One of the world's most successful programmers has some surprising advice for success

Linus TorvaldsWikipedia/KrdLinus Torvalds

When it comes to achieving fame and fortune in the tech industry, a visionary, Steve Jobs-like character, who can dream up amazing products, typically comes to mind.

That’s not at all what propelled Linux Torvalds to his status as one of the world’s most famous programmers. (He’s been known to hobnob with Hollywood stars at the Oscars.)

When he was a college student, Torvalds invented Linux, the free operating system that today powers most of the world’s computer servers (including the ones used by Google and Facebook), powers many of the world’s fastest super computers and is the basis for Android,.

He created it in 1991, famously launching it with a little message describing the software as a “a (free) operating system, just a hobby, won’t be big and professional.”

Today Linux is so important to the world, that it is big and professional. It’s the world’s poster child for open source projects, meaning anyone can contribute to it. Since 2005, almost 12,000 programmers from 1,200 companies have added their code to the main Linux operating system (called the kernel).

In addition to inventing the operating system itself, Torvalds also had to invent a method for lots of people to work together on a computer programming project.

The method he created is called “Git” and “Git” has itself created its own industry (without any help from Torvalds), such as Github, a startup valued at $2 billion that provides Git software.

And Torvalds says none of it would have happened if he was some kind of visionary, as he explained in an interview with

Stephen Cass for IEEE Spectrum (bolded emphasis ours).

I credit the fact that I didn’t know what the hell I was setting myself up for for a lot of the success of Linux. If I had known what I know today when I started, I would never have had the chutzpah to start writing my own operating system: You need a certain amount of naïveté to think that you can do it. …

The fact that I didn’t really know where it would end up meant that I was perhaps more open to outside suggestions and influence than I would have been if I had a very good idea of what I wanted to accomplish. That openness to outside influences I think made it much easier, and much more interesting, for others to join the project. People didn’t have to sign on to somebody else’s vision, but could join with their own vision of where things should go.

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