Linus Torvalds is Taking a Timeout
THE CREATOR OF THE LINUX KERNEL is taking some time off for self-reflection, and is leaving the kernel to the community for now. While this comes as a surprise to those not active in the kernel community, it’s hard to disagree with Torvalds on his decisio
It came as surprise to a lot of people in the Linux world that Linus Torvalds, the Finnish programmer who created the Linux kernel, has announced that he was going to step away from the project. Since he began the venture in 1991, Linux has been the focus of much of Torvalds’ professional life. It’s no small thing to see him go.
But it’s not a bad thing. It’s important to remember—as Richard Stallman would remind you—that Linux isn’t an operating system; it’s a kernel. The GNU operating system is really the core of what we call “Linux.” GNU was designed as a free replacement for Unix, but lacked a kernel that would allow the OS to talk to a PC’s hardware. Linus Torvalds’ Linux project filled that niche, and GNU/Linux was born.
Sure, there is another kernel for GNU, called Hurd, but I’ve never met anyone who uses it. The fact is that Linux is the most prolific kernel on the planet. The overwhelming majority of servers on the Internet use Linux. The fastest supercomputers use Linux. Android, the most popular mobile operating system by a long shot, uses the Linux kernel. Torvalds created one of the most important pieces of software that powers the modern economy. He is one of the most famous programmers in the world, alongside John Carmack. It’s more than enough to influence one’s ego.
Torvalds has been notoriously rough in his treatment of vendors and code contributors. He famously flipped a bird to Nvidia when talking about the company’s drivers. But, more importantly, he has berated code contributors who commit code that is subpar in his eyes. Considering that Linux is an open-source project that still relies on an army of volunteers, this makes him kind of an asshole. Torvalds even admitted so himself. “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,” Torvalds said. “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.”
For many Linux users, Torvalds’ behavior has been pretty much invisible. When a user updates the kernel, few bother to read Torvalds’ rants on Kernel.org. (Hell, I rarely do.) Most people “apt-get upgrade,” and get on with their lives. But for developers, having a code commit merged into Linux is a way to be seen by peers or potential employers. However, to do so, one must be comfortable with the idea of being crapped on over the Internet by one of the most powerful tech leaders in the world.
Yes, coders should have tough skins to be able to take criticism; we writers face it all the time from our editors. But nobody should have to be verbally abused over coding style or pointer errors, let alone in a publicly accessible mailing list for all to see. It would be like an editor screaming at a writer for using “there” instead of “their” on Twitter.
With that perspective, it’s good that Torvalds is taking some time to learn people skills. That said, it’s good to remember that while Torvalds was head honcho at the Linux kernel project, he wasn’t the only one reviewing code. Other people sign off on code commits and merges, so the kernel is still in good hands. And when Torvalds is ready to deal with the fact he works with both code and humans, it will be good to read his release messages on Kernel.org again.
Torvalds is one of the most famous programmers in the world. It’s more than enough to influence one’s ego.
This man needs to do some yoga, meditate, or something.