In an “as told to” article for CIO.com, Linus Torvalds explains how he keeps the Linux people and software on-track. Arguably the most surprising facet of Linus’ management style is that he’s perfectly willing to flame people when he thinks they’re wrong–though he’s also happy to be corrected himself. “Part of that, by the way, is not feeling shy about saying impolite things or showing some emotion. So I’d rather flame people for doing stupid things and call them stupid, rather than try to be too polite to the point where people didn’t understand how strongly I felt about something.” That’s particularly interesting in light of several OSCON presenters who believe that the way to grow the open source community is to make projects more welcoming to would-be contributors. Do these attitudes actually contradict one another?
Linus Torvalds On Managing Developers
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2008-08-06 7:53 pmAndrewDubya
I’m not too old or grumpy, and I rarely want to just flame someone, but you’re absolutely right that there’s no reason to lie to someone or sugar coat your message. And if it keeps the kernel cleaner, even better!
Regarding the article itself:
As to whether this is a contradiction with other ideas? Sure it is, there are a million different management strategies, and every OSS project doesn’t need to adhere to one. People doing kernel development are probably completely different from those doing user mode development. Or, there are various levels of technical requirements in a given project, and how polite you need to be depends a lot on where the work is being done.
I don’t see a problem with the way Linus wants to manage. I don’t see a problem with the way other OSS projects want to manage. I am not contradicting myself (too much
2008-08-07 1:18 pmacamfield
Old and grumpy here. I think you’re kind of missing the point. Linus can flame people because he knows what he’s doing. But comparing Linus Torvalds to the typical IT Manager is like comparing a once a month golfer to Tiger Woods. In 20 years, I’ve only had one manager that I thought was technically sophisticated enough to understand what I do. The rest… well, I’m sure you all have stories just as bad or worse than mine. But my biggest peeve is the completely arbitrary nature of most management decisions. I can’t count the number of times I’ve worked over to get a project done on deadline and then sat and watched for weeks and sometimes months before it went into production. So, why did it have to get done on such and such day. Mainly because some clueless middle manager said so.
2008-08-08 8:23 amKebabbert
I think you missed my point. If a girl that doesnt like me, is a fashion model and upper class and knows everything about clothes and etiquette, humiliates me in front of her friends, but at the same time tells me the reasons she why never would even talk to me – is it ok because she is knowledgable?
If a child’s teacher is very smart and good, and humiliates and offends the child in class – is that ok? Sure, the teacher knows lot but that doesnt give her right to do so.
Seriously. I cant believe what I am hearing. I mean it. Just because someone is knowledgable it is green card to humiliate and shout at people? And you drag in non technical managers into the discussion? Why? We are discussing why it is ok to insult people if you have higher IQ, higher degree or more power, than the other. Not whether the manager is stupid. Stupid or clever, there is not necessary to insult people.
It is like you said something like “well that girl that got raped, were drunk. Therefore it is ok”. Is this medieval times? If I am stronger than you, is it ok that I hit you and shout at you?
Seriously. If this behaviour is what Linux supporters approve, then I’m amazed. I hope it is only you guys that think so. And not the rest of the Linux guys.
You can be nice to people. You dont have to be a prick, just because you have the power to do so. (The power in terms of greater knowledge, or higher position, or being a professor in math, or being richer, etc). Only non-empathic people think like that. Just because Linus Torvalds is a prick, you dont have to imitate him.
2008-08-08 2:47 pmcerbie
But, you’re in different scenarios. If said model girlfriend humiliates you in front of her friends, she is serving no other purpose than to boost her ego.
Te teacher case lacks any useful information to make a judgment on (what, were you a kid that did everything you were told, and never talked back? I wasn’t ).
It’s not about being stronger. It’s about being right. Linus has the goal of releasing a better kernel. Very stable, very compatible with a wide range of software, very hackable, and so on. If someone like that flames your ass, take what they say and use it.
They have big egos, and thick skins, and that both helped them get where they are, and their experiences only strengthen those personality traits. That doesn’t mean they are out to humiliate you. They are out to make the best software they can. I’m sure many Intel employees involved with the creation of ACPI still sleep soundly at night, not worrying that one of Linus’ ninjas will kill them in their sleep (yes, Linus Torvalds loves ACPI more than the rest of us).
