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GitHub CEO forks off: Nat Friedman to quit this month, replacement will report to exec behind .NET Hot Reload fiasco

Chief product officer takes over world's palatable social network

Updated GitHub CEO Nat Friedman announced today he's leaving the organization on November 15 and will be replaced by chief product officer Thomas Dohmke.

We're assured that GitHub will remain an independent outfit within Microsoft. That said, Dohmke will report to Julia Liuson, who was just made president of Microsoft’s developer division that will now oversee GitHub.

It just so happens that Liuson was, then as developer division head, understood to be behind the last-minute decision in October to remove a flagship feature from open-source .NET for the sake of Visual Studio sales. Programmers were so enraged by this attempt to strip away functionality, dubbed Hot Reload, that the decision was reversed.

And so off goes Nat

Friedman was installed as head honcho by Microsoft when it bought GitHub for $7.5bn in 2018 and was seen as a reassuring figure for developers. He was active in the Linux community since the late 1990s, was CTO of open source at Novell, co-founded Xamarin and the GNOME Foundation, held a few other roles, and was described as a trusted figure in the industry who promised, and more or less kept, GitHub's independence.

"I’m moving on to my next adventure," he said in a letter to developers. "I will become Chairman Emeritus, which fulfills my lifelong ambition of having a title in Latin. My heartfelt thanks to every Hubber and every developer who makes GitHub what it is, every day."

Friedman has been writing software since he was six years old, and graduated from MIT in 1999 after double-majoring in math and computer science. During his stint at Novell, he weaned 6,000 staff off Windows and Office machines onto SUSE and OpenOffice.

Friedman's career has taken various twists and turns, and it ultimately led to him, GNOME project co-founder Miguel de Icaza, and fellow engineer Joseph Hill forming a San Francisco startup called Xamarin. The trio had earlier grown an open-source project called Mono, which offered a cross-platform implementation of Microsoft's .NET and C#. Xamarin was a continuation of that effort, and basically allowed developers to build Mac, Android, and iOS apps.

It proved popular, deals followed with IBM and Oracle, and the startup worked closely with Microsoft. Redmond ended up buying it in 2016 for a reported $400m to $550m.

Hey, with Ballmer gone we can party again!

At Microsoft, it did seem to the Xamarin team that the Windows giant had changed its tune on open source: de Icaza told The Register at the time that the IT goliath was a "different organization" from the days of one-time CEO Steve Ballmer regarding its antipathy towards open code. Shortly after the takeover, Microsoft made Xamarin tools free and open source, and the Mono platform was re-released under the MIT license.

While at Microsoft, Friedman had time for outside interests. In 2017 he co-founded California YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard), a political advocacy group pushing for more affordable urban housing in the Golden State, and AI Grant, a non-profit research lab for developing open-source projects.

When Microsoft made the GitHub acquisition, Friedman was a good pick for CEO, since he was able to reassure developers that the platform would not be neutered or screwed over by Microsoft and, while he said he understood the "healthy skepticism" in the community, he pledged to earn programmers' trust.

In his resignation letter Friedman said Dohmke was very much in the same mold and had a great track record, pointing to his career as a coder and his work at GitHub making private repositories free for developers. "I couldn’t be more excited for the future of GitHub under his leadership," he said.

Dohmke started writing software in the 1980s and was an early Linux enthusiast. In 2011 he started HockeyApp, a tool that Dohmke and others built to help testers and programmers identify and smooth out coding blunders in iOS and Android applications.

Microsoft scooped up HockeyApp in 2014, and Dohmke transferred over to GitHub after helping lead the acquisition of the code-warehouse biz from within Redmond. He was appointed chief product officer this August.

"I cannot wait to begin this journey as GitHub’s new CEO and continue to make GitHub better for all developers," Dohmke said in a blog post.

"We will continue to operate independently as a community, platform, and business. This means that GitHub will retain its developer-first values, distinctive spirit, and open extensibility. We will always support developers in their choice of any language, license, tool, platform, or cloud."

Friedman was coy about his own future plans. He is presumably post-economic by now, and our bet is on something involving open source and startups.

"I’m moving on to my next adventure: to support, advise, and invest in the founders and developers who are creating the future with technology and tackling some of the biggest opportunities of our day," he said.

Though GitHub has survived within Microsoft during Friedman's tenure, that isn't a guarantee the situation will remain rosy. For one thing, aside from the .NET fiasco within its parent, GitHub's source-generating Copilot assistant manages to be impressive and problematic at the same time, potentially plagiarizing copyrighted code that was ingested during its training.

While GitHub is seen as the top dog, its rival GitLab is very much a thing, and developers are able to vote with their feet and shift to other platforms if unhappy. Dohmke's decisions are going to be watched closely by a lot of folks in the developer community. ®

Updated at 2240 UTC

This story was revised to include word of Julia Liuson's promotion, which we learned from an internal memo written by Scott Guthrie, Microsoft's executive veep of cloud and AI, that was passed on to us. Microsoft representatives confirmed the email's authenticity.

"I'm very pleased to announce the promotion of Julia Liuson to President, Microsoft Developer Division," wrote Guthrie.

"As part of today's changes, Thomas Dohmke, CEO of GitHub, will report to Julia going forward, as will Julia's existing DevDiv reports.

"Julia has been instrumental in Microsoft's adoption of open source, and in the transformation of Microsoft's developer strategy. As the leader of DevDiv, she helped guide the open sourcing of -NET (which now runs on every major OS platform), as well as the creation and open sourcing of Visual Studio Code (now the most popular development tool in the world)."

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