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Linus Torvalds Reveals How He Herds the Cats of the Linux Kernel

"I am a dictator," Torvalds concedes, "But it's the right kind of dictatorship.. . I can't be nasty."

"I have no legal or explicit power. I only have the power of having people's trust - but that's a lot of power," said Linus Torvalds this week, when asked by BusinessWeek whether as leader of what it called the Linux movement he was a "benevolent dictator" or not.

"I am a dictator," Torvalds conceded. "But it's the right kind of dictatorship."

"I can't really do anything that screws people over. The benevolence is built in. I can't be nasty. If my baser instincts took hold, they wouldn't trust me, and they wouldn't work with me anymore. I'm not so much a leader, I'm more of a shepherd."

Joking that all the kernel developers would hear this remark and say, "He's comparing us to sheep," Torvalds changed the animal in his metaphor: "It's more like herding cats."

Asked how he picks the core kernel contributors, the Finnish-born cat-herd replied that the lieutenants get picked by the other programmers:

"It's not me or any other leader who picks them. The programmers are very good at selecting leaders. There's no process for making somebody a lieutenant. But somebody who gets things done, shows good taste, and has good qualities -- people just start sending them suggestions and patches. I didn't design it this way. This happens because this is the way people work. It's very natural."

When asked about his your role today in the Linux phenomenon, and how differs from his role in the past, Torvalds explained to BW that he is these days mostly "a communications channel."

"I'm one of a couple of central points for discussions," he said. "I have all the patches come to me, though I have sub-lieutenants doing the programming work. I'm a meeting point, rather than a software engineer. I don't do much programming anymore."

Clearly Torvalds hasn't yet grown tired of his role as what BusinessWeek calls "technical shepherd," declaring: 

"Linux has come a long way in the last 13 years. I'll do another 13 years if that's what it takes."

His most resounding words came when asked what makes him believe Linux will continue to gain momentum.

"I think, fundamentally, open source does tend to be more stable software. It's the right way to do things," Torvalds replied.

"I compare it to science vs. witchcraft. In science, the whole system builds on people looking at other people's results and building on top of them. In witchcraft, somebody had a small secret and guarded it - but never allowed others to really understand it and build on it. Traditional software is like witchcraft. In history, witchcraft just died out. The same will happen in software. When problems get serious enough, you can't have one person or one company guarding their secrets. You have to have everybody share in knowledge."

So Linux - and open source software in general - has history on its side. Torvalds is not just a leader and a herder of cats, it seems. He is also a social philosopher possessed of a winning way with words.

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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Most Recent Comments
Benevolence Pays 08/19/04 08:40:43 AM EDT

I am surprised that Linus thinks of himself as a dictator. I suppose that he could be considered that except for the negative connotations.

I see him more like a Benjamin Franklin, or perhaps George Washington.

Or maybe more like a Martin Luther.

None of these would I call dictators.

And all the people who I can think of as dictators I can't say that I like.

Linus is more like a George Washington. He is leading the army. He starts the country. He is the general in charge, not a dictator but a natural leader.