Linus Torvalds, the founder of the Linux open-source operating system, has been leading his developer community with sarcasm, insults, and abuse for three decades, and many people think it’s time for a change. On Sunday, Torvalds sent out an email saying he’ll be taking time away to work on himself and try to stop being a dick.
Torvalds is a legend in the open-source community for the way he’s stuck to his principles and steered a free project into a giant. But open-source work is a largely thankless job that people volunteer to participate in, and their work is rarely seen outside of a small group of people. As Torvalds has overseen the various updates of the Linux kernel over the years, he’s developed a reputation of pummeling developers in comments and email exchanges. Based on his latest message to the community, it seems he’s gotten the message that his behavior needs to change.
“My flippant attacks in emails have been both unprofessional and uncalled for,” Torvalds wrote. He said that he was confronted by several members of the Linux community this week, and he’s come to regret that his behavior has hurt some people and may have driven some away from working in kernel development altogether. He said that he’s “going to take time off and get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.”
From the letter, it’s unclear if one specific incident of verbal abuse triggered his time off for reflection on his behavior, or it the situation simply hit a breaking point. In 2013, developer Sage Sharp called Torvalds out for several inappropriate exchanges in the mailing list used by core developers who contribute to Linux. Sharp previously worked as a software engineer at Intel and has been a contributor to Linux for years. They specifically took Torvalds to task for his treatment of Linux kernel chief Greg Kroah-Hartman. Torvalds called Kroah-Hartman a “freakish giant” and said the reason contributors take his approvals for granted “seems to be that you make it easy to act as a door-mat.” Sharp also took to their personal blog to point out recent incidents in which he berated developers with lines like, “Mauro, SHUT THE FUCK UP!” and “Rafael, please don’t *ever* write that crap again.”
“Not *fucking* cool,” Sharp wrote. “Violence, whether it be physical intimidation, verbal threats or verbal abuse is not acceptable. Keep it professional on the mailing lists.”
Torvalds said that, in his absence, Kroah-Hartman will takeover his duties.
Torvalds’ combative style is sometimes appreciated by developers when they believe he’s taking on the powerful to argue for higher standards and stronger security. When he has been the target of criticism from security professionals and open-source lawyers, he hasn’t responded kindly, and that’s bothered some people in the Linux community. But above all, this is about internal behavior and treating these volunteers with respect. “I should not have to ask for professional behavior on the mailing lists,” Sharp insisted. “Professional behavior should be the default.”
In his letter, Torvalds didn’t go into specifics about his treatment of individuals. He did address the fact that he “screwed up [his] scheduling” when he planned a family vacation at the same time as the Maintainer Summit in which top Linux developers get together each year to discuss their work going forward. He admitted that deep down he hoped to just skip the summit after two decades of attendance but it was rescheduled when it became clear that was unacceptable.
Torvalds was adamant that he won’t be taking a permanent vacation and compared this to the time when internal debate caused him to step away for a while and develop Git, the open-source system that’s primarily used for tracking changes in source code. “Maybe I can get an email filter in place so [that] when I send email with curse-words, they just won’t go out,” he said. The community would probably prefer that he simply figure out how to be a nicer person without the need for machine intervention.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the publish date of Sage Sharp’s blog about Torvalds, which was published in 2013 not 2018. It also incorrectly stated that Sharp currently works for Intel; they left the company in 2016. Sharp also uses the pronouns they/them not her/she. We regret the errors.