2008-08-09 12:48 amKebabbert
Maybe I am fuzzy. But the point is that IF you are in a stronger position, being right or having higher IQ or whatever – it is no reason to humiliate others. You can be nice still the same. So anyone being right has the right to hurt others? I cant believe you just wrote that. Whats wrong with you Linux guys?
The whole discussion is strange. Linus states that he can somehow magically see which solution is “being right”. I react when I hear this. Is he God? (Yes, he believes so apparantely). Strange guy. What he means is “This is my point of view, I believe in this solution – unless you can convince me”. And he rephrases that as “I can see the truth. All my design desicions are correct and no errors. I am perfect”. But as we all know, Linux has had bad design problems, Linus rewrites big parts everynow and then.
Normally you have to argue for your point of view, and not state “I am the one who is right. Everything revolves around me”. That is arrogant, to not listen ot other people, and always “I am right, I am perfect”.
But hey, even you admits he is arrogant. But dont mistake it as Linus is being RIGHT. It is only that his point of view weighs more. Not because he is right and perfect. He makes bad desicions also, the Linux code is flawed. He makes bad desicion, how can that occur if he is always right? No, he only has more weight. More power. He is the maintainer. That does not gives him right to humiliate others. He is not magically right.
To state that one is always right, and other people lesser worth, is arrogant. And he is not right, he has made bad desicions earlier.
I cant understand you accepting his statements. If he told you to eat dog shit, you would do that. Cant you think by your selves? Where are your brains? O_o
Linus is trying to justify bullying (adult mobbing) with saying he is “right”? And you approve without thinking critically “hey what is going on here? What did he say? That he is God? He is right?”
Edited 2008-08-09 01:05 UTC
I think the often quoted phrase of “when someone stops criticizing you, they have given up on you” fits well here. I would much rather have helpful criticism than fake smiles any day. Maybe that is also the way Linus feels when it comes to managing people..
Edited 2008-08-06 18:03 UTC
Managers are not there to be your friend; they’re there to make sure the work gets done, and that it gets done the way they want it done. Look at Steve Jobs at Apple, Bill Gates at Microsoft, Scott McNealy at Sun or Larry Ellison at Oracle. They’ve been successful leaders by knowing when to use the carrot and when to use the stick to motivate their workers. The trick is to not go overboard and kill morale.
I value honesty much more than I do etiquette. I’m with Linus on this one.
2008-08-06 9:00 pmManuma
I have news for you, you can be polite and honest at the same time.
The problem I see is that everyone tries to be as arrogant as Linus, and when more that one arrogant person is in the same discution things get stuck.
I just see the “honestly” thing as a lame excuse to be rude with the others.
2008-08-06 9:39 pmiain.dalton
I think you’re right; it’s best to be honest and polite, but if it’s a choice between the two, I’d prefer the honesty. I don’t know enough about Linus’s personality to comment on it.
2008-08-07 1:49 amsakeniwefu
Not exceedingly polite.
I also agree that rudeness is better that hypocrisy, though.
Edited 2008-08-07 01:50 UTC
2008-08-07 6:55 aml3v1
you can be polite and honest at the same time.
Well, if you work enough with people, you’ll realize that there are lots of them, who won’t get the point if it’s politely coated. Some just need to be told that what they do sucks because otherwise they’ll think it’s ok to do so the next time too. It’s no reason is saying things like “this is good but it would’ve been better to do it this way” when you don’t like it just say it’s no good and make them do it the right way. It’s the best way to make people learn from their mistakes, and if you cover the mistakes by sugar-talk, they won’t ever feel they made any.
This direct, harsh, in-your-face approach works great so long as it’s backed up with substance (the deliverer really knows what they’re talking about), and gives the recipient a chance to prove the deliverer wrong, and that the deliverer can admit being wrong, and finally that the deliverer can give out praise as much as he/she flames.
And it seems Linus meets all of those qualifications, albeit I’ve never seen him publicly praise anyone (perhaps it happens on the mailing lists – dunno).
But is someone flames without substance, it is the worse possible management technique. That just destroys morale, leads to flame wars, and ultimately leads to an exodus of participants.
Personally, I prefer a direct, blunt, honest management style, both when being a manager, and being managed, but with enough (non PC) common courtesy thrown in. In other words, be direct and honest, but avoid inflammatory language or direct insults.
I’d rather say/hear:
“That won’t work. Here’s why …. You need to do better. Try again.”
“That sucks because of x,y, and z, and you’re an idiot. Come back to me when your stuff is not a steaming pile!”.
