Developer Advocate at GitHub, Brian Douglas explores GitHub and streetwear branding stories in this session from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019, touching on swag ideation and representation in developer communities.


So, I’m Brian. My name is not Chad. I can confirm that. And I’m here to talk about stickers. So who’s ready for this?

Audience members: Yeah. Whoo.

Brian: All right.

So I could not have planned this any better, but also I did see the title. So I’m going to talk about swag, and talk about our decisions with swag at GitHub, and then also why we have so many stickers.

But this is going to be a lot of looking back in the history of how we got this Octocat thing, so if you guys are here for that, that’s awesome. I honestly do not know what talk’s upstairs, but it might be just as good, so watch that video.

So, has anybody ever seen this brand before, Supreme? Does anybody own clothing from Supreme? No? All right, this is the perfect crowd then. I tend to go to a lot of European cities for whatever reason, because dev rel, right? As well as, I was in Tokyo not too long ago. So whenever I’m in a European major city, like Paris or Berlin, I try to find a Supreme store and kind of see what it looks like. Mainly because I’m actually close to this brand, not that I actually know anybody there or wear any of their clothes.

But Supreme actually started this whole current wave… Sorry, they didn’t start it, they’re actually on top of it. They didn’t start anything. But they are part of this modern streetwear culture, where people will spend, like, $200 bucks on a sweater that looks like this, that says Supreme on it. I usually have my laptop up. I have a Supreme GitHub sticker. So, we have awesome illustrators that just do a lot of random stuff.

But the reason why I’m close to this brand is because I grew up as a skateboard kid. So I used to skateboard, and thrash on banks, and do stairwells, and stuff like that. I know I’m so mild-mannered and professional today, but I was a hoodlum growing up.

But what I like about this culture, and I like about Supreme, Supreme built, like, the modern version of all these boutique shops where they’d have the clothes on the outside and they’d have all this dead space on the inside.

The reason for that is because kids would come in, Supreme started, like, ’94-ish, and they’d have these Supreme shops, and you’d wear your backpack in there, you’d have your skateboard. And if the clothes are always in the middle of the shop, then people would always knock stuff over. It was hard to hang out.

Creating an environment

And they would create an environment for people to hang out in the middle of the store, because most people didn’t come in to buy expensive clothing in New York. That’s actually where they started.

So, talk about modern streetwear culture. You can follow me on Instagram. That’s fine. I’m not trying to push for followers, but I tend to follow a lot of streetwear culture and shoes on Instagram. That’s what Instagram is for me. I know everybody’s got their own Instagram style and what they like.

But this one person is a photographer who takes pictures of this guy who takes modern streetwear, like, fashion apparel, and then he wears it. Yeah. That’s him. So this is literally, like, Kanye West and Travis Scott, and they’re popular pictures on Instagram and he’s recreating it.

The funny part about that, the culture’s so in depth that this guy’s literally a retired factory worker who just started wearing streetwear because he had nothing else to do. He’s, like, really into Supreme right now. I just thought that was fascinating.

But it’s fascinating because the Supreme brand is stretched, and all these streetwear are fashion, the Off-White and Ivy Park, they have a culture that people can really identify with, and it makes you feel good, even though it’s $250 bucks for a shirt. Probably not the best use of your money, but…

I wanted to actually take a step back, too, as well. I’m going to get to stickers. But I want to talk about this brand. Does anybody know FUBU, For Us By Us? So the cool thing about this is, so Daymond, who’s on Shark Tank, I don’t watch the show, but he does the judging for giving you lots of money if you have a good idea.

Well, he got started with FUBU, and he got started in Queens at the time when hip hop culture was really starting to expand outside the Bronx. What he would do is he would just take his logo and they would put it on a Champion sweater. I know Champion’s coming back, all these Champion sweaters. They usually have, like, the C or Champion in the middle. He would take the FUBU logo and put it right on the Champion sweater, and then he would give that out to people.

He figured out this really cool thing where he would go to clubs and find bouncers, because the cheaper sweaters are always the biggest ones. So he’d find bouncers who were, like, 6’8″ and 350 pounds, and be like, “Here, would you want to wear this sweater?” Because it’s hard to find clothes that actually fits a man of that stature. You have to go big and tall, and back in the ’90s usually husky is what they called it. I wasn’t husky, but my older brother was husky. Shout out to David, who was husky.

Yeah, so he would just put that on there and he created a brand by literally just giving clothes to people who normally could not find nice clothes. And then every time people would go in the club, you know, they’re always around the famous people. They’d be like, “Oh, what are you wearing?” “It’s FUBU, it’s For Us By Us.”

