Once upon a time, a clever young programmer submitted a middling patch to
the linux kernel. Not directly, it went to a subsystem maintainer who
merged it with other code of his own and perhaps from other people, put
his name on it and sent it to Linus. The young programmer's name was not
visible. That was a bit of luck, because there was a bad bug in the code,
the kind of bug that causes blaming, finger-pointing and angry email.
Only Linus, that maintainer and I knew that the young programmer was
myself, and Linus never said an unkind word and didn't tell anyone
who wrote the code either, so noone could email me and tell me their
Fast forward twenty years, to when Sarah Sharp
decided to stop contributing to the linux kernel.
Sarah wrote good code for the kernel. I was sad to hear that she left,
sadder about the reasons.
A lot of people blame Linus and his swearing for her leaving. I think
that's unfair to Sarah, unfair to Linus, and worst of all, I think that we
in the open source community hurt our community when we do that. Even if
Linus' swearing hurt Sarah.
Linus has his faults. For example. when someone from Redhat wanted
kdbus into the kernel, Linus' response showed good technical judgement,
but it was also heated, loud and negative. Certainly not ideal. However,
the fair comparison is not against an ideal. Linus' response ought to be
compared to a standard professional response, plausibly something like
oh, this code is poor, on the other hand that major stakeholder wants
it merged. After a few rounds of squabbling and some cleanup the code
That would be professional behaviour. That sort of professionalism
is how a good, clueful CTO ends up with 22,000 messy lines of PHP
despite a clear mandate from the board to prioritise quality. How
teams end up selecting MongoDB over PostgreSQL. Possibly that's how
Windows NT got graphics drivers in the kernel.
Linus won't tolerate that sort of professionalism, instead he'll swear
and scream. Is that worse? I think not. It may or may not be better, but
it's not worse. But because Linus behaves that way and attracts criticism
for his loud swearing, some of the less notable opensource contributors
escape criticism, and some of them are mean and spiteful as well as loud.
Saying fuck isn't that bad. In my opinion it's about as bad as being
late for a meeting. A mean attitude is worse, much worse.
Since people focus on Linus' swearing, though, Linus' swearing opens
the door to meanness and spite. A minor fault enables a major.