25 years later: an interview with Linus Torvalds

Original author: Robert Young
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The first issue of the Linux Journal published an interview by Robert Young, the first publisher of the magazine (and, among other things, the founder of Red Hat) from Linus Torvalds (author of the Linux kernel). We decided it would be interesting to bring them together again after 25 years. The first interview can be found here .

Robert Young : It was a great pleasure to contact you. How are you as a family? Your children have probably graduated from college. Nancy and I have three daughters, everything is fine. The eldest, Zoe, who was 11 years old when Mark and I launched the Red Hat project, will soon have a second - that is, I'm already a grandfather.

Linus Torvalds: My children have not finished college yet, although Patricia (senior) graduates in May. Celeste (the youngest) is studying in the last grade of the school, so after six months our nest will be empty.

All three are all right, and I hope and suspect that in a few years, when this whole story with my grandfather begins, everything will be all right.

Bob : When I took your first interview from you in 1994, did you think you would still be supporting this thing in 2019?

Linus : I think that by 1994 I was already surprised that my last project was not the next project in the series “to do something interesting until it does everything that I need, and then find something else.” Of course, the development was at an early stage, but the project had already healed its own life.

So I think that I did not expect that I would do this for several more decades, but the project has clearly already moved to the stage at which it has turned into a fairly large part of my life. I did not have long-term plans for Linux, and I simply worked on it as I developed, without worrying about what would happen in five or ten years.

Bob : There is such a famous old saying about the dangers of achieving your dreams - your favorite joke in those days when you said that the goal of Linux for the future would be "power over the world." And then, when did you and your open source and free software community reach your goal?

Linus: I stopped joking about power over the world for a long time, because over time this idea became less and less comic. But it was always a joke, and everything that I and other developers did, we did not for this reason. The motivation has always been to improve technology and solve interesting problems.

And, in fact, nothing has changed. All the details have changed - the hardware is different, the problems have become different, my role has changed. But the principle of “doing better and solving interesting problems” has not gone away.

For example, in 1994, I was mainly engaged in development. I was the main one in the project, but although I spent a lot of time merging patches, I mostly wrote the code myself. Today I rarely write code, and if I write, it’s pseudo-code or examples of patches that I send to real developers. I would not call myself a manager, because I do not deal with annual reports or budgets (and thank God), but the project manager is definitely more than a programmer, and this situation has been maintained for many years.

So the whole picture has not changed, but my role and all the details obviously looked completely different in 1994.

Bob : What will happen to you and this code base in another quarter century?

Linus: Well then I will be 75, and I doubt that I will deal with such issues every day. But given that I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I’ll probably still be following the project.

The good news is that we already have a good base of developers, and I'm not worried about issues like “where will Linus be”. Yes, people have been discussing for a long time about how kernel developers get older, but this is not due to the fact that we will not recruit new people. It's just that our team still has people who have been with us for a very long time, and they still like to do this.

I used to think that someday some kind of radically new and interesting OS will appear that will replace Linux (yes, in 1994 I could afford to think that maybe Hurd could do it!), but we are not just doing this for a long time and successfully, I also realized that creating a new operating system is an order of magnitude more complicated than it seemed to me. This really requires the hard work of many people, and the strength of Linux - and open source as a whole, of course - is that you can act on the basis of the work of all other people.

So, unless a tectonic shift occurs in the computer landscape, I think Linux will feel good in the next 25 years. Not because of some features of the code, but fundamentally, because of the development model and the scope of tasks.

I may not be working so actively, and a lot of code will be updated and replaced, but I think the project will remain.

Bean: Have you and the team been satisfied with updating the kernel code all these years? Is there a need to rewrite some of the ever-expanding code base typed over 25 years? Perhaps in some more modern dialect C?

Linus: Over the years, we have rewritten our subsystems a huge number of times - not all at once, of course - and nobody wants to change many parts of the code (most often, these are drivers of outdated equipment that few people use, but we support it). One of the advantages of a single code base for the entire kernel is that when we need to make a big change, we can do it. Of course, there can be all sorts of drivers and other programs in the out-of-tree format (both in source and binary), but we always had a rule that if something is not included in the main tree, it does not matter for development . Therefore, if necessary, we carry out radical changes.

As for C, nothing better has yet appeared. We updated the source code of the kernel code for improved features of the language (C itself has also changed over the years), and added various extensions on top of C for additional type checking and checks during program execution, etc., but in general the language is almost the same, for excluding small parts.

And, apparently, it is unlikely that something will change. Actively developing programming languages ​​that are not intended for low-level system programming. They are needed to facilitate the creation of user applications with a fashionable interface, etc. They specifically do not want to do what the kernel needs, such as low-level memory management.

