Over the last fifteen years, GitHub has become an indispensable part of the world of coding. The platform, launched in 2007, is now used by over 100 million developers to collaborate, track changes, and store their code.
Acquired by Microsoft in 2018 for $7.5 billion, GitHub is now developing a reputation for something else: radically changing the way coding works. The catalyst is Copilot, an AI tool that generates code as easily as OpenAI’s ChatGPT produces sonnets. (In fact, Copilot is powered by OpenAI’s Codex, a large language model trained on code scraped from the Internet.)
By simply pressing the tab key, a developer using Copilot can finish a line, generate blocks of code, or even write entire programs. According to GitHub, over 10,000 organizations, ranging from Coca-Cola to Airbnb, have signed up for Copilot’s enterprise version, and more than 30,000 employees at Microsoft itself now regularly code with assistance from Copilot.
“The skills of the developer will be to figure out, ‘How small do I have to go until I can leverage AI to synthesize that code for me?’”
Recently, Freethink spoke with Thomas Dohmke, GitHub’s CEO, to learn more about how Copilot promises to refashion programming as a profession, and the questions AI-powered development raises about the future of innovation itself. We also talked about why coding with Copilot is so much fun, how AI will change the way we learn, and whether Copilot can fix banks that are still running COBOL on mainframes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Freethink: What changes do you see coming down the pike, in terms of the nature of programming? Is software development going to remain the domain of experts? Or do you think that AI-fueled, no-code development will become more widespread — to the point that what it means to be a software engineer looks different?
Thomas Dohmke: I think that systems thinking — understanding the complexity of software and being able to take a really big problem, big challenge, big new feature and decomposing it into small problems — will play an ever-increasing role.
We went from punch cards to hundreds to thousands to millions and probably now trillions — if not whatever the next thing is after trillions — of lines of code. And so we, as developers, need to be able to manage these large complex systems that solve large, complex problems. And you need to be able to break them down into small building blocks.
The skills of the developer will be to figure out, “How small do I have to go until I can leverage AI to synthesize that code for me?” At least for the foreseeable future, we’re still going to have to review all that source code — understand what it does, and do security reviews, compliance review, see if you’re having a prompt injection, where somebody tries to inject harmful code into the code base.
The developer will still be the expert, understanding the code and whether what was synthesized by the AI actually matches the developer’s intent. That’s probably going to shift over the next decade — how much are we writing ourselves and how much is just synthesized. But I don’t think we are remotely close to where everything will be just no-code development.
“The number of distractions doesn’t go down, but you can leverage the creative time better.”
Freethink: What are you seeing in how the day-to-day work of programmers is changing thanks to Copilot?
Dohmke: Developers don’t actually spend most of their time coding these days — between two and four hours per day is when a developer writes code. The rest of the day they do other things, like stand-up meetings, looking at crash reports. (Or maybe somebody in the App Store reviews is telling you that the latest version is broken, and you can’t even reproduce the bug.)
With Copilot, if you only have two to four hours a day to actually code, you can use that time better. You can use that time to stay in the flow, to get the job done and enjoy doing it.
The number of distractions doesn’t go down — whether it’s Slack, or Twitter, or your cell phone and your WhatsApp messages. Those don’t go away, but you can leverage the creative time better, and you can kind of zone into the problem, because if you’re not constantly switching out of the editor to something else, you also have fewer triggers to get distracted. So we see that people are staying in the zone more often.
“Copilot brings the fun back, it brings the creativity back. It brings the flow back.”