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October 12th, 2015

Good Software, Bad Behavior

In last week’s wrap-up, I posted an item about both Sarah Sharp and Matthew Garrett ceasing their contributions to the Linux kernel, and I was going to leave it at that and let those who read their blogs, as well as reports here and elsewhere, draw their own conclusions.

But giving it some thought over the weekend — not dwelling on it, of course, because the baseball playoffs are currently in progress — it occurred to me that many of the issues are not being addressed, and that’s going to continue to fester. The result of that remains to be seen and, sadly, this is par for the course in FOSS circles. That has been mentioned on many occasions elsewhere, so we won’t go into it here.

Linus Torvalds talking

Linus Torvalds

To recap, Sarah is out — a long-time contributor who is no longer contributing. This, of course, led to Matthew being out as well, for somewhat related reasons.

Inside the Linux Kernel Mailing List where this drama transpired, my guess is that it’s business as usual: Square One at frat-boy central is moving along as usual, with caustic feedback to those participating. That is, when they’re not giving each other digital wedgies and noogies.

But to those of us looking at this from the outside, what we see is a magnificent irony of good code being produced in what can arguably be described as a toxic environment. That in and of itself is a remarkable achievement, but I would argue that the same work — if not better work — can be done in a realm that fostered more cooperation instead of sniping.

Some argue that the culture of the current Linux Kernel Mailing List trickles down from “Linus being Linus,” and the Finnish way of doing things. I don’t believe that, and if that’s the excuse and it’s the best one can do, then it’s woefully weak. Linus’ achievements, though historic, do not give him a pass in being a schmuck. Yes, a schmuck — anyone who urges people to commit suicide over having to use an admin password to print something (don’t believe me? Take a look here) — reduces a larger-than-life figure to a mere mortal, and not a very civil or pleasant one at that.

I’m with Matthew when he says this: “In the end it’s a mixture of just being tired of dealing with the crap associated with Linux development and realizing that by continuing to put up with it I’m tacitly encouraging its continuation, but I can’t be bothered any more.”

What it boils down to is this: If Matthew can’t be bothered, why should I, or any other interested party, be inclined to contribute?

You might say that those who are critical of the behavior on the list are not grateful for their work, and to make that assumption is a laughable mistake. It’s not the work under indictment, once again it’s the attitudes. The prevailing caustic attitude may change and it may not, but if the latter course is chosen, then the list continues in its cancerous way at its own peril.

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Larry Cafiero, a.k.a. Larry the Free Software Guy, is a journalist and a Free/Open Source Software advocate. He is involved in several FOSS projects and serves as the publicity chair for the Southern California Linux Expo. Follow him on Twitter: @lcafiero

13 comments to Good Software, Bad Behavior

  • Richard Thornton

    If Garrett & Sharpe no longer want to contribute…then I guess it’s BYEEEE! Don’t call us, we’ll call you! Who cares? Linux, the project, and all its corporate shills are becoming overly sensitive. I was nearly banned on Ubuntu Forums for referring to those from Munich as eunuchs; OMG, its horrible! Someone on the openSUSE forums was banned for appearing to argue with it’s head dude, Richard Brown; Linux is about freedom in software and freedom of speech.

    I have heard Torvald’s comments on these incidents and he is right – you don’t like it – don’t work with him. Quit being emotional.

  • Hans Bezemer

    Well, you might say that this list has a certain culture. And I think you should always respect that culture. Otherwise, it’s like crashing a party of strangers, saying “I don’t like the way you’re partying. It should be much more civilized”. See how soon you’re outside again. What everybody seems to forget is that Open Source is Open Source. It’s not a feminist support group. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to get in. It doesn’t help if you’re a Christian. It’s Open Source by the very definition that “the source is open”. Nice that other try to squeeze their own political agenda in – but it’s got nothing to do with it. And don’t even try to do it, because then we’re talking about the “faux community” – and that doesn’t help our common cause – which is FOSS. Nobody is forcing you here. If you don’t want it, you can choose with your feet and fork. Nobody is going to object. If I am annoyed by something on TV, I turn the knob or switch to another channel. You can’t have it both ways. You have to choose – that’s life. The sooner one learns that, the better.

  • I can’t defend the tone on LKML.

