Linus Torvalds is known for his “salty” language and take-no-prisoners approach to Linux developers. If you get things wrong, he’s not afraid to let you know — in no uncertain terms — that you’re an idiot. It gets results, but it also drives away many talented developers and leads to a development culture where harsh attacks are tolerated and even approved of by some.
But Torvalds realized he was hurting both the development process and his fellow programmers. So, he announced he’s stepping away from the Linux developer community to change his personal behavior. Torvalds also approved a new “Code of Conduct” for Linux kernel developers. No one would have expected to see either of these changes.
There are two remarkable things here: Torvalds realized he was hurting people; he publicly admitted to this, and he’s addressing it.
Do you know this is rare? Just think about your own family, friends, and co-workers. How often do they admit to mistakes, apologize, and try to change? Next to never, right? You know what’s even rarer? Anyone in the technology industry apologizing.
Torvalds is a nice guy. You know what he says — because what he says is caught in the white-hot glare of an open-source community. You can read every word he says about Linux development and developers in full, four-letter word glory on the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML).
But you don’t see what’s said behind closed doors at most technology companies. As a journalist, I know there are awful people who are also technology leaders. I knew Steve Jobs, as well as Larry Ellison, Gary Kildall (creator of CP/M the first popular PC operating system), and John Carmack (Doom’s creator). Arrogance and rude behavior are rampant in technology circles.
This isn’t an excuse for Torvalds’ faults. I’m pointing out he’s not exceptional in having flaws. They’re omnipresent. He’s different in that he realizes he has flaws, and he’s trying to change. Further, he’s trying to change the Linux community culture by adopting a code of conduct.
Some people may think what he was doing was fine, by being honest and calling a spade a spade. I think being honest and being polite are not mutually exclusive. Others, perhaps the least helpful of all, are saying what he’s now doing is not enough and that it didn’t happen soon enough.
Come on! He’s aware he has a problem, and he’s working on it. By dismissing him, you’re making sure others won’t ever admit to having troubles — never mind work on them. Besides, name me anyone else at this level who has ever made such an admission?
Give Torvalds some credit and let’s see what happens next.
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As Jono Bacon, a leading community strategy consultant, wrote:
“It is easy to forget that Linux was started by a quiet Finnish kid in his university dorm room. It is important to remember that just because Linux has scaled elegantly, it doesn’t mean that Linus has been able to. He isn’t a codebase, he is a human being, and bugs are harder to spot and fix in humans. You can’t just deploy a fix immediately. It takes time to identify the problem and foster and grow a change. The starting point for this is to support people in that desire for change, not re-litigate the ills of the past: that will get us nowhere quickly.”
Will Torvalds be successful? I hope so. I also hope, but frankly I doubt will happen, is for more of technology’s arrogant leaders to look at what they’re doing, how it affects the other people in their lives and companies, and make a change for the better.