Arnt Gulbrandsen
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2016-07-19

It's the attitude, not the wording

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 thoughts.

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 is accepted.

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.