    I know that OpenBSD-misc can also be brutal if you don’t RTFM (though the fact that the project cares deeply about the man pages, which are of superior quality, makes that so much easier).

    To be an OpenBSD developer, or a user active on the lists, you pretty much have to accept the culture, which is a bit rough-and-tumble. But somehow OpenBSD being both a niche project and Theo’s domain sort of makes you accept it.

    The question is whether or not Linux is Linus’ domain in the same way. Other than being larger than OpenBSD by many orders of magnitude (and having massive corporate involvement), the answer is probably yes.

    But that very corporate involvement and all the workplace rules that go with it probably mean that the Linux kernel needs to clean up its act, even if the behavior is shrugged off as “European.”

    Maybe FreeBSD is more hospitable. I don’t know. I hope so. (On Twitter, @randileeharper says no.)

    I guess you could say that people are (or should) vote with their feet when it comes to the free-software projects with which they align.

  • Richard Thornton

    I have been on Theo’s receiving end before and it was uncomfortable at the time, but now I give money to his project! Theo is honest and this makes his OS wonderful to use, if you can use it. Linux is not a social movement, is an OS, but the corporate hacks are killing it.

  • Mike

    Larry Cafiero

    > “Yes, a schmuck — anyone who urges people to commit suicide over having to use an admin password to print something (don’t believe me? Take a look here) — reduces a larger-than-life figure to a mere mortal, and not a very civil or pleasant one at that.”

    LMFAO. Please! Linus used hyperbole to get his point across. Do you really think he is advocating for peole to kill themselves? You’d have to be an idiot to think that, but it seems a lot of Torvald’s harshest critics do indeed…and that says a lot about them, not him. I’m not even really a fan of Torvalds, but a lot of these criticisms are just moronic. Garrett is unhappy because Linus doesn’t want to do things Garrett’s way…a technical difference. Given some of Garrett’s past suggestions, it is not surprising either. It is not the same as Sharps’ politically correct rampage.

    Linux is not a corporate project (at least not yet entirely…thank goodness). I see this as no different than when clueless people complain about the large number of Linux distros and suggest “somebody” put a stop to it for the betterment of Linux. It’s a stupid argument with no basis in reality.

    > “The prevailing caustic attitude may change and it may not, but if the latter course is chosen, then the list continues in its cancerous way at its own peril.”

    …a course chosen by the people participating in it, which is their right. If someone is unhappy they are free to create their own community and fork the project. That’s how open source works. We don’t all have to get along.

  • From those in the know (see: https://lwn.net/Articles/659884/), it has gotten a lot better… although not perfect… and what more can you ask for? If you have to be really obnoxious to get flamed, I think you might deserve it.

  • Uncle Ed

    I think I see two things here. First is the lack of context: what fraction of the things Linus says and writes in a day and what fraction of the messages on the Mailing List are caustic and harsh? Is our awareness like the 30 second spots on the news, where only a handful of big items get reported and 500 instances of somebody helping somebody doesn’t get mentioned? Linux says something remarkable and it gets reported in the Internet news articles and commentaries, but the daily stuff that keeps life going doesn’t.

    Second, what is the net effect of the harsh and caustic behavior on the total effort? Are we getting good stuff in the kernel because of the harshness, in spite of the harshness, is the harshness actually degrading the output, or can the effect not be identified at all?

    A lot of years ago, I worked with a tremendously talented leader who was very direct. A few times when things went really bad his volume and tone of voice let you know that he wasn’t happy. (It was a time and an environment where profanity and vulgarity did not fit in.) We all survived it and turned out some awfully good stuff, and it’s possible his tantrums just had the effect of getting us back on track. In that day, there was no Internet to splash his words and actions across the world. That the words and actions can now be reported far and wide may be a part of our perception of Linus’ behavior.

    I’ve also picked up a hint, if not a statement or two, that some of Sarah Sharp’s issues include the sexism and maybe sexual harassment that sometimes comes out in an environment that is almost exclusively male. The response in some of the comments amounts to suck it up buttercup and start your own fork if you don’t like it. This misses the point and means the writer is willing to accept the loss of that victim’s input. Don’t believe I’ve never seen an indication that the writer of this sort of comment actually knows the quality, quantity, or importance of the input he is willing to cast aside.

