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Debating Civility in Linux Software Development

Linus Torvalds
Linus Torvalds — by kuvaaja of Photo licenses CC-BY-SA

Think that civility in government is a matter only for senators and representatives? Think again. In the world of open source software, July saw a vigorous debate about the tone and tenor of Linus Torvald’s governance of the Linux kernel, one of the largest and most active collaborative software development projects today.

Originally started in 1991 by Torvalds, the Linux kernel is a key piece of code that powers computers around the world from the Internet’s largest servers to pocket-sized Android smartphones. Torvalds is known for dealing brusquely with the project’s contributors, often rejecting what he considers to be poor programming, publicly, in colorful and sometimes overwrought language.

In response to recent incendiary comments by Torvalds on the Linux Kernel Mailing List, Sarah Sharp, a programmer for the electronics giant Intel, had enough:

Seriously, guys? Is this what we need in order to get improve -stable? Linus Torvalds is advocating for physical intimidation and violence. Ingo Molnar and Linus are advocating for verbal abuse. …

Violence, whether it be physical intimidation, verbal threats or verbal abuse is not acceptable. Keep it professional on the mailing lists.

Sharp’s comments provoked an extended response from Torvalds in which he protested that he can’t just say “please don’t do that”, because people won’t listen, and that he is not willing to string bad programmers along.

But as Sharp pointed out, the issue is not simply a matter of coddling people, or even being nice. Torvalds, Sharp writes, has been verbally abusing people and publicly tearing their emotions apart.

You’re Linus Torvalds, for crying out loud! Nodding to his prominence in the software development community, Sharp writes that there’s no need for it, when a simple, “No, that’s a bad idea, stop working on this RIGHT now,” is more than enough from you.

Linux kernel developers have come down on both sides of the issue.  Some have defended the culture of the Linux Kernel Mailing List, in which good ideas are rewarded as lavishly as bad ideas are rejected. While others tend to agree with Sarah Sharp.

In one article on Network World, developer Stefano Stabellini was adamant about his position. Torvalds’s leadership style is hurting Linux and in particular it’s hurting attracting new talents — not just devs for hire but people passionate about what they do and eager to become more involved in the project.

Does that mean that Linus Torvalds will change? Linux kernel contributors seem to think it unlikely.

But as Sean Michael Kerner of Internet News writes, the fact that Sarah Sharp is standing up and making her voice heard is the start of a conversation that should have started a long time ago.

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