Linus Torvalds: Respect should be earned [part1 from DebConf 14]


Linux is also one of the oldest technologies which is growing strong day by day; Linux has been around for more than two decades (23 years to be precise) and it dominates virtually every space. It’s also one of those few open source technologies which are still being lead by their creators.

One of the reasons for Linux’ success is also the way its code-base is created and maintained. Linus Torvalds is the ‘authority’ on Linux and he has a non-nonsense policy when it comes to Linux development.

Unlike commercial companies where a boss can fire an employee for messing things up, Linus doesn’t have that luxury. It’s an open source project; he can’t fire people. One of the ways Linus can express his frustration when some top developer breaks something is through harsh words on mailing lists, which he says is kind of hyperbole and joke.

To be honest he uses such hyperboles only with the few ‘top’ developers who ‘ought’ to know their job. I have never heard or seen Linus getting upset with a new contributor or with a random person. On the contrary he is extremely polite, friendly and takes extra pain to explain stuff to new people.

During DebConf 2014 an attendee asked Linus about his ‘insults’ mentioning one of the episodes involving Kay Sievers of systemd where Linus said, “Who the f*ck does idiotic things like that? How did they noty die as babies, considering that they were likely too stupid to find a tit to suck on?”

Responding to the question Linus said, “I agree that some people might be put off by that (laughter from audience) in the end I don’t care.”

He said that he “care about technology and I have actually seen projects that took the whole political correctness so far that project no longer is about the technology.”

He then admitted that people are different and he is abrasive, “I grew up in a culture that I think is not quite as politically correct as the culture specially in the US today. I also grew up in a family which was largely dysfunctional. People are different and some people take offence and some people give offence.”

“We all have to live together but the living together is not by finding some lowest common denominator.” He then added than unlike family in the open source world you can actually pick your friends, you can pick your co-workers.

The pointed out that as one of the greatest advantages of Open Source as in commercial setting you are stuck with your boss or with some co-worker who makes your life miserable and there is not much you can do. In Open Source you can choose to work with people you like and that’s very much true. Hang our with people help you grow instead of having to deal with those who continue to pull you down.

He said that he closely with over 20 people and then there may be 50 more people he works with. Then every release there are over 1000 people contributing. That’s a lot of people involved in the project. If you don’t like Linus pick someone else you want to work with, that’s simple. He then said, “I am not willing to be less honest because I know I am abrasive.”

The attendee then said he was not talking about Linus being abrasive but about respecting orthers.

There was a loud applause. Linus said, “I don’t respect people unless I think they deserve the respect. There are people who think that respect is something that should be given, and I happen to be one of the people who is perfectly happy saying no respect should be earned. And without being earned, you don’t get it. It’s really that simple.”

He concluded by saying that, “Not everyone agrees and that’s fine too. There are people I refuse to work with. It cuts both ways and I realize that.”

Linux is part of human history now and Linus will be remembered, just like Einstein, Tesla, Newton, or Gandi who contributed to human civilization. He will be remembered for what he did, what he contributed and not for how he reacted on a mailing list.

  • snurtent

    He lost my respect with his abusive language a long time ago. It’s not about “earning respect” or being “honest”. He got it all wrong.