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How bad a boss is Linus Torvalds?

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols | Nov. 12, 2015
It depends on context. In the world of software development, he’s what passes for normal. The question is whether that situation should be allowed to continue.

In Accidental Empires, his classic book on the rise of PCs, Robert X. Cringely described Microsoft’s software management style when Bill Gates was in charge as a system where “Each level, from Gates on down, screams at the next, goading and humiliating them.” Ah, yes, that’s the Microsoft I knew and hated.

The difference between the leaders at big proprietary software companies and Torvalds is that he says everything in the open for the whole world to see. The others do it in private conference rooms. I’ve heard people claim that Torvalds would be fired in their company. Nope. He’d be right where he is now: on top of his programming world.

Oh, and there’s another difference. If you get, say, Larry Ellison mad at you, you can kiss your job goodbye. When you get Torvalds angry at your work, you’ll get yelled at in an email. That’s it.

You see, Torvalds isn’t anyone’s boss. He’s the guy in charge of a project with about 10,000 contributors, but he has zero hiring and firing authority. He can hurt your feelings, but that’s about it.

That said, there is a serious problem within both open-source and proprietary software development circles. No matter how good a programmer you are, if you’re a woman, the cards are stacked against you.

No case shows this better than that of Sarah Sharp, an Intel developer and formerly a top Linux programmer. In a post on her blog in October, she explained why she had stopped contributing to the Linux kernel more than a year earlier: “I finally realized that I could no longer contribute to a community where I was technically respected, but I could not ask for personal respect. … I did not want to work professionally with people who were allowed to get away with subtle sexist or homophobic jokes.”

Who can blame her? I can’t. Torvalds, like almost every software manager I’ve ever known, I’m sorry to say, has permitted a hostile work environment.

He would probably say that it’s not his job to ensure that Linux contributors behave with professionalism and mutual respect. He’s concerned with the code and nothing but the code.

As Sharp wrote:

I have the utmost respect for the technical efforts of the Linux kernel community. They have scaled and grown a project that is focused on maintaining some of the highest coding standards out there. The focus on technical excellence, in combination with overloaded maintainers, and people with different cultural and social norms, means that Linux kernel maintainers are often blunt, rude, or brutal to get their job done. Top Linux kernel developers often yell at each other in order to correct each other’s behavior.


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