I was bummed when I read GitHub’s February announcement that it would permanently close its San Francisco headquarters. I worked there for just a couple years, but I remembered it as a whimsical testament to everything I loved about tech, made all the more intriguing by its complex history.
I associate that office with a particularly fond era of working in startups, when offices were more than just a place to work, but cultural centers in their own right. My “real” home was a tiny studio apartment, where I worked off an ironing board in my kitchen. But my “office” home was a lavish mansion, filled with feasts and laughter and music and activities and meetups, where friends would freely host each other for lunch or drinks or dinner.There was a uniquely San Franciscan proxy urban neighborhood culture that formed not around people’s homes, but their offices, and yet these cultural monuments were swiftly abandoned in the post-pandemic reorganization of work.
Reading about GitHub’s office closure made me think about how the 2020s era of hybrid and remote work must feel so different to someone working in startups today. Even if people do go into the office these days, that neighborhood-y feel is just not what it used to be.Without offices as cultural gathering points, where does tech derive that same sense of pride and solidarity?
I briefly entertained the idea of writing an elegy to the GitHub office, which I then shelved as maybe a little silly or frivolous, until Angela Chen from Wired reached out a couple months later about contributing a piece.
It’s rare, and satisfying, when you get a chance to dust off those “maybe-one-day” ideas and give them life. I tried to capture not just the GitHub office itself, but its significance in tech’s cultural history as one of its first disputed territories. You can read it here today:
In other news, I've been emailing a bit more frequently than usual, but I'm probably gonna go back into a hole for the bulk of this summer. I've started publishing my working notes for my Summer of Protocols project, which has evolved somewhat to focus on protocols as systems of social control. I'll update that page every couple weeks with the themes and snippets of things I'm thinking about, so if you're wondering where I'm at, you can always take a peek in there.
See you on the other side!
Side project idea that I’ll never get to: a coffee table book chronicling all the iconic startup offices in San Francisco from the 2010s.
I’ll never forget coming back to the Substack office several months into the pandemic to retrieve my gear. The building was dark and empty, and I was masked and terrified as I crept around the shadowy desks. My desk had a mug with a dried-up tea bag in it: I had just assumed I’d be back in the next morning to clean it up. I had no idea it would be my last day in the office.
I was particularly struck by a comment from Scott Chacon, one of GitHub’s co-founders who led the office design, who I spoke to for this piece. He said that because working from the office was optional, the founders wanted to design an office that was better than working from home. GitHub is the OG remote work company: over half their employees were remote at the time – and that was by design. But their office was still a first-class objet d’art that drew employees in, not a sad afterthought whose use is enforced with mandatory in-person days. Just because employees work remote or hybrid doesn’t mean offices have to suck; I’m reminded of online-first consumer brands that have especially gorgeous physical showrooms. The showrooms aren’t meant to churn out high order volume, like a typical retail store - they’re designed to evoke the brand itself. Chacon intuitively understood this about GitHub a decade ago. What if more companies did this with their offices today?