I can imagine a special “platform” for creating drivers or something similar, and we have a simplified “language” for configuration inside, and we use some languages ​​for assembly, so it's not that we used only C. But for the most part it's C, and the kernel is written on it.

Bob : What is your favorite development computer? Are there any laptops for Linux that would be something like Stradivarius violins for musicians? Or tablets, or phones?

Linus: My main development machine is a very average PC. This is a franken machine, assembled over many years from various parts. Nothing special, and the last time I upgraded it a couple of years ago, so nothing new. My main request to the computer is complete silence. In addition to a couple of fans, there are no moving parts (no more spinning disks), and most of the time the fans are turned off.

On the road (which, fortunately, rarely happens) I usually need a good screen and light weight. I strive for a weight of 1 kg along with exercise, and so far I can’t achieve this ideal, but so far my best compromise is the XPS13.

Bob : It seems that the main success of Linux in the field of desktop computers did not take place in the PC world, but in the Android world. What do you think about it?

Linus: Traditional PCs have already lost their dominant position. Even if a person has a PC (and even if he is still running Windows or OS X), many still mostly use a browser and a couple of random applications. Of course, there are “workstation users,” something like a desktop computer that I have always imagined. And, despite the still remaining importance of this role, it already does not seem to steer the market, as PCs used to do. Powerful desktop computers are now needed only for development or games, as well as editing audio and video. Typically, a computer is used to launch a browser, and more often it is just a tablet or phone.

Chrome is doing pretty well in this area. But, yes, if you just count by numbers, then of the people who deal with Linux daily, a huge number are Android users.

A remark from Bob: if we consider "dominance" in the strict sense, then this may be so. But, despite the recent drop in PC sales, the cumulative growth of the PC market from 1994 to 2014 is so powerful that even in today's slow market, 4-5 times more PCs are installed in the world than in 1994.

Bob : If you had to fix one thing in the online world, what would it be?

Linus : Nothing technical. But I just hate modern "social networks" - Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. It's a disease. She encourages bad behavior.

I think that in particular this is present in e-mail, and I already said once: "On the Internet, no one picks up your hints." When you don’t speak with a person in person, face to face, and miss all the usual social hints, it’s easy not only to miss the humor or sarcasm, but also to miss the opponent’s reaction, because of which things like a flame, etc., appear which does not happen in person.

However, the email still works. You need to spend effort on writing a letter, and it has certain content, technical or some other. This whole model with “likes” and “share” is rubbish. No effort, no quality control. In fact, everything works as the opposite of quality control - click bates, things tailored to the emotional response, etc.

Add anonymity here and get something disgusting. If you don’t even sign this garbage (or the garbage that you share or like) with your name, this does not correct the situation.

I am one of those who believe that anonymity is overestimated. Some people confuse privacy with anonymity, believe that they are interconnected, and that protecting privacy means protecting anonymity. I think this is not true. Anonymity is important for informants, but if you can’t prove that you are who you say you are, then your crazy talk on any social platform should not be visible, and you should not be able to like it or share it.

Well then - chat on. I am not on any social networks (I tried G + at one time because it didn’t have this usual brainless nonsense, but it didn’t come to anything), but they still annoy me.

Bob : The topic of the current issue of the Linux Journal is Children and Linux. Would you recommend something to young programmers and students studying computer science?

Linus : The last thing I need to ask. From an early age I was interested in mathematics and computers, and before the university I was self-taught. And all that I did, I did because of intrinsic motivation. Therefore, I do not understand the problems of people who say "what should I do?" This is not my topic.

Bob : We first met at the Digital Equipment Company (DEC). It was your first trip to the USA sponsoredJohn "Crazy Dog" Hall and DEC.

Linus : I think it was my second trip to the USA. During the first, it seemed, I went to Provo (Utah) to talk with Novell about Linux (about the internal Novell project, which later turned into Caldera).

But, yes, the DECUS fair (in New Orleans, if my memory serves me well) was among my first trips to the USA.

Bean: I asked you how you will deal with all the email when you return to Helsinki. Your answer surprised me and since then I quote you. You just said that you would send all the old letters to / dev / null. I was shocked and asked you, “what if there are any important letters in the mail?” You shrugged and said, "if there is something important there, the sender will just send me an email again." This is perhaps the most liberating advice I have ever been given. Do you still follow this email philosophy?

Linus: To some extent, everything remained the same, but I changed my workflow so that travel would not interfere with it as much as before. Today I strive to ensure that people do not even notice that I am on the road. I warn people if I don’t have access to the Internet for more than a couple of days (and this still happens in some parts of the world - especially if I get involved in scuba gear), but most of the time I can work from anywhere in the world. And I try to plan trips in such a way that they do not overlap the window when you need to do merge - then a maximum of pull requests falls on me.

