Linus Takes A Break From Leading Kernel18 September 2018
Photo: Ian Parker - Unsplash
This week, Linus Torvalds has announced that he is stepping back from maintaining the project he founded over 25 years ago.
I haven’t been following the LKML as closely as I used to but I was hardly surprised by the news. A combination of factors have led to this point and have been brewing for many years. Linus is famous for his blunt opinionated emails on LKML. On occasion, he has headed into insulting and personal attacks. This has lead to some high profile maintainers and developers quitting the project. He will be the first to admit that he is not a people person. But, he holds a key position in one of the most visible Open Source projects in the world. More than anyone else in the community his every word and action will be scrutinized. He sets the tone for how other maintainers and contributors behave.
There are a couple of trains of thought about the whole situation.
The first is that the situation is repairable. But, it will take significant time for the changes to propagate. Linus himself is taking time to look at how he acts and interacts with people. He is seeking “professional help” to correct his behaviour. This is commendable and the community should provide the time and support he needs. It’s a massive admission he has made in a very public arena. Tiger Woods, Hugh Grant and Britney Spears have all been allowed to put pasts behind them. We can not tell someone that they are wrong and then not support them when they try to correct the issues. The major issue here is that that behaviour has built a community over 25 years. We have seen since the news broke a range of reactions and suggestions and infighting. Due to his leadership style which the community has followed it is divided and broken. When he returns, Linus will have to spend as much time readdressing the community and pushing new values as he will reviewing code. This will be a lengthy process. Anyone that feels a Code of Conduct will solve this is only very partially right. In fact, the author of the code of conduct could do with being less of an antagonist as a good starting point.
Do I think there will be knee-jerk reactions to this? No, I do not think many developers are going to suddenly leave the project or withdraw code. Perhaps the few developers that are so bothered by the Code of Conduct will leave and that might not be a bad thing. If you need a Code of Conduct in the first place then you probably should follow Linus’s lead and seek some help.
The second train of thought I have is around leadership and building communities. Specifically, the impact that this will have on people starting or wanting to maintain projects. I hope that situations like this do not put anyone off from starting new projects. It takes significant time and effort in growing communities. You need to be sure you want to take on that responsibility. That you want your every action to be reviewed and commented against. That you can build in inclusiveness and openness while keeping the negativity out. It’s a hard role which a few key people such as Jono Bacon have mastered.
It will be an interest few weeks to see how this situation unfolds and to watch the inevitable fallout. I hope that the key community members step up and it will be interesting to watch Linus’s development when he returns.