The first is not PC, it’s direct, honest, and to the point, but without flaming or insulting the recipient.
The second is direct and honest, but needlessly inflammatory, and can create unnecessary animosity.
But it would still be better than the PC, sugar coated version:
“I see what you’re trying to do, but if you can add/change x,y, and z, it would be much better. But good try!”
… which is translated to “That sucks and you’re an idiot, but I’m too much of a wuss to tell you directly”.
Basically what I’m saying is, the middle ground is the way to go.
But in Torvalds case, he’s dealing with people via mailing list. So to get people’s attention, he probably needs to be a bit inflammatory. He has to say:
“That sucks and you’re an idiot, and here’s why … and go ahead and try to prove me wrong. Otherwise, come back to me when when it doesn’t suck.”
… otherwise the developer doesn’t get the point.
While I agree with being blunt, honest and to the point, there are ways to do it without offending / pissing off people. Unfortunately the internet doesn’t really allow for this.
As is said in the article being blunt and honest is the best policy – people know where they stand and if they can take the (constructive?) criticism can look at their work and either debate their case or make changes. But.. if someone is being rude and obnoxious because they can be, that is a different matter.
At work myself and my colleagues are very blunt, open and honest with each other. The discussions tend to be loud, shouty, full of passion and we don’t take anything personally. Why? Well if anyone was to make it personal or speak to me with disdain or be physically aggressive – I’ll ram their teeth though the back of their head. If I spoke to someone else in that way I’d expect the same back.
The internet allows people to be rude, obnoxious, disparaging, aggressive and disrespectful with little or no consequences being felt. Due to a large degree of anonymity. So a developer leaves a project – boo hoo would be the attitude of the ‘leaders’ (elite?).
I was always told “manners cost nothing” and “always tell the truth” and I do live to these principles. But I still manage to be to the point and clear in my opinion without offending anyone (as far as I know).
When writing, it can be difficult to write and convey a conciliatory tone, but people can at least try.
There are ways of saying things and there are ways of saying things and learning how to be blunt and honest without being needlessly offensive is IMHO an important part of language and indeed, life.
I cant understand that there are people thinking that being rude is a good thing? You know, people are different. One people can get really offended by a joke, and the other doesnt care. If you deal with lots of people you have to develop some smoothness. You cant go around and insult people. Who draws the limit? Is shouting ok? Insulting is ok? Maybe Linus thinks both are ok, but you think not. What about the sensitive guys? I cant believe this is true. But maybe thats why the Linux developers are considered bad manners. “Such a leader, such people”.
If I am in love with a girl that doesnt like me, I wouldnt want her to be rude and insult me and laugh at me. How can you say that behaviour is ok? If I were a child at school, I wouldnt like the teacher to make a laughingstock out of me in public and humiliate me. “You suck, you cant do anything right, why dont you drop out of school!” and everybody laughs loud.
How non-empathic can you be??? Approve bad manners? You can be non offending and frank at the same time. It is just Linus that is arrogant and has a bad temper, and you approve it. Imagine several people with bad temper that you work closely with. Good team, huh? Geez. *chocked*
Ive read this article about ReiserFS that should be replaced:
“(free hint: if your code needs to be reviewed to get in, and reviewers are scarce; don’t insult and abuse the volunteer reviewers as Hans did — Not a good plan!)”
Why would anyone be surprised? Hey, they are Linux developers. Them people have bigger egos than the moon (Linus T: “I am your God” in a Linux conference speach). And are also aggressive and insult people and humiliate, when they dont get response for their ideas. Instead of verbally argue in a constructive way with clever arguments, they behave like neanderthals. And them people like it. O_o
Maybe I’m getting older and grumpier, but I have to say I agree with Linus on this one. I personally don’t think intelligent self-motivated people, especially the typical developer, respond well to the way most managers handle them.
The majority of managers I have worked with seem to try to go out of there way to be polite and friendly, but it is painfully obvious most of the time that they are full of shit and are just going through the motions. If it isn’t genuine, it usually shows…
I would much rather someone say “thats stupid – here’s why – fix it” than the usual “this is great! but I think you could improve it by doing this, changing this, etc.”, which when read with all the ego stroking removed says “thats stupid – here’s why – fix it”…
I wouldn’t say it is a good idea to be that brutal with inexperienced people, but when you reach a certain level of expertise imo you should be thankful if you work for someone who appreciates your talents enough to drop all the PC crap and just tell it to you straight.