The air is thick with news of powerful men hanging on to or being kicked out of high places for being abusive, but how many of those men are leaving entirely of their own accord? Linus Torvalds, until recently, was the sole authority in charge of who could submit changes to the Linux kernel, the central piece of software at the heart of all Linux projects. That changed last Sunday, when Torvalds abruptly announced that he was taking a leave of absence from approving changes to the kernel, in part to better understand peoples’ emotions.
That might seem like a strangely worded reason to leave a lifelong programming project, but it makes sense if you know about Torvalds’ method, and what he meant when he cited his lack of emotional understanding. See, the Linux kernel accepts contributions from a huge team of programmers via a programming repository called Git. Torvalds, until he took his break, was in charge of reviewing every piece of code submitted for consideration as part of the kernel. And Torvalds was a harsh reviewer.
“Crap” seems to be one of the Linux don’s favorite terms for unacceptable code, but Torvalds was not above personal insults targeting programmers. Most of his other favorite words are unprintable and the emails sometimes contained intimidating remarks. Torvalds defended his harsh language for years by claiming that his aggression was in order to hold contributions to the Linux kernel to high standards, and he cast the totally unprofessional language as another instance of Linux’s unorthodox way of handling itself. Again, Torvalds has been acting this way for years now, so his decision to take a break all of a sudden is a big surprise, if not a welcome one.
Torvald’s decision to take a leave of absence to focus more on how to communicate effectively and less like a crazed maniac is promising for how it subverts a capitalist trope that tends to dominate narratives about successful executives. In tech, specifically, the industry tolerates abusive behavior from executives as long as they somehow deliver results, directly or indirectly.
There’s a popular story about Steve Jobs that illustrates this pretty well. The story goes that, during the design process for the iPod, Jobs complained to engineers that the prototype was too large. When the engineers replied that it couldn’t be made any smaller, Jobs irritably dropped the prototype into a fish tank. The Apple founder then pointed out the bubbles that came out as proof the device had empty space in it and reiterated his command: make it smaller.
This maybe apocryphal story is normally held up as proof that Jobs was a genius who wasn’t afraid to piss people off on his way to make something great, but I see it as a bit more sinister. After all, assuming those engineers did find a way to make the iPod smaller after that, isn’t that their success, not Jobs’? It’s fine to give cases like these credit for being effective leaders, but somewhere along the line, unorthodox tactics like Jobs’ fish tank stunt became reified right along with the heroic executive, so now it’s almost expected that a capitalistic juggernaut is also an asshole.
It makes a lot of sense for Torvalds to intentionally break out of this mold before anybody else does, though. The Linux kernel and the open-source software movement it associates with aren’t a corporation. And the GNU public license that almost all open-source software ships with (including the Linux kernel) is written specifically so that programmers and users all have the greatest amount of freedom possible with the code. By breaking away from the trope of the belligerent but brilliant boss, Torvalds is really fulfilling a powerful value at the heart of the Linux foundation: collaboration.
Some are expressing skepticism that Torvalds is really out to mend his ways for good. They point to his age (Torvalds is 50) and that he’s never really bothered to credit criticism of his rhetoric in the first place. Why should he bother changing now?
Even if his motives are somewhat unclear, and his commitment to change is inscrutable, Torvalds is the leader of an industry. Even if some laypeople might not recognize Torvalds’ name, Linux works with leaders of the industry like Intel, Samsung, Google and any other corporation that wants anything to do with open-source operating systems, like Android, or software. Torvalds’ decision to at least give kindliness a shot won’t go unnoticed by other up-and-coming programmers, especially programmers looking to follow his lead at being an unorthodox leader in the open-source software movement.