You don’t need to be like Linus

Discussion has once again flared up about Linus Torvalds’ behaviour on the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML). For some background, see Sarah Sharp’s post on the topic.

Various apologists have been pointing out that Linus has a huge workload and that he needs to avoid wasting time on people who submit unworkable code to the kernel. If Linus were not so blunt, they say, the whole community would suffer as he would have less time to approve patches.

The thing is, they may be right. It’s possible that Linus just isn’t able to construct rejection messages that are sufficiently assertive to be taken seriously without resorting to abuse, or at least that doing so would take a lot more of his time than his current approach. And maybe, as a community that benefits from the Linux kernel, we have to put up with that.

None of which is meant to say that Linus’s behaviour is good. Being able to communicate in an assertive (but not aggressive) way is a skill, and people who lack this skill should be considered to be doing worse (all other things being equal) than people who have the skill. Those of us who have weaknesses in our communication style should always be looking for ways to improve, as with any other personal flaws.

If I were Linus’s employer, I’d be asking him to work on his communication skills. But finding things that people need to improve is something that should happen all the time, with every employee. The right question to be asking is whether the employee is overall an asset to the organisation, and I think in the case of Linus it’s clear that he is.

One thing I’d hate to see is other developers taking away the message that Linus’s abusive communication is something to emulate. His other strengths may balance out this flaw, but it’s still a flaw. Everyone has their own mix of strengths and weaknesses, and by all means look to people for role models. But inspiration isn’t all-or-nothing, and you should be careful about which traits you copy.

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