In a surprising move, Linus Torvalds, Linux’s creator, is taking a break on his Linux kernel work to work on his behavior to other developers. In a note to the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML), Torvalds wrote, “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.”
If you follow the trials and tribulations of Linux’s developments, this is mind-blowing. For the almost 30-years Torvalds has been working on the kernel, he’s been famous–or infamous–for his outbursts towards programmers and others who didn’t meet his high expectations.
Over the decades, Torvalds has torn into security developers, open-source lawyers, and other kernel developers, such as Sage, formerly Sarah, Sharp. Every few months, there would be another four-letter Torvalds eruption. This became publicly accepted, but privately it left bad blood.
The last straw was a side issue. Torvalds had forgotten Maintainer’s Summit, a meeting of Linux’s top 40 or so developers, had already been scheduled when he made plans for a family vacation. The upshot of this was the developers moved the Summit from Vancouver Canada as part of the private Linux Plumbers Conference to Edinburgh Scotland at the same time as the European Open Source Summit.
James Bottomley, a top Linux kernel developer and one of Plumbers’ organizers, explained, “For 2018 the plan was that we’d have the Maintainer Summit on Monday afternoon and the rest of the Kernel Summit running through Plumbers (Tue-Thurs) in Vancouver. Because of Linus’ travel cockup, he can’t make Plumbers at all, so the current plan is to convene the Maintainer part of the summit in Edinburgh as half a day invitation only event but keep the open Kernel Summit track in Plumbers (and give all the Maintainer Summit attendees a free Plumbers pass to encourage them to go to Vancouver as well), so all the substantive technical Kernel Summit content will be in Plumbers but the invite only process day won’t be co-located.”
As Torvalds explained, “I was somewhat embarrassed about having screwed up my calendar, but honestly, I was mostly hopeful that I wouldn’t have to go to the kernel summit that I have gone to every year for just about the last two decades.” Yes, it was rescheduled, but along the way “I realized that I had completely mis-read some of the people involved.
Torvalds looked at himself in the mirror, and he wasn’t happy. He realized “it wasn’t actually funny or a good sign that I was hoping to just skip the yearly kernel summit entirely, and on the other hand realizing that I really had been ignoring some fairly deep-seated feelings in the community.”
Torvalds admitted, “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.”
So, “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.”
I have been covering technology and its top creators, such as not only Torvalds, but household names like Steve Jobs, since the 80s. Whether you call it borderline personality disorder, Asperger Syndrome, or being driven to succeed, generally speaking, they’re not good at working and playing with others. What is vanishingly rare is someone like realizing there’s a problem and it needs fixing.
As Jono Bacon, a leading community strategy consultant, wrote about Torvald’s change of heart, “His post today is a pretty remarkable change of posture for him, and I encourage that we as a community support him in making these changes.”
Bacon continued, “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.”
So, Torvalds has decided “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.”
Torvalds will be back. “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.”