Today, Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, which powers everything from smartwatches to electrical grids posted a pretty remarkable note on the kernel mailing list.
As a little bit of backstory, Linus has sometimes come under fire for the ways in which he has expressed feedback, provided criticism, and reacted to various scenarios on the kernel mailing list. This criticism has been fair in many cases: he has been overly aggressive at times, and while the kernel maintainers are a tight-knit group, the optics (not just of what it looks like, but what is actually happening), particularly for those new to kernel development has often been pretty bad.
Like many conflict scenarios, this feedback has been communicated back to him in both constructive and non-constructive ways. Historically he has been seemingly reluctant to really internalize this feedback, I suspect partially because (a) the Linux kernel is a very successful project, and (b) some of the critics have at times gone nuclear at him (which often doesn’t work as a strategy towards defensive people). Well, things changed today.
In his post today he shared some self-reflection on this feedback:
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.
He went on to not just share an admission that this has been a problem, but to also share a very personal acceptance that he struggles to understand and engage with people’s emotions:
The above is basically a long-winded way to get to the somewhat painful personal admission that hey, 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.
His post is sure to light up the open source, Linux, and tech world for the next few weeks. For some it will be celebrated as a step in the right direction. For some it will be too little too late, and their animus will remain. For some they will be cautiously supportive, but defer judgement until they have seen his future behavior demonstrate substantive changes.
I wouldn’t say I know Linus very closely; we have a casual relationship. I see him at conferences from time to time, and we often bump into each other and catch up. I interviewed him for my book and for the Global Learning XPRIZE. From my experience he is a funny, genuine, friendly guy. Interestingly, and not unusually at all for open source, his online persona is rather different to his in-person persona. I am not going to deny that when I would see these dust-ups on LKML, it didn’t reflect the Linus I know. I chalked it down to a mixture of his struggles with social skills, dogmatic pragmatism, and ego.
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.
Accepting these personal challenges is tough, particularly for someone in his position. Linux is a global phenomenon. It has resulted in billions of dollars of technology creation, powering thousands of companies, and changing the norms around of how software is consumed and created. 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.
I am also mindful of ego. None of us like to admit we have an ago, but we all do. You don’t get to build one of the most fundamental technologies in the last thirty years and not have an ego. He built it…they came…and a revolution was energized because of what he created. While Linus’s ego is more subtle, and certainly not overstated and extending to faddish self-promotion, overly expensive suits, and forays into Hollywood (quite the opposite), his ego has naturally resulted in abrupt and fixed opinions on how his project should run. This sometimes results in him plugging fingers in his ears to particularly challenging viewpoints from others (he is not the only person guilty of this, many people in similar positions do too). His post today is a clear example of him putting Linux as a project ahead of his own personal ego.
This is important for a few reasons. Firstly, being in such a public position and accepting your personal flaws isn’t a problem many people face, and isn’t a situation many people handle well. I work with a lot of CEOs, and they often say it is the loneliest job on the planet. I have heard American presidents say the same in interviews. This is because they are the top of the tree with all the responsibility and expectations on their shoulders. Put yourself in Linus’s position: his little project has blown up into a global phenomenon, and he didn’t necessarily have the social tools to be able to handle this change. Ego forces these internal struggles under the surface and to push them down and avoid them. So, to accept them as publicly and openly as he did today is a very firm step in the right direction. Now, the true test will be results, but we need to all provide the breathing space for him to accomplish them.
So, I would encourage everyone to give Linus a shot. This doesn’t mean the frustrations of the past are erased, and he has acknowledged and apologized for these mistakes as a first step. He has accepted he struggles with understanding other’s emotions, and a desire to help improve this for the betterment of the project and himself. He is a human, and the best tonic for humans to resolve their own internal struggles is the support and encouragement of other humans. This is not unique to Linus, but to anyone who faces similar struggles.
All the best, Linus.