Why I believe he can change the Linux development culture for the better!
It has been all over the news recently, the story of Linus Torvalds wanting to take some time off from the Linux kernel. A lot of this news has been focusing on what he already admitted to, that he can be quite a jerk. Instead of jumping on the bandwagon and joining in I would like to tell you about the time my team got to spend a quiet evening with Linus. Enjoying ourselves talking over food and drinks in the back of an Irish pub.
At the time I was an engineering manager at Linaro for the core engineering team. Our focus was mainly working on features for the Linux kernel to support Arm platforms. Twice a year Linaro hosts a conference, Connect, in which they invite all of their member companies and the public to talk about all things Arm. The list of speakers and guests that they have had is long and impressive, but never having Linus there has always been a taint on the legitimacy of their acceptance in the Linux community. Anyway, after several attempts over several years Linus finally accepted the invitation to attend.
Just so you know, I had nothing to do with inviting Linus. I don’t know him personally. I’ve only seen him on the mail lists and on the internet and we have never talked, emailed, IRC’ed… ever! In spite of all of this I was told that Linus was attending and that I was responsible for putting together a dinner for him when he arrived and that I should choose from all of Linaro and the member companies that were going to be at the connect fifteen people to have a developer meetup with Linus. To be honest with you I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want the responsibility. I knew that no matter what the outcome, whoever did the choosing was going to be on everyone’s bad side that wasn’t chosen (and trust me, even with all this hoopla lately about Linus this and Linus there wasn’t anyone at Linaro that wouldn’t have wanted to be there). I even went as far as to ask my manager how I could win at this, but after giving absolutely zero sympathy he made it clear that this was my own little Kobayashi Maru! So, I set out in my task resolving that I was going upset someone no matter what and I started to compile my list.
Finally, the day came. I had managed to pick the list of the chosen few who got to attend (All I will say about this is that if you were on my team your chances went up greatly). We were able to keep the meetup a secret so when we arrived there were very few other people in the pub. None of who had any idea of what was going on. Personally, my intentions were to hang out at the pub and depart once Linus showed up, but the VP who put the entire thing together asked (told) me to stay and ensure that everything went smoothly.
Everyone was there early. The staff had setup the tables in back of the pub. I got the call from the people that met Linus at the front of the hotel that he was there and would be down in a few moments. Everyone took a seat and ordered some drinks and we waited for Linus. Not long after that Linus showed up with his wife, Tove. I motioned for them to sit in the two chairs that I had saved for them in the middle of the table (I had added a chair at the end for myself since I wasn’t planning on being there) and they sat down. To my surprise though, Tove sat at the end of the table in the chair that I had previously added for myself. I told her that there was a chair next to Linus for her, but she said that she was alright with sitting on the end and allowing the others to spend the time with Linus. Well, with everyone else seated I did the only thing I could think of at the time and I sat next to Linus. Later on I would have bouts of guilt. I would think “Is everyone mad at me for sitting next to Linus? They had to have seen me motion her to the seat next to him! Maybe I should have asked everyone to slide down? Maybe I could have pulled a chair at the other end of the table?” Too late now! Oh, and I’ve long gotten over it (sorry team).
Well, if anyone was bothered by my faux pas at the time it didn’t seem to lessen the enthusiasm. I had arranged for appetizers to be brought out and got everyone setup with food and drink orders and conversation began in earnest. We started with introductions and moved on to discussions about everything from Linux to hobbies. People would ask questions and Linus would be happy to answer or offer his opinions. I even felt comfortable enough to ask some very personal questions which I knew could very well damage Linus’ image (such as if he used Vim or Emacs) and he answered them without hesitation! The impression that everyone was left with was that Linus was very comfortable in this type of situation of being surrounded by developers. Casually talking about technical issues, personal topics and the like. By the end of the evening it had felt like we had sat down with just another member of our team for any of our other team meals. Though he clearly was opinionated and sure of himself (like most of our team), Linus never made us feel like we were inferior to him. When we got up to leave I told him that it was an honor to have the opportunity to meet him. He just shook his head and humbly indicated that we shouldn’t be regarding him that way and that he enjoyed the time as well.
Reflecting on all that has gone on this week, Linus’ admission, everyone piling on, it just reminded me of this brief time. Clearly Linus can be personable, pleasant, constructive without, as he put it, “flippant attacks.” What is also clear is that Linus is passionate about Linux. I for one hope that he does not lose that passion, but at the same time I hope that he is able to get to a place that he feels better. From what I observed at this one encounter I believe it can happen, though it might just be one of the most difficult things he has ever done.