Change in the Age of Information – Part 2 Linus Torvalds / Linux

The last post in this series ended with the observation that Elon Musk is a great example of a person with a highly developed ability to utilize information, but maybe with a less developed sense of understanding his impact. In his mind, he probably thinks he should be free to drink and smoke pot on a podcast that is listened to by millions. That’s a reasonable assumption since he is definitely a disruptor, creating market transforming companies like PayPal, SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX (just to name a few) and having a current net worth of over $20 billion. However even if he didn’t do anything illegal, immoral, or out of character, those few puffs dominated the headlines for weeks despite being less than a minute out of almost three hours of fascinating conversation with Joe Rogan.

This is not an isolated incident in the high tech world. Linus Torvalds, the creator of the free, open-source software Linux, has also been in the headlines for “questionable” behavior as well. While most people don’t know Mr. Torvalds as well as Mr. Musk, all of us use the results of his creations everyday. The free software he created in 1991 in his dorm room in Helsinki powers over 40% of the websites on the Internet (including Google, PayPal, Amazon, etc.) and is at the core of over two billion Android phones. The issue was expertly explained in the recent New Yorker article, “After Years of Abusive E-mails, the Creator of Linux Steps Aside.” The headline is a little misleading because he has only stepped aside temporarily and the abusive emails were more of the insulting / demeaning type targeted at his peer group than anything else. Here’s an example of a recent one.

In fact, it is probably the New Yorker article that motivated Torvalds to replace his self-named “Code of Conflict” with a “Code of Conduct” based on something called the “Contributor Covenant” written in 2014 by “transgender activist Coraline Ada Ehmke.” As a result, the opinions of a very large group of technical people who use and love Linux exploded onto every major Linux forum. Here’s a summary of the sources and reactions.

  1. Torvalds final statement of the problem and his suggested course of action was: “I am going to take time off and get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.” As far as I can tell, except for an email to the BBC (see below), he hasn’t been heard from since.
  2. The Reddit thread that discussed Torvalds final statement with over 1,200 comments.
  3. The new Code of Conduct itself published in the most techie way possible by Torvalds himself.
  4. The Reddit thread that discussed the new Code of Conduct. It was locked after one day because the moderators felt that “Civil discussion had stopped.” Reddit is usually a fairly permissive place to comment so this is a severe step to take.
  5. The Reddit thread that discussed how Torvalds’ daughter has signed the “Post-Meritocracy Manifesto.” This was written by the same person who wrote the Code of Conduct. It was locked after 340 comments probably because it devolved into mostly negative comments about Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) destroying the tech community.
  6. The Linux World News (LWN.net) article that covered the whole story two days later. They also published a shorter comment on “Linus taking a break” that got several hundred more comments.
  7. Finally, 10 days later, the BBC published what might be the best short summary of the situation in the article “Linus Torvalds: I’ll never be cuddly but I can be more polite” which was based on “an exclusive email” from Mr. Torvalds.

What can I possibly add to the thousands and thousands of pages already written on this topic? Maybe just the fact that leaders in any environment have a responsibility to constantly strive to maintain that delicate balance between civility and directness, between effectiveness and inclusiveness, and between “mob mentality” and common sense. Team members consciously and unconsciously mimic leaders which is why people like Musk and Torvalds are, rightfully or not, held to a higher standard. They might think that their goal is to produce the best electric car, rocket, or best performing operating system, but one of the true goals is much deeper, to create environments where creative people can grow and thrive despite their differences and thereby make their best contribution possible to the world.

Finally, it’s good to keep in mind that every leader is a follower as well, which will be the topic of the next post in this series!

Linus Torvalds 2016 TED Talk
(5:30 – “I am not a people person…” and 13:30 – the “people people”)