The e-mails of the celebrated programmer Linus Torvalds land like thunderbolts from on high onto public lists, full of invective, insults, and demeaning language. “Please just kill yourself now. The world will be a better place,” he wrote in one. “Guys, this is not a dick-sucking contest,” he observed in another. “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” he began in a third.
Torvalds has publicly posted thousands of scathing messages targeting programmers who submit what he deems flawed code to the Linux computer-operating-system kernel, which he brought to life more than twenty-five years ago and now administers as a collaborative, open-source project. Today, the Linux kernel is famous, running the enormous computers of Google, PayPal, Amazon, and eBay, and the two billion mobile phones using the Android operating system. Torvalds, though, retains final say over each precious line of code, just as he did when he first started working on the system as a graduate student at the University of Helsinki. For years, he has been known as Linux’s “benevolent dictator for life.”
On Sunday, the benevolent dictator announced that he would be stepping down temporarily, to “get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.” Torvalds, who is forty-eight and lives with his family outside Portland, Oregon, made clear that he wasn’t burned out. “I very much do want to continue to do this project that I’ve been working on for almost three decades,” he wrote in a post to the Linux-kernel mailing list. “I need to take a break to get help on how to behave differently and fix some issues in my tooling and workflow.” Torvalds named a deputy, Gregory Kroah-Hartman, to run the project while he was away.
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.”
Torvalds’s response was conveyed by the Linux Foundation, which supports Linux and other open-source programming projects and paid Torvalds $1.6 million in annual compensation as of 2016. The foundation said that it supported his decision and has encouraged women to participate but that it has little control over how Torvalds runs the coding process. “We are able to have varying degrees of impact on these outcomes in newer projects,” the statement said. “Older more established efforts like the Linux kernel are much more challenging to influence.”
Until this weekend, Torvalds had not only defended his aggressive behavior but insisted that it contributed to Linux’s runaway success. “If you want me to ‘act professional,’ I can tell you that I’m not interested,” he wrote in 2013, in response to a prominent Linux contributor, Sage Sharp, who demanded on a public e-mail list that Torvalds stop using “physical intimidation, verbal threats or verbal abuse” in his e-mails. “I’m sitting in my home office wearign [sic] a bathrobe,” Torvalds wrote. ”The same way I’m not going to start wearing ties, I’m also not going to buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords. Because THAT is what ‘acting professionally’ results in: people resort to all kinds of really nasty things because they are forced to act out their normal urges in unnatural ways.”
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.”
For a research project, Squire used e-mails from Torvalds to train a computer to recognize insults. According to Squire’s tabulations, more than a thousand of the twenty-one thousand e-mails Torvalds sent in a four-year period used the word “crap.” “Slut,” “bitch,” and “bastard” were employed much less frequently during that period. Squire told me that she found few examples of gender bias. “He is an equal-opportunity abuser,” she said. Squire added, though, that for non-male programmers the hostility and public humiliation is more isolating. Over time, many women programmers leave the community. “Women throw in the towel first,” she told me. “They say, ‘Why do I need to put up with this?’ ”
In 2013, Sharp, who is nonbinary and uses “they/them” pronouns, confronted Torvalds on his home turf—the public Linux kernel mailing list. Sharp described Torvalds as “one of the worst offenders when it comes to verbally abusing people and publicly tearing their emotions apart.” At the time, Sharp, who grew up in a small town in Oregon, was in their late twenties and was an important administrator of the Linux kernel. “People assumed I was a cis woman in tech, and I received a lot of harassment because of it,” Sharp told me. Sharp tried to appeal to Torvalds on practical grounds. “I’m not asking you to change your communication styles in order to help minorities. I’m not some crazy feminist ranting about cooties on Google+” Sharp wrote. “I’m trying to improve the kernel mailing lists for all developers. We can give negative technical feedback without verbal abuse.”
Torvalds replied that the stakes were too high to care about politeness. Faulty code can have cascading effects, requiring large amounts of work from other developers to correct. Speed and accuracy are paramount. “The cursing happens for the ‘you’re so f*cking wrong that it’s not even worth trying to make logical arguments about it, because you have no possible excuse’ case . . . and sometimes people surprise me and come back with a valid excuse after all. ‘My whole family died in a tragic freak accident and my pony got cancer, and I was distracted.’ And then I might even tell them I’m sorry. No. Not really.”
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.”
Aurora got her first taste of programming as a six-year-old, living with her parents in New Mexico. Her mother was the one interested in computers; she bought an IBM PCjr and taught her daughter the BASIC programming language. At the age of twelve, Aurora’s family moved to a ranch. “I would write a computer program and then go milk the goats,” Aurora recalled. She first encountered Linux at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Around 2000, when her first fix to Linux was accepted, she threw a party. A couple of years later, she published an online manual, “HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux,” which included chapters named “Don’t criticize too much,” “Do compliment,” and “Don’t stare and point when women arrive.” Aurora told me that she was groped at a Linux conference and that a senior administrator belittled her and told she lacked the talent to be a key developer. It never occurred to her to report the groping, she said. In 2007, Aurora began to withdraw from Linux programming. She is now a consultant to tech companies working on issues of inclusion and diversity.
Many women who contribute to Linux point to another open-source project, Python, as a guide for Linux as its faces its #MeToo moment. Guido van Rossum, a white, male programmer from the Netherlands, invented the code for the Python programming language. Van Rossum, though, is a self-described feminist who often wears a “Python Is for Girls” T-shirt during his keynote addresses to Python coders. “A project attracts people who fit in the culture,” van Rossum told me, adding that if the leaders communicate abusively “it will attract people who either share that attitude, or at least don’t see a problem with it.” Van Rossum, who now lives in the Bay Area, said the Python community shows that the number of women working on open-source software projects can be increased. “I’m applying my feminist ideas or inclinations to a place where I naturally have some influence,” he said.
Mariatta Wijaya, a software engineer who was born in Indonesia and now lives and works in Vancouver, said that she attended her first Python conference in 2015, in Montreal, out of curiosity. During van Rossum’s keynote address, he admitted that there were no women among its core developers. “He said he was willing to mentor women personally, if that is what it takes to improve the diversity,” Wijaya recalled, “but I didn’t reach out to him.” The next year, she attended the same conference. “He gave another keynote and admitted that there were still no women,” she recalled, and made his same offer of mentorship. This time, Wijaya contacted van Rossum and he agreed to help. A year later, Wijaya became the first woman with core-developer privileges, which gives her the power to help decide how Python will grow and change.
Today, there are four women among roughly ninety Python core developers. This summer, van Rossum announced he would be stepping down as Python’s “benevolent dictator.” “I am not going to appoint a successor,” he wrote in a public e-mail. “So what are you all going to do? Create a democracy? Anarchy? A dictatorship? A federation?”
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.
Torvalds’s post on Sunday was a hodgepodge of apology, updates about the kernel, and coding changes that had been approved. He joked that perhaps he could find a technical fix for his bad behavior—“Maybe I can get an e-mail filter in place so at[sic] when I send e-mail with curse-words, they just won’t go out.”—before acknowledging that after he looks in the mirror, “it will be clear it’s not the only change that has to happen.” Buried within the list of approved patches was one titled “Code of Conduct: Let’s Revamp It.” It announced that the “Code of Conflict” had been replaced by a “Code of Conduct” that forbids “insulting/derogatory comments” and behavior “considered inappropriate in a professional setting.” Complaints will be heard by the foundation’s technical-advisory board, which has ten members, all men.