Therefore, today my mailbox is stored in the cloud, which makes it much easier for me to switch between machines, and when I travel with a laptop, I don’t have such a headache as when I needed to download mail to a local computer.

And this is not only with mail - the fact that almost all kernel development is ultimately distributed through git means that, in principle, it is not so important which machine I work for, and synchronizing work is much easier now than when I worked with the patches that came by e-mail separately.

But nevertheless, the principle "if it is important, people will be sent again" remains. People know that I work seven days a week and 365 days a year, and that if I didn’t respond to the pull request for a couple of days, he may have gotten lost in the chaos of my email, and people send me a reminder email to kick me.

However, now this is much less common than before. In 1994, I was not so overwhelmed with work, and when I left for a week, this did not become a problem, but in subsequent years the situation worsened, up to the point that in the old work process, when patches arrived by mail, I sometimes I had to skip some of them because I just did not have time, and I knew that people would send them again.

But those times, fortunately, are over. BitKeeper helped me a lot, although not all project participants liked it (and not everyone used it). And today, thanks to git, I do not receive thousands of patches by e-mail, and my "inbox" do not look so terrible anymore. Therefore, it is quite simple to keep up with everything.

By the way, perhaps, an even more important rule than the rule “if it is important, the sender will forward the letter”, I consider my long-standing rule: if I do not have to answer the letter, I do not answer. If I receive a letter, and I think that someone else can do it, I ignore it. Some busy people have automatic answers, where it says, "I'm sorry, I will get to the end of your letter." And I just ignore everything that, in my opinion, does not concern me. Just because I do not consider it necessary to encourage people to write me more letters.

So I get a lot of letters, but I don’t answer most of them. Realistically speaking, most of my work is to keep track of what is happening. I see a lot of letters, but usually I don’t write a lot.

Bob : At a Linux user meeting in Washington in May 1995 hosted by Don Becker [author of Ethernet drivers for Linux / approx. perev.], you stopped in the middle of a speech and asked the audience if anyone knows the results of the Finland-Sweden game at the world hockey championship. As a representative of Canada, I was able to assure you that Finland won. And by the way, about this: the recent victory of Finland in the youth world championship should have interested you. Or were you rooting for the USA?

Linus: Heh. Perhaps hockey is Finland’s national sport (and the fact that they played against the Swedes made this game even more personal for me - I speak Swedish, because it is my mother’s native language, but I’m Finnish by citizenship), but I not a special sports fan. And the fact that I moved to the USA does not mean that I was interested in baseball and American football, it was just because of this that hockey lost value for me compared to the times when my social circle was fond of him.

Bob : Many of us admire your desire to spell things by their proper names in public debates about Linux technical solutions. Others don't like your straightforward argument style. Do you think you become more or less diplomatic over time?

Linus: For that matter, I think I have become quieter. I would not call it “more diplomatic,” but I began to understand myself better, and try to be less assertive.

In particular, because people treat me differently than before. Previously, the situation was less formal, we were a group of geeks who had fun and played. Now the situation is not like that. Not such a chamber - now thousands of people are involved in the development, and these are only those who send patches, not taking into account all the people associated with the project.

Part of the change in attitude towards me is due to the fact that people take me more seriously, which was not in 1994. And I don’t complain that they didn’t take me seriously then — on the contrary, I grumble about being taken too seriously today, and I can no longer freeze some dumb garbage.

So I'm still saying in plain text that some people or companies are doing some kind of nonsense, but now I have to remember that this gets into the news, and that if I show any company the middle finger, about it will be remembered for decades. It doesn't matter if it's worth it or not.

Bob : Do you want to say something else, publicly or otherwise?

Linus : Well, I never had any kind of “message” that I would like to spread, so ...

Robert Young and what he has been doing for the past 25 years


Young graduated from the University of Toronto in 1976 with a degree in historian, and got a job as a typewriter seller. In 1978, he founded his first company, and spent 15 years in Canada at the head of two companies that leased computers. He sold the second company to a larger company, due to which in 1992 he moved to Connecticut to open a representative office in the United States. Soon after, the new company was faced with financial difficulties, known as bankruptcy, and Young had to work from his wife’s needlework cabinet.


Robert Young

Although this directly contributed to the founding of Red Hat in 1993 with Mark Ewing, a young North Carolina programmer. Young people fell in love with free software, today known as open source software, Ewing, since he could innovate with the help of this software and a license that allowed him to do this, and Young, as he understood how much better it would be for customers to work with open technology by compared to the closed technologies that were in use at that time. Young served as the director of the company, then after entering the exchange in 1999 he became chairman of the board of directors, and the ingenious Matthew Shulik became the director , and they turned Red Hat into a great business. Now the company is on the list of S&P 500 - the index of the largest public companies in the United States

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