On Sunday 16 September something unprecedented happened in the open source community. Linus Torvalds, the man behind Linux, apologised for his past behaviour and said he was going to work on being nicer.
That in itself is not that remarkable. But the backstory makes it remarkable. It is impossible to overplay Torvalds’ contribution to the modern world. He created the Linux kernel in the early 1990s – the rest is digital history.
Linux derivatives power the vast majority of servers worldwide as well as routers, IoT devices and near enough any business IT machine. It is also the technology behind the Android smartphone operating system.
The other half of the backstory is Torvalds’ personality. He is notoriously combative, doesn’t hold back in the slightest, and has been known to let out expletive-laden rants when he thinks something isn’t up to standard.
In 2015, he said: “I’m not a nice person, and I don’t care about you. I care about the technology and the kernel — that’s what’s important to me.”
This attitude, many argue, has spilled over into the Linux community at large. For better or worse, people feel passionately about the contributions they make to projects, and if somebody endangers those projects, they are typically told very quickly, and in no uncertain terms. It is hard to argue that Torvalds’ forthright style hasn’t influenced this.
But now, he seems to have backtracked somewhat. In a note on a mailing list, Torvalds held his hands up and said that he needs to change.
“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,” he wrote.
“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.
“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.”
That final point is particularly important, some say. Though few would argue that the pursuit of perfection, or at least, very high standards, is a bad thing, the fierce manner in which it is sought may have ultimately had a detrimental effect. Smart people with potentially useful contributions may well have left the community for fear of abuse.
There seem to be many factors that led to this change of heart. One major catalyst was a conference scheduling mix up, in which an already-arranged Linux conference was moved halfway around the world so that Torvalds could attend. He did not want to attend and asked for it stay in its original location.
What that demonstrates is the level of admiration and fervor that the community feels towards Torvalds. The reaction on message boards has been passionate and varied.
The Linux and GNU Reddit has seen a host of different opinions. Many have said he has nothing to apologise for. One user wrote: “I guess if I had to choose between Linus, and whoever’s upset with him, I’d go with Linus.”
Others suggested that there is no need for a dichotomy between supporting the quality of a project and supporting the feelings of the community that is contributing to it.
A large camp of people praised Torvalds unconditionally, with user gahro_nahvah writing: “For anyone who wants to change themselves to be a better person, I believe that they deserve the support that is required to get them there.”
There is a history of tech bosses being difficult to deal with. Videos of Bill Gates from the 1990s, when he was still hands-on at Microsoft, show him in combative form at a meeting, for instance.
But these two examples are men who have contributed to technology at the absolute highest level. If we compare other bosses with similar reputations in different areas, we could look at Gordon Ramsay and Alex Ferguson – both known for their tempers but also lauded for them. It is evidently part of working at the top of your profession.
Perhaps the more worrying aspect is what will happen in the future. A code of conduct has been agreed which sets out rules for community behaviour, and some in the community have argued that this marks the entrance of what they describe as “SJWs” – social justice warriors.
These are people who are perceived to take offence at everything and anything, simply for the sake of it. There is an enormous debate to be had over protection of individuals and freedom of speech, but in politics and society more generally, that debate seems to have become part of an increasingly toxic and divisive culture.
If the open source community wants to continue excelling as it has done, it will need to keep attracting talent, and whichever side of the Torvalds fence you are on, a welcoming culture must be the only way forward.