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Linus Torvalds Steps Back to Improve His Communication Skills

Linux creator Linus Torvalds announced Sunday that he's taking a break from developing the world's most popular operating system to work on his "unprofessional" behavior. The news seems unlikely to affect Linux's release schedule: it was made as part of Torvalds' notes for 4.19-rc4, Torvalds said he's asked Greg Kroah-Hartman to "finish up" 4.19 proper, and Torvalds still plans to appear at the Linux Kernel Maintainer Summit.

Torvalds has a history of inappropriate behavior. He infamously said "f*** you" to Nvidia in 2012 because of the graphics company's disinterest in properly supporting Linux with its GPUs--Nvidia responded with the grace you'd expect of a large company that can't afford profanity-laced public spats--and later dropped a "Christmas f-bomb" on a kernel developer  who blamed user programs for breakage. Those events aren't outliers.

These outbursts can be entertaining when they're witness from the outside. Who doesn't like a little trash talk every now and then? And show us the person who's never wanted to swear at a co-worker, employee, or boss and we'll show you the next candidate for sainthood. The fun stops when you're targeted by those vicious emails, though, or when you feel like you have to walk on egg shells every time you email someone.

Torvalds acknowledged this problem with his behavior in a message titled "Linux 4.19-rc4 released, an apology, and a maintainership note":

"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."

Addressing these problems will apparently involve a mix of developing new tools--Torvalds proposed an email filter that stopped any message featuring profanity from being sent--and introspection. (The latter seems like a more sincere effort, but anyone who's had to address similar problems in their own life probably knows it's nice to have a fail-safe in place, which is where something like the former comes in.)

Torvalds was also careful to note that his decision to take a break isn't a sign that he wants to stop working on Linux. "Quite the reverse," he said. "I very much *do* want to continue to do this project that I've been working on for almost three decades." Stepping away for a while can help make sure Torvalds has another decade of development ahead, hopefully with fewer expletives and interpersonal issues along the way.

  • mlee 2500
    Yeah that's a bad look, but Linus was RIGHT when he dressed down the Kernel Developer in his Christmas email and I would even go so far as to say it was one of the few times where such communication is/was appropriate.
    Reply
  • canadianvice
    Never accommodate filth. If you can't do the basic standards of your job, you deserve a good dressing down.
    Reply
  • xvegan
    Linux wouldn't have prospered without strong discipline.

    No reason for Torvalds to totally acquiesce. Resounding success requires some hurt feelings along the way.
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  • mitch074
    I think his point is that there can be strong discipline without insults and personal attacks - the 2012 Christmas dressing down may have been warranted, but it's casual insults and harshness that seem to worry Linus Torvalds about himself, and what he's trying to fix.

    Even the best developer has to step back sometimes to reconsider his methods. Once a decade for a big personal review isn't much.
    Reply
  • stdragon
    One of the peculiar traits of intelligent people is that hubris gets the best of them. It's self-reinforcing in that their arrogance is often vindicated, but can also cut them hard when things go wrong. People like that don't take failure very well; that of themselves and especially of others. It's the later that can make them so difficult to work with!

    Through age comes wisdom. It's refreshing to hear Linus becoming more humble about is own personal shortcomings (we all have them), and with clarity of that, a mission to resolve them rather then leave it to be ignored for others to deal with.
    Reply
  • Peter Martin
    I've take to saying Holy Frijoles instead of swearing. I got it from Sgt. Deux Deux of THE INSPECTOR cartoons.

    I just hope he retains his fiery spirit
    Reply