- Linus Torvalds, the programmer behind the free and open source Linux operating system, is taking some time away from the project to “get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.”
- Torvalds has a reputation for being something of a brilliant jerk – he’s known for sending profanity-laden emails, and generally showing a bad attitude that’s turned women and underrepresented groups especially away from contributing to Linux.
- “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,” he told the Linux community.
- While many have praised Torvalds for showing this new attitude, there’s some scepticism over whether or not this commitment will make a material difference after decades of this behaviour.
There’s a strong case to be made that Linus Torvalds is the single most important programmer on the planet. Now, he’s temporarily stepping away from Linux, the software for which he’s best known, to “get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.”
Linux, the free and open source operating system that Torvalds founded in 1991 and still oversees, runs on many, if not most, of the servers and data centres that power the internet. While it never caught on for its original purpose of providing a free alternative PC operating system, Linux is the underlying layer behind Google’s ubiquitous Android.
Torvalds also created git, the technology that lets huge teams of programmers all collaborate on the same piece of software. Git is the technology that underlies GitHub, the company that Microsoft snapped up for $US7.5 billion earlier this year, as well as smaller companies including GitLab.
But Torvalds has another, less-flattering reputation for being, to put it bluntly, a jerk.
The Linux creator has earned a reputation for being someone that nobody wants to work with; a sender of expletive-laden emails and a leader whose bad attitude has pushed away women and underrepresented groups from the community of volunteer Linux developers. In the past, he’s described himself as “not a people person,” putting a fine point on it.
“Linus Torvalds deserves a Nobel Prize for git, the Turing Award for Linux and [a] swift kick in the arse for almost everything else he’s done,” as Twitter user GonzoHacker put it in July.
Linus Torvalds deserves a Nobel Prize for git, the Turing Award for Linux and swift kick in the ass for almost everything else he's done
— GonzoHacker (@GonzoHacker) July 7, 2018
So it came as something of a shock when a note from Torvalds to the Linux kernel development community on Sunday about a new update also included a lengthy note saying that he was taking a break, so he could “try to at least fix my own behaviour.” He says that as the leader of the Linux community, his attitude has gotten in the way of the work.
“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 realise (for years) how badly I’ve judged a situation and contributed to an unprofessional environment is not good,” wrote Torvalds.
Later, he writes: “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.”
He does write that he plans to come back to Linux, after he gets that help: “This is not some kind of “I’m burnt out, I need to just go away’ break. I’m not feeling like I don’t want to continue maintaining Linux. Quite the reverse. I very much *do* want to continue to do this project that I’ve been working on for almost three decades.”
He even jokes that perhaps part of this process would be creating an email filter that simply doesn’t send any emails out with cusses in them.
A big reversal
This note from Torvalds is a stark reversal from attitudes he had previously expressed.
In January 2015, he infamously remarked “I’m not a nice person, and I don’t care about you. I care about the technology and the kernel – that’s what’s important to me.” In that same talk, he said “all that [diversity] stuff is just details and not really important.”
Before that, in 2013, Torvalds landed in hot water when high-profile Linux contributor Sage Sharp publicly took him to task over his use of expletives in official emails, calling them “verbal abuse.” In 2015, Sharp quit working on Linux entirely, in protest of the “toxic” community.
In a 2016 TED talk, Torvalds said “I am not a people person.”
Of note, however, is that Torvalds’ note announcing his hiatus also comes right as the Linux kernel community adopted its first-ever code of conduct – a set of rules for how Linux contributors should behave with each other, including guidelines around empathy and constructive criticism.
The code of conduct replaces the community’s older “Code of Conflict;” a looser set of rules that concluded “Try to keep in mind the immortal words of Bill and Ted, ‘Be excellent to each other.'”
Torvalds is getting mixed reviews
The unexpected double-header of Torvalds’ announcement – that he apologised for his past behaviour, and that he was taking time off to fix it – was met to largely lukewarm reviews from the open source software world.
While many were happy to see Torvalds apologise and express a willingness to change his leadership style, others were more sceptical, and are waiting to see what comes of it. A common sentiment is that apologizing now doesn’t necessarily negate any damages he might have caused over the last few decades.
I've seen a lot of different takes on Linus Torvalds' apology and I do think it's a step in the right direction. A lot of people are (rightfully) angry of the effects his behavior has had on the community for years, but restorative justice is better than retributive justice.
— lil amuzi vert (@kwuchu) September 17, 2018
Same. I'm happy the communication from Linus came the same time as the Code of Conduct, bc the CoC would have been entirely useless if Linus didn't accept his behavior was in violation of it. I also very much understand the anger and frustration felt by many.
— cat swetel ???? (@CatSwetel) September 17, 2018
If Linus had been a woman no one would have forgiven him this easily
— Jessie Frazelle (@jessfraz) September 17, 2018
Linus is a narcissistic asshole, & his “letter of atonement” is just another egocentric outburst. It’s all about him.
If he really meant any of it, he’ll shut up & spend a bunch of time just listening. Not to his shitty kernel echo chamber either – to all the folks he drove off. pic.twitter.com/sZkA2Zk1Dt
— Sarah Mei (@sarahmei) September 17, 2018
We’ve reached out to the Linux Foundation, which oversees the Linux community, for comment, and will update if we hear back.
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