Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, needs to take some time off.
On Sunday evening, Torvalds sent a message to the Linux kernel developers mailing list to announce that he’d be stepping back from development work on the open source operating system in order to “get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.” Torvalds also issued an apology for a “lifetime of not understanding emotions” and “flippant attacks in emails.”
Torvalds was notorious in the Linux community for his proclivity to use harsh language when speaking with other developers about work he considered to be subpar. (In fact, there is an entire subreddit dedicated to “Linus rants.”) This has led to many Linux developers bowing out of the community, which has been described as “brutal” and “full of assholes.”
Although some small attempts at establishing a code of conduct for the Linux kernel community have bubbled up over the years, these were often met with contempt from lead developers. In a 2013 email to Intel developer Sarah Sharp, who also contributed to Linux kernel development, Torvalds said “I simply don’t believe in being polite or politically correct… my culture involves cursing.”
Torvalds’ temper and lack of empathy for his fellow developers is infamous in the open source community and was frequently acknowledged by Torvalds himself.
“I am a really unpleasant person,” Torvalds said during a talk at a conference in 2015. “Some people think I am nice and some people are then shocked when they learn different. I’m not a nice person and I don’t care about you.”
Torvalds has said in the past that he’d “like to be a nice person and curse less and encourage people to grow rather than telling they are idiots,” but he also said that he’s tried and the capacity for empathy is “just not in me.” This evidently changed over the past few weeks, when Torvalds was confronted by a group of kernel developers about his “lifetime of not understanding emotions.”
The inciting incident that led to the confrontation had to do with Torvalds’ attendance at the annual Linux kernel maintainers summit in November. The summit was originally planned to take place in Vancouver, Canada, but due to a mixup by Torvalds, he planned a family vacation to Scotland the same week.
Although Linus wrote in his apology letter that he had been “hopeful that [he] wouldn’t have to go to the kernel summit that [he] has gone to every year for just about the last two decades,” his suggestion that other kernel maintainers hold the summit without him was “overruled.” So instead, the kernel developers moved the entire conference to Scotland so Torvalds could attend. This led to some kernel developers describing Linux development as a “cult” and others to question what would happen to the operating system once Torvalds stopped actively contributing to its development.
“My flippant attacks in emails have been both unprofessional and uncalled for,” Torvalds wrote in his apology. “In my quest for a better patch, this made sense to me. I know now this was not OK and I am truly sorry.”
Torvalds added that he would be taking time off from kernel development to “get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.”
“This is not some kind of ‘I’m burnt out, I need to just go away’ break,” Torvalds wrote. “I’m not feeling like I don’t want to continue maintaining Linux. Quite the reverse. I very much *do* want to continue to do this project that I’ve been working on for almost three decades.”
Torvalds also updated the kernel development community’s “code of conflict” on Sunday on the grounds that it wasn’t serving its purpose of creating a culture of civility among developers. This was met with mixed reactions from the Linux community. Some cited this as evidence of the slow creep of “political correctness” into software development while others welcomed it as evidence that Torvalds was actually committed to improving the developer community.