Transitioning to dev rel

Anyway, we’ll talk about GitHub. Anybody heard of GitHub? I know we’re in a GitHub room. Your badge says GitHub. I work for GitHub, so it’s redundant that my badge says GitHub in GitHub, but that’s besides the fact.

You guys want me to explain GitHub? I know this is, like, dev rel and you guys probably know. It’s a decentralized platform built on open source protocol called Git. All right. I’ve been practicing that, so I’m glad you guys appreciate it.

So my job is I 100% swag surf. That’s all right. I missed that. You guys don’t understand. All right, swag surfing, it’s a thing. Look it up, Urban Dictionary. So I’m a developer advocate at GitHub. I don’t need to explain what that is, because you guys are all doing this. But my full-time job is basically to capitalize the ‘H’ on people’s tweets and branding. Since Joe Nash no longer is with us at GitHub, that’s my full-time job.

But one thing that I realized once I joined GitHub, because I did dev rel for the place we’ll have the afterparty tonight, Netlify. That was the first place I knew I could do dev rel. Like so many of us, we’d write blog posts, we speak, we write code. We sort of transition this magically, we just figure out we can do this job, and that’s how I sort of found it.

Swag ideation

We went through a lot of ideation of trying to figure out what swag to give away. And when I got to GitHub, I was like, “I’m going to this RailsConf thing. Can we make some swag?” They were like, “Yeah, we don’t do that.”

I was like, “Oh, why not?” It was like, “Because we don’t do swag. We do stickers.” So, at a certain point, GitHub used to give away a lot of free shirts and did everything everybody else did. But you hit this inflection point where people just know your brand enough that they’ll pay $200 for it.

Like, no one’s paying $200 for a GitHub shirt, but for Supreme. People want that brand, and they identify with it enough. We found that point of, like, “Hey, we’ve hit inflection. Why are we giving it away for free?”

So I just wanted to also mention GitHub is not a t-shirt company. We’re a decentralized platform built on an open source protocol called Git. But we do have a shop, so we still allowed you to identify the brand through the shop.

We have some special-run things, like the thing I’m wearing right now. We have this crew cut, which is hard to get. But we tend to sell these in person at conferences. So it’s like a nice reason to come to our conference. You can find this, and you can buy it, and you can be that person that’s like, “Hey, I look like B. Dougie.”

But GitHub is a sticker company. We’ve really leaned right into that whole sticker craze too as well. I was at DevRelCon China last year. I spoke about Beyoncé. That was actually my talk. I’m not even joking.  But there, I saw firsthand how people really wanted to actually have our stickers. China is a place that we don’t operate, like, we operate because you can use GitHub for free, but we don’t actually have presence in China as of today.

So they don’t get stickers as often as we get stickers here. So we have a whole table back there of stickers, and we’re all like, “Hey, we’ve got that one. We got this one. My kid has these all over our TV stand. Why am I going to take more so they can continue to graffiti and be a hoodlum in my own living room?”

But China is a place where I will bring as many stickers as I can, and try to look legal as possible. Because I get a lot of questions, and you have to fill out tax forms. Yeah, be careful when you ship stickers. People always want to pay taxes on that, depending on if you’re in a third-world country.

Where the Octocat came from

But as I talk about stickers, I have to talk about the Octocat and where it came from. Everybody familiar with the Octocat? You’ve seen it around? I know we have stickers here. I’m wearing one of them right now.

Does anybody know the story of Octocat? Here’s the story. I’ll read it. “Once upon a time, there was a cat whose name was Mona Lisa. Mona Lisa and her owner went to the beach. When Mona Lisa got to the beach, her owner, Kelly, gave goggles so Mona Lisa could swim and see what was in the ocean. When Mona Lisa went into the water, she found lots of fish. When Mona Lisa was swimming, she was so excited, she opened her mouth and swallowed a coral that made you grow legs like an octopus but keep your normal face. So Mona Lisa grew legs and became Mrs. Mona Lisa Octocat.”

That’s the story of the Octocat. So, one of the early engineers at GitHub, his daughter actually wrote this story. So Mona Lisa actually had no story until his daughter actually wrote it. So we’ve adopted that, so in our Slack channel you can actually ask She-Bot, which is our bot, to tell us a story, and it’ll tell you the story of Mona Lisa. I do get my stuff proofread, so the typos are actually, they’re original.

But the thing, actually, is that a lot of people don’t know is that Octocat actually came from a stock photo website. Anybody know that? Yeah, so it was literally picked off a shelf. It was like, “Okay, that’s our company brand.” And it’s because the founders actually identified, “That’s cute enough. Let’s just leverage that. That’s our brand.”

Experimenting with stock photos

Not that it wasn’t intentional, but I don’t think the brand that expanded into now I’m wearing a crew cut that’s hard to get, it didn’t grow to that, but it sort of became that by chance, almost. Yeah, I’m sort of speaking in circles. Yeah, basically it was by chance.

