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ZenHub brings automation to GitHub project collaboration

When a digital platform becomes so pervasive that it spawns other businesses, you know something big is happening. Much as Uber and its ilk have fueled a breed of startup that targets passengers, GitHub is creating lucrative opportunities for entrepreneurs in the DevOps sphere.

For the past six years, Canadian SaaS company ZenHub’s project management and collaboration tool has been baked into the GitHub interface, accessible via a browser extension, or — for those less comfortable working directly inside GitHub — a standalone web app. Through ZenHub, GitHub users can create project roadmaps and reports and generate task boards to visualize issues and track dependencies.

Above: ZenHub workspaces

Today, ZenHub is adding new automated smarts designed to free up developers so they can spend more time coding — and less time coordinating.

Automating workflows

While GitHub already supports workflow automation through Actions and other automated tools, this area is largely focused on software deployment, rather than project management and coordination, which is where ZenHub comes into play.

With automated workflows rolling out today, ZenHub wants to free developers from having to manually hand work off to other teams. This means users can visualize all the different boards and workspaces, preconfigure issues (through GitHub’s task- and bug-tracking feature), and pull requests (with code-change review notifications) to move automatically between different teams’ workspaces.

“If the same issue lives in multiple team workspaces in ZenHub, automated workflows can update the position of that issue based on an action another team has taken,” ZenHub cofounder Aaron Upright told VentureBeat.

When an engineering development team has finished an issue and wants to hand it off to the design or quality assurance (QA) team, for example, they can stipulate that this transition happen automatically by tapping a couple of boxes in the ZenHub interface and hitting “connect.”

Above: Automated workflows

If an issue fails at the QA stage, it can be automatically moved back to “in progress” in the development team’s workspace and removed from the QA team’s queue.

Above: Automated workflows: moving an issue back to the development team for edits

While this may seem like an incremental upgrade, on larger projects involving numerous developers and back-and-forth interactions, the time savings could be significant.

“Each hand-off represents an opportunity for delays if the status of a task is not properly communicated,” Upright said. “To avoid these potential delays, teams are typically forced to schedule hand-off meetings or overload the team with messages and notifications. Automated workflows put an end to this by allowing the movement of tasks in one team’s workspace to trigger the movement of tasks in another team’s workspace.”

Automated workflows ultimately ensure that task status is always up-to-date. While the first iteration of the product is a little like IFTTT in terms of how it’s manually configured, there could be scope to add smarter machine learning-powered elements further down the line.

“Future versions of this could automatically suggest pipeline mappings based on common patterns that we see in our dataset, or where we can detect similar or same pipeline names,” Upright said.

Ecosystem

Founded out of Vancouver, ZenHub has amassed some 2,400 paying customers since its launch in 2014, including big-name clients such as Microsoft, Adobe, Comcast, Docker, Cisco, and SAP. And it has done so while remaining entirely bootstrapped. The company also employs a relatively modest 32 full-time workers in Canada, with some remote employees in the U.S. and Ireland.

ZenHub said it is profitable, although it’s reinvesting most of its earnings. But while the startup doesn’t strictly need any outside capital, Upright said he would be “open to conversations” if the right investor came along. “I’m a believer that who you raise from is more important than anything else,” he said.

The bulk of ZenHub’s revenue comes from direct subscriptions through its website. However, ZenHub is also listed on the GitHub Marketplace, where companies can purchase add-ons for their GitHub subscriptions — with GitHub taking a 25% cut of the revenue. According to Upright, ZenHub has the second-largest number of installations on the GitHub Marketplace.

Given ZenHub’s tight-knit ties with GitHub, which Microsoft acquired for $7.5 billion in 2018, an acquisition doesn’t seem out of the question. In fact, GitHub has already made five acquisitions in the two years it has been with Microsoft. For a startup founder, Upright was atypically frank about such a prospect.

“We have a great relationship with [GitHub CEO Nat Friedman] and the GitHub leadership team, and have had multiple conversations around how we see software development evolving,” he said. “While we’re not trying to engineer an acquisition, it could be a natural exit path for ZenHub. As a founder, my approach to any acquisition is to optimize for one that would allow us to continue to live out our mission and continue to improve the lives of developers. Both GitHub and Microsoft could be great places to do that.”

Such a deal may never materialize, of course, and for now ZenHub is forging ahead on an independent path. Any platform that relies too heavily on a third-party player faces potential dangers — as a private company, GitHub (or Microsoft) could in theory replicate any functionality they like.

“While this is always a risk that we’re mindful of, we’ve seen the majority of GitHub’s focus to date be on improving parts of the core developer experience,” Upright said. “From an ecosystem perspective, GitHub has always taken a best-of-breed approach — building the foundational pieces themselves but relying on their ecosystem partners to improve and elevate the experience for customers.”

A number of companies are building substantial businesses off the back of GitHub and similar platforms. London-based Snyk last week raised a whopping $200 million at a $2.6 billion valuation to help developers find vulnerabilities in code hosted in GitHub and other repositories. And Paris-based GitGuardian, which raised $12 million last year from notable backers that included GitHub cofounder Scott Chacon, has built a platform that helps developers find sensitive data hidden in public and private GitHub repositories.

Although there is nothing to suggest its GitHub partnership will go awry, ZenHub might be wise to spread its proverbial eggs around multiple baskets and support other platforms.

“We think there’s a lot of opportunity to integrate into other places where developers spend time,” Upright said. “This includes IDEs [integrated development environments], other tools, and source code management platforms like GitLab and BitBucket. [There are] no plans in the immediate-term, but it’s definitely in our near to mid-term plans.”

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