Zendesk and GitHub: Building best-in-class tools for a decade—and counting
- Software - Customer Service
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You’re at your vacation rental but don’t know how to get in. You’re unsure how to set up recurring shipments from your latest subscription service. You’re wondering if you can bring your dog along in your rideshare. For each problem, you’d reach out to customer service—and you’d likely have a smooth experience thanks to Zendesk. Afterall, the best companies have the best customer experiences, available exactly when (and where) they need them most.
Not your typical Silicon Valley start-up, Zendesk was founded by three friends in a loft in Copenhagen in 2007. One of the industry’s fastest-growing customer service and engagement platforms, Zendesk is now headquartered in San Francisco, with over 3,000 employees serving over 145,000 paid customer accounts—which translates to billions of customers helped, and problems solved.
Zendesk connects companies around the world with customers on any channel: phone, chat, email, social media, and anywhere else people go for help. Behind this omnichannel approach is an engineering team of over 800 that’s growing fast. As the VP of Engineering, Jason Smale oversees infrastructure, productivity, and product teams that build and maintain Zendesk’s suite of tools.
Since Smale arrived at Zendesk seven years ago, his team has relied on GitHub Enterprise Cloud to stay flexible and keep growing across platforms. “It’s the heart and soul of what we do: Every bit of code goes in there, and our entire engineering workflow is built around it. The UI ensures our entire workflow is seamless.”
With more than 50 percent of the team outside San Francisco, “GitHub Enterprise is a key tool we use daily to communicate where we’re going and how we’re getting there,” said Smale. Because the teams are globally distributed, and GitHub is so effective, Smale encourages developers to “lead with code.” Instead of talking theoretically, it’s often faster to have developers open a draft pull request to move discussions forward. Then they can schedule a meeting with clear intent. “It’s a really successful strategy: We streamline a lot of our work by leading with code.”
The pull request is at the core of the team’s work. And recent innovations—like choosing the way they merge to master, assigning reviews, and semantic linking—have only made it more integral. “We use them all day, every day,” said Smale. He also feels GitHub’s cloud offering, in particular, benefits his team’s workflow. “There are so many little things that incrementally make GitHub better all the time, which is the magic of SaaS. We continue to get more from GitHub as it evolves.”
With deployment systems and 800 engineers that depend on GitHub every day, reliability is critical to Zendesk’s productivity. “We need a highly available service to ensure reliability remains our most important feature,” said Smale. “With GitHub, we have that.”
Zendesk values transparency—especially on the engineering side. They need to be agile and work in an asynchronous fashion with engineering teams distributed across the world. They strive to have clear ownership of all services by teams, then allow anyone in any team to contribute code in an innersource fashion. “Our engineering culture is open—centered around teams owning services and being responsible for running them in production,” said Smale. Similar to the open source community’s maintainers, internal teams maintain Zendesk’s inner ecosystem.
This collaborative mindset translates to the broader open source community. “Since the beginning, we’ve leveraged open source and made a point to contribute,” said Smale. One example is Ruby-Kafka, which has been forked more than 230 times and has over 800 stars. Another is Samson, the deployment tool that Zendesk and many other businesses use. “Every commit pushed to Github triggers a raft of webhooks to integrations to assist engineers. Then, once merged into the master branch, our deployment pipeline kicks off.”
There’s never been a moment where we considered moving off GitHub. That’s radical for a piece of software we’ve used for over nine years.
The team also writes bots to manage engineering at scale; code coverage tools to ensure their code is headed in the right direction; and plug-in security scanning tools. As Smale explained, “the GitHub API supports us as we integrate and scan across our repositories. It allows us to have internal tools that analyze our work and create a daily report that guides our focus.”
Contributing to the open source community allows Smale and his team to take part in the software they depend on. “We’ve always wanted to focus on where we can add the most value to our business and be in control of our own destiny.” They don’t have to wait around for someone else to fix a problem; they can do it themselves, and contribute back. “That is quite empowering as a software organization: to understand and be able to shape the software we rely on.”
The second innovation revolves around Zendesk’s advanced platform and its API. One of its components is the App Framework, which allows users to customize their desktop experience. At launch, Zendesk needed to provide easy-to-use examples so customers could hit the ground running, so they created a GitHub repository with demo Apps. Now, “It’s a public repository that is consistently one of our top downloaded,” said Smale. “Customers who aren’t necessarily software engineers can still easily go to GitHub, download code, modify it, and be building on the Zendesk platform within minutes.”
Today, Zendesk’s Marketplace has 600 public apps and a very large number of privately-built apps used to extend the platform. With GitHub, Zendesk’s customers enjoy a streamlined workflow. Instead of uploading a random zip file to a private computer that’s lost forever, “they fork it into a private repository and make it their own,” explained Smale. “It highlights how we’re just using the best tool on the market—which everyone already knows how to use—rather than trying to lock people into a random platform we made ourselves.”
Over the last five years, Zendesk has acquired five different companies, and GitHub Enterprise Cloud has been critical as the company securely expands its team. To maintain security and protect everything behind a single identity provider, Zendesk takes advantage of two-factor and Okta authentication, among other features.
And as Zendesk grows, they can depend on GitHub Support to help ensure the team is meeting their goals. “We had to work closely with GitHub’s Customer Success Team, and it was a fantastic experience.” In the end, Smale recognized GitHub as an enterprise-caliber partner. “It proved to me that GitHub can scale to even the biggest businesses.”
When it comes to recruiting, “GitHub is the gold standard for engineers when they’re looking for a job.” Smale encourages engineers to maintain a single GitHub profile throughout their career. “It offers historical context and practical insight into their work. It’s useful for both sides of recruiting.” Once hired, “every engineer already knows GitHub—which substantially accelerates internal ramp-up time.”
From innersourcing and open source contributions to customized innovation and reliable security, GitHub and Zendesk have become true partners. “There’s never been a moment where we considered moving off GitHub,” said Smale. “That’s radical for a piece of software we’ve used for over nine years.”
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