And it was actually created by this guy, Simon Oxley. He also created the original Twitter bird. So it’s the one that’s not today, but the one that was like 10 years ago. He also created DigitalOcean’s shark as well, as well as some other other brands.

Those were all stock photo things that he was experimenting with, like Japanese art, and he just had a list of them, and people were picking off the shelf. Now, that’s his full-time job. I believe he’s doing okay right now financially, but if you want to contract him, he is contracting for logos.

But then, shortly after that, within a year, we actually hired full-time graphic designers to come onto GitHub and full-time make all these random Octocat arts. I think one of the first things was the 404, where we took Obi-Wan Kenobi. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to make that. Legally, I think Disney doesn’t want me to say that out loud. Anyway, we made that, and that’s our 404 page.

Then we have this 500 page that never shows, because we never have 500s, so you probably haven’t seen that very often. Just kidding.  Then we have this whole list on the right of Octodex. So if you go to, we have about 147 different Octocats that we are publicly allowed and legally allowed to share because of parody laws, which is awesome.

But a lot of people don’t know, as of today, we have five full-time staff that are making Octocats. This is illustrations. This is graphics. This is all of the above. It’s because we saw the reception of the Octocat itself, and we’re like, “Why don’t we just continue to do Octocats?”

So, shortly after we got our Series A, which was rather large, we ended up building this entire office, which is the office that a lot of us were at. This is actually the largest modeled Octocat to date, so this is solid piece of Octocat, and it’s actually in our office. As you walk in, and you check in through security, you’ll see this giant statue.

One of our earliest designers had an idea, like, “Let’s go ahead and make this sculpture and make it work.” That’s like a lot of the Octocats that we have that we’ve developed over the years. They’re just, like, ideas, internally, whether they’re designers, or engineers, or just random marketers, or customers. We listen, and we’re like, “Okay, we’ll build that.”

So this is actually from our GitHub Universe, where we used to do it, actually, across the street, towards the water, around the corner. But, yeah, this is a giant inflatable Octocat. This is one of the earlier conferences that we did, GitHub Universe.

Using GitHub to build GitHub

But the cool thing about this is a lot of this, I was not around for. So, we used GitHub to build GitHub. I’m not sure if you guys knew that. What that means is because everything’s stored in the Git, it’s actually stored… I can go back to the first marketing issue and the first illustration issue and find out the story of all Octocats and where they came from.

If you guys don’t mind, I’m going to share about some Octocats and why they exist. So back in June of, actually, 2013, there was actually a conference called MagmaConf. What it did is they took it upon themselves to create their own Octocat for their conference, because they loved the Octocat so much and they identified with it.

So, the following year, the 2014, which is what I showed in the previous slide, one of our, actually, I don’t remember if it was an engineer or not. One of our co-workers had the idea of, “Hey, why don’t we actually lean into this and build a Luchador Octocat?”, which we did.

So, I went through all the old issues, and grabbed some sketches, and this is, like, the ideation of the back and forth, like, “Hey, what do you think about this? How does this work?”

And it’s a lot of listening, because not everybody’s into Mexican wrestling, or know the reason for the mask, and all this other stuff. But because we had Hubbers who are from Mexico and understand that whole culture, we were able to identify and say, “Okay, well, why don’t we put the Octocat logo directly over the eyebrows?”, because that’s where the logos go. Literally, this is a conversation I was reading last week. Actually, two weeks ago, while I was in Berlin, just sort of discovering this talk.

The other cool thing is another one of our earlier support engineers made this remark about the whole Octocat. This is about five years into GitHub. We’d been using the Octocat for a couple years now, and we realized that people were identifying with this, so we continued to lean right into this thing.

Growing community

Again, I wouldn’t say it was by accident. I think there were some intentions there of continuing to do this thing. But we found an opportunity to grow our community as well.

So when we had the idea of going into India and participating, one of our engineers wanted to participate in one of the conferences there, we started doing all the legwork to build the Saritocat.

Quite honestly, I’m not even sure the full history of this, but all the examples that were shown were different models of different Indians that were showcasing this sense of style. I’m able to go back and learn about Indian culture.

We have two Indian cats, but this is a whole different culture than the other Indian cat. I’m able to find out the whole story and history about that. I’m able to educate myself on this culture, and then go into that environment and say, “Hey, I’ve got the sticker. Here you go.”

One of my favorite things to do is to take the Mountiecat whenever I go to Canada. I make sure I have, like, pockets full of those, and I cross the border, and they don’t ask questions because I’m American. I’m just kidding.

