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Why GitHub Chased the Federal Market

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It hasn’t been easy getting the federal government to sign up for open source software development tools.

There have been “no lack of challenges” in approaching potential government buyers, the head of federal business at code repository site GitHub said Wednesday.

Speaking at a panel in Washington, Elizabeth Pemmerl warned startups thinking of chasing the federal market to “think before you jump in with both feet,” but added that new technology teams such as the White House’s U.S. Digital Service, the General Service Administration’s agile consultancy 18F and other tech-savvy groups have helped promote a culture receptive to open source software.

With roughly 15 million users, the site lets individuals use the public system for free. Those who want a higher-security, private collaboration tool called GitHub Enterprise can pay a monthly subscription fee.

“There was a lot of scrambling,” as GitHub’s team tried to identify the right people in government to sell to, and how to meet specific federal requirements, such as getting on the right procurement schedules and partnering with qualified re-sellers, Pemmerl said during the panel, which was hosted by tech incubator DCode42.

“We’d show up, all smiles … and they’d say 'Great, how are you going to interact with our [personal identity verification] cards?' And we’d say, ‘Oh, I’ll get back to you,'” she said.

Early support came from government employees who had previously “slipped a GitHub Enterprise purchase on a [purchasing card] and were collaborating in a small group,” often around 20 people, she said. This approach is known as “shadow IT” -- when employees sign up for collaborative tools that aren’t explicitly approved by higher ups.

“But we had the opportunity to get to the CIO level, the [chief technology officer] level, and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be much more powerful if we could collaborate at 100, 300, 600 people at scale?’” Pemmerl said. 

But the current federal buying system is “not sustainable,” she said. Asked what the process was really like, she said “‘[r]eal’ is being at home with an 8-week old, and calling the GSA hotline four times to get your SAM.gov password reset, because you are the sole user on your SAM registration and it is due in a week.”

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