Silicon Valley and the wider tech community have always had a place for blunt, tell-it-like-it-is kind of people, but some personalities loom larger than others. When it comes to software development, Linus Torvalds has a reputation for being someone who tolerates no fools and pulls no punches. He’s also spent the last 27 years working on Linux, the open source operating system that now forms the underpinnings (directly or indirectly) of a significant percentage of the computing devices on Earth. After nearly three decades, Torvalds has undoubtedly earned a sabbatical from his work, but what he’s chosen to do with himself may surprise some folks. Instead of pivoting to work for a hardware company or branch into an altogether different field, he’s taking time off for personal self-improvement.
Linus’ management style and method of communication have been controversial for years; multiple developers who have quit the Linux community have openly stated he was the reason why. In the past, Torvalds has acknowledged these issues but defended them as an efficient way to run an organization. Publicly, the world+dog have gotten used to such outbursts, but privately they’ve done damage to overall Linux development — something Torvalds, in a surprising letter to the Linux community, now acknowledges.
The proximate cause of this shift in Linus’ plans was a self-made scheduling conflict. Torvalds accidentally scheduled his family vacation over the dates as the Linux Maintainer Summit, a meeting of the top Linux developers. The Linux Maintainer Summit, a meeting of the top Linux developers. When asked, Linux suggested that the developers instead hold the meeting without him. This was not particularly well received by the other developers and plans were made to instead reschedule part of the summit. But the entire affair prompted Torvalds to take a look at “myself in the mirror.” He writes (in part):
Yes, we got it rescheduled, and no, my “maybe you can just do it without me there” got overruled. But that whole situation then started a whole different kind of discussion. And kind of incidentally to that one, the second part was that I realized that I had completely mis-read some of the people involved…
I am not an emotionally empathetic kind of person and that probably doesn’t come as a big surprise to anybody. Least of all me. The fact that I then misread people and don’t realize (for years) how badly I’ve judged a situation and contributed to an unprofessional environment is not good.
This week people in our community confronted me about my lifetime of not understanding emotions. My flippant attacks in emails have been both unprofessional and uncalled for. Especially at times when I made it personal. In my quest for a better patch, this made sense to me. I know now this was not OK and I am truly sorry.
The above is basically a long-winded way to get to the somewhat painful personal admission that hey, I need to change some of my behavior, and I want to apologize to the people that my personal behavior hurt and possibly drove away from kernel development entirely.
I am going to take time off and get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.
Linux has also adopted a code of conduct to replace its previous “Code of Conflict.” Debate on both points is already being argued through a largely cultural lens, with some of Torvalds critics noting they’ll believe he’s changed when they see it, while some in the Linux community are bemoaning that Linus has somehow become PC. The first is understandable — it’s difficult for people to change, even when they truly wish to, and Linus’ reputation for being abrasive and difficult to work with is well-attested, self-admitted, and a long-term habit.
As for the idea that this represents some triumph of political correctness over project management, all we’ll say is this: Linus Torvalds has guided the evolution of Linux for nearly 30 years. His own statements in his apology confirm that he intends to continue doing so into the future but is unhappy with the state of the community and the way his own behavior has led to negative outcomes that he himself now views as problematic. In other words, Linus Torvalds has decided to make changes to how he approaches project development because he isn’t sure his previous approach yielded the best results for Linux.
My own take is this: When the man who invents an operating system and devotes 27 years of his life to furthering its development says “Hey, I think there might be a better way to do things,” he’s earned the right to be taken seriously. When he says “I’m not pleased with the way my own attitude may have impacted the development of Linux,” he ought to be believed. And if he thinks Linux might prosper more effectively with a different developer culture, he and the other top Linux developers have a right to test that hypothesis.
Ultimately, you either trust the man to continue putting his 27-year project and its continued success first and foremost or you don’t. A person who suddenly doesn’t trust Linus because he’s considering a different approach to how he interacts with the Linux community never actually trusted him at all. Trusting someone — actually trusting them — means trusting them even when they make changes you aren’t certain of.
Feature image from a YouTube video by aaltouniversityace.
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