone who just quit, but tomorrow it could be directed at one of the founders, one of the investors, etc, anybody.

Understandably, a week later, Julie Ann Horvath is still talking about this on Twitter: