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The mind behind Linux

A video uploaded on Ted.com this month features a question-and-answer session with Linux creator Linus Torvalds recorded in February at TED 2016 in Vancouver.

In the interview with TED curator Chris Anderson, Torvalds talked openly about the personality traits that prompted his unique philosophy of work, engineering and life.

Some highlights from the chat, edited for brevity:

On his ideal workplace

The way I work is... I want to not have external stimulation. You can kind of see (referring to a photo of his sparse office)...the walls are this light green. I’m told that at mental institutions… use that on the walls. It’s like a calming color. It’s not something that really stimulates you.

The main thing I worry about in my computer is -- it doesn’t have to be big and powerful, although I like that -- it really has to be completely silent. I know people who work for Google and they have their own small data center at home, and I don’t do that. My office is the most boring office you’ll ever see. And I sit there alone in the quiet. If the cat comes up, it sits in my lap. And I want to hear the cat purring, not the sound of the fans in the computer.

On working alone and with others

I still work alone. Really--I work alone in my house, often in my bathrobe. When a photographer shows up, I dress up, so I have clothes on.

And that’s how I’ve always worked. This was how I started Linux, too. I did not start Linux as a collaborative project. I started it as one in a series of many projects I had done at the time for myself, partly because I needed the end result, but even more because I just enjoyed programming… I was looking for a project on my own and there was no open source... on my radar at all.

At the University of Helsinki, I had a friend who… introduced me to the notion that, hey, you can use these open-source licenses that had been around.

It didn’t even start by people contributing code, it was more that people started contributing ideas…. That was a huge thing for me.

I was 21 at the time, so I was young, but I had already programmed for half my life, basically. And every project before that had been completely personal and it was a revelation when people just started commenting, started giving feedback on your code.

I don’t really love other people – But I love computers, I love interacting with other people on e-mail, because it kind of gives you that buffer. But I do love other people who comment and get involved in my project. And it made it so much more.

On growing up a nerd

I think I was the prototypical nerd. I mean, I was ... I was not a people person back then. That’s my younger brother (refers to a photograph). I was clearly more interested in the Rubik’s Cube than my younger brother.

My younger sister, who’s not in the picture, when we had family meetings… would prep me beforehand. Like, before I stepped into the room she would say, “OK. That’s so-and-so ...” Because...I was a geek. I was into computers, I was into math, I was into physics. I was good at that.

On conflict with others in the community

Sometimes I’m... shall we say, “myopic” when it comes to other people’s feelings, and that sometimes makes you say things that hurt other people. And I’m not proud of that. But, at the same time, I get people who tell me that I should be nice. And then when I try to explain to them that... maybe you should be more aggressive, they see that as me being not nice.

What I’m trying to say is we are different. I’m not a people person; it’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but it’s part of me. And one of the things I really like about open source is it really allows different people to work together. We don’t have to like each other -- and sometimes we really don’t like each other.

You need... the people-people, the communicators, the warm and friendly people who… really want to hug you and get you into the community. But that’s not everybody. And that’s not me. I care about the technology. There are people who care about the UI (user interfaces). I can’t do UI to save my life. I mean, if I was stranded on an island and the only way to get off that island was the make a pretty UI, I’d die there.

Of visionaries and engineers

I’ve actually felt slightly uncomfortable at TED for the last two days, because there’s a lot of vision going on, right? And I am not a visionary. I do not have a five-year plan. I’m an engineer… I’m perfectly happy with all the people who are walking around and just staring at the clouds and looking at the stars and saying, “I want to go there.” But I’m looking at the ground, and I want to fix the pothole that’s right in front of me before I fall in. This is the kind of person I am.

On companies profiting off his work

It doesn’t piss me off for several reasons. And one of them is, I’m doing fine. I’m really doing fine.

But the other reason is -- I mean, without doing the whole open source and really letting go thing, Linux would never have been what it is. Chin Wong

Column archives and blog at: http://www.chinwong.com

Topics: Chin Wong , Linux , Linus Torvalds , TED 2016
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