Empathy In The Last Place You’d Expect It

For *nix tech friends, who’d have thought we’d ever see this day?

“I am going to take time off and get some assistance on how to
understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.”

               — Linus Torvalds, LKML, Sun, 16 Sep 2018 12:22:43 -0700

I’ve always chalked up Linus’ poor empathy skills to the demands of maintaining this amazing juggernaut he created and gave to the world freely. This was especially so in the early days when he was regularly on defense from others trying to do the same thing as he was, others who were older, more experienced, more respected, etc. (e.g., Tanenbaum, rms, the FreeBSD crew). He was but a young grad student, albeit an extremely industrious and clever one at that. But, he always has had a problem with empathy, and it was always just part of the landscape, perhaps even a “rite of passage” if you will, for becoming a kernel developer (I never was a kernel dev, but as a well-rounded system administrator and free software zealot, I followed the LKML closely for its first decade).

This was, of course, long before the concept of empathy ever entered into the fabric of professional technologists. Some of Linus’ infamous attacks on others who were helping him as volunteers were mind-blowingly abusive and the stuff of hushed conversation at conferences and banter at Linux User Group functions all over. In the late 1990’s, I was doing pro bono work for rms and the GNU Project, first as a volunteer evaluator then as the first coordinator of GNU software evaluators (all volunteers). We worked directly with Richard via email/IRC to review software submitted by developers to be considered for membership in the GNU operating system.

And, while rms could be highly challenging to work with/for, and he was somewhat regularly, he was never abusive. He pushed us hard and could be as stubborn as a mule, but he was always fair and, ultimately, respectful if you had a logical position that was different from his. I wouldn’t say, however, that he was ever “empathic”, because again… it wasn’t a concept that was part of the fabric of FOSS development at the time. It was a very different period in the history of Internet technology. You had to have fire-proof pants to be involved with a lot of what was going on at the time (remember flame wars?).

So, his latest LKML posting reveals a different Linus now, one whom I don’t think I ever expected to see, and it’s promising to see this evolution (if that’s what it is) and what it may mean for the future of his interface with the kernel development community. I’m glad to see this day come and hope it makes Linux even more successful than it already has been. Good luck, Linus!