Linus Torvalds Explains How Linux Still Surprises and Motivates Him

Linus Torvalds took to the stage in China for the first time Monday at LinuxCon + ContainerCon + CloudOpen China in Beijing. In front of a crowd of nearly 2,000, Torvalds spoke with VMware Head of Open Source Dirk Hohndel in one of their famous “fireside chats” about what motivates and surprises him and how aspiring open source developers can get started. Here are some highlights of their talk.

What’s surprising about Linux development

“What I find interesting is code that I thought was stable continually gets improved. There are things we haven’t touched for many years, then someone comes along and improves them or makes bug reports in something I thought no one used. We have new hardware, new features that are developed, but after 25 years, we still have old, very basic things that people care about and still improve.”

What motivates him

“I really like what I’m doing. I like waking up and having a job that is technically interesting and challenging without being too stressful so I can do it for long stretches; something where I feel I am making a real difference and doing something meaningful not just for me.”

“I occasionally have taken breaks from my job. The 2-3 weeks I worked on Git to get that started for example. But every time I take a longer break, I get bored. When I go diving for a week, I look forward to getting back. I never had the feeling that I need to take a longer break.”

The future of Linux leadership

“Our processes have not only worked for 25 years, we still have a very strong maintainer group. We complain that we don’t have enough maintainers – which is true, we only have tens of top maintainers who do the daily work of merging stuff. That’s a strong team for an open source project. And as these maintainers get older and fatter, we have new people coming in. It takes years to go from a new developer to a top maintainer, so I don’t feel that we should necessarily worry about the process and Linux for the next 20 years.”

Will Linux be replaced

“Maybe some new aggressive project will come along and show they can do what we do better, but I don’t worry about that. There have been lots of very successful forks of Linux. What makes people not think of them as forks is that they are harmonious. If someone says they want to do this and change everything and make the kernel so much better, my feeling is do it, prove yourself. I may think it’s a bad idea, but you can prove me wrong.”

Thoughts on Git

“I’m very surprised about how widely Git has spread. I’m pleased obviously, and it validates my notion of doing distributed development. At the same time, looking at most source control versions, it tends to be a huge slog and difficult to introduce a new software control version. I expected it to be limited mostly to the kernel — as it’s tailored to what we do.”

“For the first 3 to 4 years, the complaint about Git was it was so different and hard to use. About 5 years ago something changed. Enough projects and developers had started using Git that it wasn’t different anymore; it was what people were used to. They started taking advantage of the development model and the feeling of security that using Git meant nothing would be corrupted or lost.”

“In certain circles, Git is more well known than Linux. Linux is often hidden – on an Android phone you’re running Linux, but you don’t think about it. With Git, you know you are using Git.”

Forking Linux

“When I sat down and wrote Git, a prime principle was that you should be able to fork and go off on your own and do something on your own. If you have forks that are friendly — the type that prove me wrong and do something interesting that improves the kernel — in that situation, someone can come back and say they actually improved the kernel and there are no bad feelings. I’ll take your improved code and merge it back. That’s why you should encourage forks. You also want to make it easy to take back the good ones.”

How to get started as an open source developer

“For me, I was always self-motivated and knew what I wanted to do. I was never told what I should look at doing. I’m not sure my example is the right thing for people to follow. There are a ton of open source projects and, if you are a beginning programmer, find something you’re interested in that you can follow for more than just a few weeks. Get to know the code so well that you get to the point where you are an expert on a code piece. It doesn’t need to be the whole project. No one is an expert on the whole kernel, but you can know an area well.

If you can be part of a community and set up patches, it’s not just about the coding, but about the social aspect of open source. You make connections and improve yourself as a programmer. You are basically showing off – I made these improvements, I’m capable of going far in my community or job. You’ll have to spend a certain amount of time to learn a project, but there’s a huge upside — not just from a career aspect, but having an amazing project in your life.”

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