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“Artificial intelligence will allow us to become a pillar of Microsoft” (Thomas Dohmke, CEO)

Hi, I’m Thomas Dohmke, CEO of GitHub, but above all a software developer. This is how Thomas Dohmke invariably presents himself, The gallery could meet in Paris. It is partly because of this association with the qualification as a developer that this fortysomething from East Germany was appointed to his management position at the end of 2021.

Already referencing software from the software community open source [des logiciels publiés sous une licence libre qui permet à n’importe qui de les utiliser et de les modifier]GitHub now aims to become ” where the developers live “. Although built on the basis of an open source project called Git, the company specifically allows developers to host their computer code and manage the different versions of their projects.

But GitHub experienced a real turning point in its history in 2018. Nine years after its creation, Microsoft surprisingly paid $7.5 billion to buy it. If the company has not denied its core business, it aims to open a whole new market around artificial intelligence and its new flagship product, code writing assistant.copilot. Explanations with Thomas Dohmke.

LA TRIBUNE – Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub in 2018 shocked the free software world. Many at the time found this marriage unnatural. How have these allegations been seen on Microsoft’s side?

THOMAS DOHMKE – Microsoft has always been a software development company, it’s in its DNA. During its 45-year history, it has undergone several transformations, one of which was to open up to open source. Microsoft has moved from an almost negative view of open source to becoming a real supporter, using it internally and contributing to it. The company now has a gigantic open source program to which tens of thousands of its developers contribute. So acquiring GitHub in 2018 was just another step, a commitment to the community.

Critics feared that Microsoft would distort GitHub, including through the pursuit of profit. What about corporate autonomy in the group today?

We want GitHub to remain independent and we don’t want it to become a sales channel for Microsoft. If you go to GitHub today, you won’t find any Microsoft logo or IDs, and there is no preferential treatment for Microsoft over competitors. Whether you’re deploying on Azure, Amazon Web Services, or Google Cloud, it’s the same for GitHub. Four years after the acquisition, we are still 100% invested in GitHub’s neutral position.

Still, we imagine there are certain advantages to being part of Microsoft…

Of course we find commercial synergies as we are part of a large company and it sells GitHub products to companies like Société Générale, Engie or Décathlon, among other French customers. We leverage Microsoft’s international sales teams, and we leverage the contracts that are already in place with Microsoft. When selling enterprise software, one of the biggest hurdles is often sorting out the details of the contract between the legal teams of both parties. But when the contract exists between Microsoft and the customer, it is easy for him to add GitHub to the invoice.

We also find technological synergies within the group. Copilot, for example, was created in collaboration with Microsoft and Open AI. We used a model of machine learning created by Open AI that we ran on GPUs [des unités de traitement graphique, Ndlr] provided by Microsoft Azure. But we are trying to develop these synergies while maintaining our independence and our startup mentality.

In recent years, Microsoft’s growth, particularly the growth in its profits, has been driven by its cloud division, Azure. Can we imagine GitHub taking on a similar role in the future?

Yes ! Like Windows, Office, LinkedIn and Azure, GitHub is becoming a Microsoft mainstay. There is overlap between these activities – Azure runs on Windows and Office runs on Azure infrastructure for example. GitHub fits into these patterns, and could play a big role in Microsoft’s future.

Despite the $7.5 billion acquisition, GitHub is still relatively unknown outside of the IT community and almost conveys the image of a small business. How much does it weigh in Microsoft’s business?

I can’t give you an exact turnover, but it’s getting significant [peu après notre interview, Microsoft a annoncé que GitHub réalise 1 milliard de dollars de revenus récurrents, contre moins de 300 millions de dollars lors de l’acquisition, ndlr]. This is reflected in our 3,000 employees, 94 million developer accounts and over 4 million customer organizations, including 90% Fortune 100 companies. We have grown significantly since the acquisition and continue to grow. . In 2018 we had 28 million accounts, and more than three times as many today! We have delivered on the expectations that Microsoft had for GitHub when it was acquired, and with artificial intelligence we believe we are entering a new era of software development that we hope will be a prosperous one.

Copilot, the programming assistance AI that you launched in February 2022 after almost a year of testing, was your first step in this new direction. Why do you trust artificial intelligence so much?