But, yeah, this is a conversation back in 2014 of, like, “Hey, we’re going to this Great India Developer Summit. Let’s bring something that’s unique to that brand and that culture, so that way they can help identify with our brand when we leave. And when we come back, they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re the one with the stickers.'”

So, every sticker actually has a story like this. None of our stickers are just unique, and we just developed, and were like, “Hey, cool. Let’s just put Batmancat and Supermancat.” Okay, well, we did do that, but we don’t share those.

These cats are specifically for those communities. I think we have a real opportunity as we, now we’re looking at, San Francisco, we’re super saturated. If you go to a San Francisco meetup, no one’s hurting for a job. Some people are, but you don’t have to really bend over backwards to try to get developers in the room.

It’s a little different when you go to new regions. As GitHub, we’re looking at other regions and where we should be. Like I mentioned, China is a place that we have some weird trade things going on with our government and stuff like that, but we’re trying to figure this out. And trying to figure out, when we enter those cultures, providing those representation.

Representation matters

So, the reason why we have 147 Octocats is because representation matters, and identifying with those communities really matter. So, like, “Thank you, I acknowledge your paper.”

So does anybody know who this guy is? It’s a piece of American culture that is lost in history. But the cool thing about this is that, so this is Benjamin Banneker. I didn’t know who this guy was until I saw the Octocat that we created for him, which looks like this. This is Benjamin Bannekat.

And Benjamin Banneker is actually an individual who kind of surpassed a lot of the limitations that African Americans had back in the 1800s. So, he was an astronomer, he was a hobbyist mathematician, he actually surveyed all of the District of Columbia and sort of helped out with the maps of D.C.

Like, he’s lost in history, but GitHub was able to bring this out and actually identify that this person exists through our Octocat. So we have a story behind this Octocat now. The story actually started because one of our identified black co-workers decided, “Hey, it’s Black History Month. We don’t have any Blacktocats. We should definitely have something that looks like me.”

From there, we had this whole ideation back and forth with the illustration team of like, “Hey, here’s some black figures. We should probably make a cat that supports this. We have the India Cat at this point. Can we also do maybe someone who identifies within this culture, the diverse group we’re actually trying to achieve, and obtain, and have hired, and interviewed, and stuff like that.”

Being seen

So, we went back to illustrations and we discovered that Benjamin Banneker had this really unique story about… He wasn’t seen until he started sending letters to Thomas Jefferson.

And this whole thing about representation and not being seen, he was like the epitome of black culture and not being seen, and he was saw because he would send letters to Thomas Jefferson to the point where Thomas Jefferson’s like, “Oh, well, maybe black people are human. Maybe we can actually have conversations with them.”

So he elevated us to be three-fifths of a person in the States at that point. It’s a joke. I’m sorry. But in the early 1900s, actually, in the 1960s, we became a full person. But that’s a whole other story, whole other talk.

But the cool thing about this is that now we are identifying, we have this organization in the ERG called the Blacktocats, and now we have Blacktocat stickers that look like this.

Then when we go into recruiting and HR events, we can lead with, “Hey, black people matter at our company.” We have an Octocat, we have a Blacktocat, and we have six of them. You’re able to have these, and we don’t actually sell these in the shop. These are our black co-workers, not just engineers, can now hand out these and you can identify with us and say, “Here, this is us.” This is the same for the Octogatos, which is our LatinX group, and the AdaCats, as well as our Octoqueers as well.

Build your own

So, I want to show you the rest of my slides. I almost hit Exit. So, what I’m getting at is, “Lean into what works.” We started doing this thing where you could build your own Octocat, as Jess mentioned earlier.

So now we’re going into conferences, and we have this whole setup where you can actually build your own Octocat from scratch. Well, we have templates. From a template, and add all the stuff that you identify with, and then you can print that sticker directly at the conference. It’s a cool thing we just started doing in Berlin two weeks ago. So, if you’re interested,

This is my Octocat. This is what I made. While everybody was announcing features on stage, I was actually announcing my new Octocat. So, come find me.

With that being said, we have opportunity to be like our brand ambassadors. We can capitalize the ‘H’s wherever we want. But, also, we’re able to limit that.

So when we have the conversation about what swag we should get, let’s not do t-shirts, let’s not do this. It doesn’t have to be stickers as well. Let’s do something that actually identifies with the community that we’re going into.

So, Stuff We All Get, SWAG. Also, I just want to mention, just give it away for something, too. There are options to opt people in to hand things out. There’s also some objectives you could do as well. We like to do giveaway for open source contributions. This is the picture of my laptop that’s not here.

I just want to remind you, GitHub is a sticker company.

Thank you very much.

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Sue Smith


Sue Smith

Sue works in developer education / advocacy and is based in Glasgow, UK.

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