After Years of Abusive E-mails, the Creator of Linux Steps Aside | The New Yorker
Torvalds’s decision to step aside came after The New Yorker asked him a series of questions about his conduct for a story on complaints about his abusive behavior discouraging women from working as Linux-kernel programmers. In a response to The New Yorker, Torvalds said, “I am very proud of the Linux code that I invented and the impact it has had on the world. I am not, however, always proud of my inability to communicate well with others—this is a lifelong struggle for me. To anyone whose feelings I have hurt, I am deeply sorry.”
Although it distributes its product for free, the Linux project has grown to resemble a blue-chip tech company. Nominally a volunteer enterprise, like Wikipedia, Linux, in fact, is primarily sustained by funds and programmers from the world’s large technology companies. Intel, Google, IBM, Samsung, and other companies assign programmers to help improve the code. Of the eighty thousand fixes and improvements to Linux made in the past year, more than ninety per cent were produced by paid programmers, the foundation reported in 2017; Intel employees alone were responsible for thirteen per cent of them. These same companies, and hundreds of others, covered the foundation’s roughly fifty-million-dollar annual budget.
Linux’s élite developers, who are overwhelmingly male, tend to share their leader’s aggressive self-confidence. There are very few women among the most prolific contributors, though the foundation and researchers estimate that roughly ten per cent of all Linux coders are women. “Everyone in tech knows about it, but Linus gets a pass,” Megan Squire, a computer-science professor at Elon University, told me, referring to Torvalds’s abusive behavior. “He’s built up this cult of personality, this cult of importance.”
Valerie Aurora, a former Linux-kernel contributor, told me that a decade of working in the Linux community convinced her that she could not rise in its hierarchy as a woman. Aurora said that the concept of Torvalds and other powerful tech figures being “equal-opportunity assholes” was false and sexist: when she and Sharp adopted Torvalds’ aggressive communication style, they experienced retaliation. “Basically, Linus has created a model of leadership—which is being an asshole,” Aurora told me. “Sage and I can tell you that being an asshole was not available to us. If we were an asshole, we got smacked for it, got punished, got held back. I tried it.”
Torvalds, by contrast, long resisted the idea that the Linux programming team needed to become more diverse, just as he resisted calls to tone down his language. In 2015, Sharp advocated for a first-ever code of conduct for Linux developers. At a minimum, they hoped for a code that would ban doxxing—the releasing of personal information online to foment harassment—and threats of violence in the community. Instead, Torvalds accepted a programming fix provocatively titled “Code of Conflict,” which created a mechanism for filing complaints more generally. In the three years since then, no developers have been disciplined for abusive comments. Sharp, who was employed by Intel at the time, said they carefully avoided Linux kernel work thereafter.