  • Hans Bezemer

    It is a normal procedure in any company to see if a prospect new employee will fit the culture. If that isn’t the case, you already are behind of points. You will get a battle of cultures and something has got to give. Note that Sharp isn’t that “innocent” as she may present herself. She used four letter words in her communication as well. And note there is no such thing as a “superiority of cultures”. Enforcing a female culture on a male team will not work. And something has got to give. So maybe others will leave – and the same applies to “loss of talent”, etc. I – for one – would certainly not like to work for a company where I have to play “nice and reasonable” all the time. Sometimes things are simply beyond “nice and reasonable” – and that message has to come across as well.

  • tracyanne

    Larry, I worked all my life in Corporate culture, and I know I would have preferred the brutal honesty of the Linux Developers culture to the smarmy, back biting, always polite to your face Corporate cultures I am familiar with. With the directness of the Linux culture I can respond directly to the person, in Corporate culture, not so much.

  • John Eddie Kerr

    First, Uncle Ed nailed it, of all the thousands of e-mails Linus writes only a small fraction would be caustic or harsh.

    Second person who nailed it si tracyanne, yup I know those smarmy folks, give me brutal honesty anyday as well. Those folks who wouln’t say shit if they had a mouthful are also very good at hiding a whole lot of other stuff.

    Hans Bezemer, “it doesn’t help if you are a Christian” And is it not so strange, that the Free Libre Open Source Movement is so close to what Christ taught, but it seems like only the atheists get it.

    Let us not forget that even Jesus overturned the tables in the temple, so since we are on the topic of angry outbursts we do have to remember that any one of us can get really ticked off at someone and go off the deep end.

    I would like to suggest that the everyone listen to the two YouTube videos linked here, and pick one to listen to often, especialy when you are about to fire off on that caustic e-mail to the dumbass who you think has it coming to them.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNNmO1YITyQ
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLv25O2ksDc

    Please take the few minutes to pick one, and if you know someone who has been a problem, kindly, lovingly, notify that person of these two videos.

    Me, yup I am trying, and I have to listen to both of them from time to time.

  • Eddie G.

    Ok. So I’m going to state my opinion and you all can decide for yourselves what to think. I personally do not have a problem dealing with difficult people in the workplace. I get up, I give my 15 year old son a hug, and hi-five as he heads off to school (where he’s already told me that he wants to study programming!…Yaay! LoL!) I hop in my Ford Taurus and drive to work. I hit the ground running when I’m there and try to get as much done in a day as possible. BUT I happen to have a boss that thinks he’s Zeus the god of Mt. Olympus, and he dogs me all day, and harasses me during my lunch, and pesters me right up until it’s time to go home. But you know what?…the MINUTE I get back into my Ford?…”What Happened In Vegas….STAYS In Vegas”! I don’t think about nor focus on anything from the workplace…it’s unhealthy. And I use that only to show that nothing that is SAID by ANYONE can actually harm you in any way…(aside from “You’re Fired” of course!) They could call you every name known to man, curse at you like a pirate, even “suggest” that you throw yourself into on-coming traffic….but does ANY of those things change your financial situation?…..does any of that change your health status?….does any of that alter your relationships at home?…or harm your children in any way? has your car suddenly broken in some way due to the statements made by others? if the answers to all of these questions is “No” then it’s time to grow up and realize that people are not always going to agree on work ethics….ideals…opinions etc. and that you’re just another cog in the greater machine known as mankind, and while we should as humans do our best to NOT offend each other, its GOING to happen, (we’re HUMAN after all right!?) and the BEST way to deal with it?…is treat it as exactly what it is…JUST WORDS!!! If you cannot tolerate it, then by all means “step out” and have fun doing what you love to do elsewhere, but to insist that one individual change his work patterns just because you were a target of his at one point….well lets just say I can see the childish “tit-for-tat” mentality…..since he won’t play nice with you you’re going to take your ball and go home? Yeah, not a good representation of a mature worker-bee. But hey this is just my opinion, and if anyone disagrees with it, well there’s not much you can do now is there?

  • 2_OK

    You are to cool

    However, look who is talking about Bad Behavior!

    Dude that is waht make Bad Ass, the BAD ASS!

    haVE NIce dAY siR~

  • Abdel

    I love it when people listen to all sides before judging:
    https://lkml.org/lkml/2013/7/24/142