To understand our enthusiasm, we must rediscover the history of IT development. First there was a first wave, from the 1980s to the early 1990s, where learning computer programming was only through books and magazines. You had to buy expensive books, because the libraries only had outdated references. If you got stuck with a problem, the only way to move forward was to ask other people for help, which was difficult outside the big cities. From the mid-1990s, the Internet began to develop and forums appeared. Soon enough, it was easy to exchange with other developers and collaboration improved.

It’s the second wave: the Internet democratized software development, and the world of open source was born. You can share your code with other developers so they can build their own code on top of it. This ecosystem now enables startups starting not to start from scratch but to have access to thousands of open source libraries. As a result, building an app today is easy, thanks to many tools, including GitHub.

We believe that IT development is now entering a third wave, namely artificial intelligence. Through programs like Copilot that help developers write their source code, developers will gain access to a new way to express their creativity.

What does Copilot really bring?

Sometimes we – developers – get stuck writing code because we can’t remember what the programming interface looks like, or how to connect to certain servers, or how to decode an image. So you have to look online and this is where the story gets complicated. We leave our code editor, where we were creative, to go to our browser, where 15 tabs are open with surely a TikTok video, a discussion group with the family or a news site, so many sources of distraction.

But the worst thing is that we are also distracted when we look for the solution to the problem on GitHub, Google or Stack Overflow, this time by other developers debating on the forums or in the comments about the best solution to adopt. And since there is often no single solution, you need to take the time to find the one that best suits your own problem. The result of this situation is that you come back to your editor 20 minutes later and you’ve completely forgotten what you’re working on. Copilot partially avoids this waste of time. It suggests pieces of code that the developer chooses to accept or not. If he continues to type, the software will adjust his suggestions. When the developer is satisfied with it, he can press a key to insert it and change it as he wants. As a result, when Copilot is active, it writes 20% to 40% of the code depending on the programming languages ​​and users.

The deployment of Copilot has raised many questions about the respect of copyrights, since certain codes are deposited in the registers of intellectual property. How do you address these concerns?

A machine cannot infringe copyright as it is not liable to the law. Keep in mind that Copilot has no understanding of the language, it just converts what the developer types into a number, and then does some calculations to print a new number that will be converted into a code suggestion. He uses only one method, he is not intelligent and even less gifted with emotions.

However, it is what the user does that counts. Whether he’s copying and pasting a piece of code he found on the Internet or whether this piece was suggested by an artificial intelligence comes down to the same thing. It is always the developer’s responsibility to verify that he is not copying word for word a code deposited by someone else, and therefore not violating a copyright license.

Writing code is only the first step in the code lifecycle, after which it must be reviewed. Specifically, the developer sends a request to the members of his team or to the maintenance team of the open source project he is working on, and it is these other people who will accept the code in the main database. They will look at the code and compare it to what is being done. This is an important step that does not change with the wizard.

However, we are aware of the challenge ahead, which is why we added a framework during the global launch of Copilot this year. If the developer enables it manually (it’s disabled by default), Copilot will compare the code it generates with an open source code base hosted on GitHub. If the snippet looks exactly like—we’re talking about a substantial fragment that would embed some level of creativity, not a simple sentence that would be too short—the assistant won’t offer the snippet. The setting is intended to prevent developers from accidentally copying something created by another developer, and therefore covers some of the risk.

What place will Copilot and future AI-powered tools occupy in the GitHub model?

It’s a whole new category of product, although it’s close to GitHub’s mission to put developers on the best footing. But Copilot takes us away from the heart of our business, which is to become the home of open source and devops. [l’articulation entre le développement et l’administration des systèmes, ndlr]. We are now creating a product that aims to improve developer productivity. Since the launch of the test phase last year, more than a million people have registered an account. There is clearly a market.

What are the next steps?

We expect more progress. Initially, the models will become more and more powerful and therefore more accurate. On the one hand, they will integrate more parameters thanks to the computing capacity of the GPUs, which is constantly improving. In return, they will be trained in an ever-increasing amount of open source code, some of which will have been created thanks to Copilot. A virtuous circle enters.

The second axis of development is the user experience layer. Copilot is successful in part because it is an open app that fits into development environments, not a separate program. We believe that a new wave of products will change how developers work. If we manage to live up to expectations, we believe that in five years 80% of the code will come from AI suggestions.