Image: Jack Wallen

Recently, it came to light that a Linux kernel developer resigned her post as maintainer of the USB 3.0 host controller driver due to the toxic environment of the kernel developers. This particular developer, Sarah Sharp, made it very clear in a blog post that she wanted no interaction with the “toxic background radiation of interacting with the kernel community.”

Another good Linux developer turned away, simply because the developers had no patience for personal respect. Sure, one could easily be respected for technical prowess, because that’s what gets things done. But those personal feelings? They had no place in the stiff and challenging world of kernel development.

It’s like working in an IT department where all of your colleagues make fun and yell at you in order to motivate you to get the job done. Unfortunately, this all stems from the head penguin himself… Linus Torvalds. He leads with a sharp and iron tongue. His foul and abusive language is what he strongly believes gets things done.

First off, I’m no prude (far, far from it, in fact). Second of all, Torvalds is very, very wrong. Let me explain.

Linus Torvalds commands a massive amount of respect across the world. Within the realm of IT, his name is as common as Gates and Jobs. With that level of respect comes a vast wealth of power over an audience. Torvalds could walk into any given IT shop, college computer science lecture hall, or developer meeting and command any amount of respect and attention he wanted… all without shouting or flinging a single insult—just like Gates or Jobs (though without all the fanfare and music Jobs would have had). He could open his mouth and instruct the attendees to optimize function A or compile code B, and they would do it without question. Why? Because he’s Linus friggen Torvalds, the man who created Linux!

With that level of command over his peers and volunteers, I have to wonder why the leader of the “free” world thinks he must resort to insults and “radical emotional honesty” in order to keep the kernel developers working at an acceptable level.

This is open source. Many of these people are volunteers. The community was founded on freedom and sharing, not dictatorship and fear. Should this type of behavior continue to generate headlines, open source will wind up suffering from the Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) it had fallen victim to for so many years.

I understand that between the time Sarah Sharp left the developers and the posting of her telling blog, a code of conduct has been put in place. However, it is important to note that, in the blog post Sarah wrote over a year ago (and only just recently posted), she says:

“I feel powerless in a community that had a ‘Code of Conflict’ without a specific list of behaviors to avoid and a community with no teeth to enforce it.”

So, the developers previously had a code of conflict that stated:

“If however, anyone feels personally abused, threatened, or otherwise uncomfortable due to this process, that is not acceptable. If so, please contact the Linux Foundation’s Technical Advisory Board…”

This is very similar to the new code of conduct. This begs the question, “Has it or will it do any good?”

That same code of conflict continues:

“As a reviewer of code, please strive to keep things civil and focused on the technical issues involved. We are all humans, and frustrations can be high on both sides of the process. Try to keep in mind the immortal words of Bill and Ted, ‘Be excellent to each other.'”

To me, it sounds like that code of conflict was there as something to point to and say, “We have this.” If, however, you carefully read Sarah’s words (and anyone else that has come out against Torvalds and the kernel developers), you can easily draw the conclusion that it is quite meaningless.

The kernel developers need to start dining on their own dog food.

Beyond the human side of this coin, the other issue, one that cannot be avoided, is that this is a PR nightmare waiting to spill out into real time. An operating system that would eventually become the flagship of the open-source movement does not need to be, in any way, associated with this type of bad press. If Linux is to ever make serious headway into the realm of the desktop, it can’t be represented by what is effectively a reality TV show playing out for the world to see. Both Apple and Microsoft had legions of marketing staff to help isolate their earlier (uglier) behaviors from the public. Linux (and open source) does not have this. That means the codes of conflict and conduct must be enforced. Otherwise, the attrition (especially considering the generation of up-and-coming developers tend to have thinner skin than those before them) will be significant.

I strongly believe some of the blame for this behavior should be placed on what I call the “internet of hate.” Thanks to the relative anonymity the internet brings, developers feel much freer to employ their radical emotional honesty, even at the cost of losing precious resources. I can’t imagine anyone would communicate with one another with radical emotional honesty in a face-to-face setting.

It may very well be time for the kernel developers to bring in someone to serve as a mediator for all conflict. That mediator could be the Linux Foundation. Maybe it’s already happening, and the code of conduct has helped to alleviate this issue. But I can’t imagine that this will be the last we hear of the issue… codes of conflict and conduct notwithstanding.

If Linux is to compete with the likes of Apple and Microsoft, the community of developers are going to have to start working hard to not only continue developing some of the most amazing code on the planet, but also start treating the legions of programmers, who are working tirelessly to deliver, as well as they treat the code itself.

Remember, open source is about community. A community with a toxic foundation will eventually crumble.

Do you think we’ll continue to hear about this type of behavior from the Linux kernel developers? Let us know your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

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Linux kernel development suffering from the “internet of hate”