When I was about 4 years old, I had a blankey. I took it everywhere, and my parents assured me that it was completely disgusting and filthy at almost all times due to my unwillingness to part with it even long enough to be washed.
While my blankey is now in a trunk at my parents’ house, I still have a security blanket: Linus Torvalds. As long as Linus is there, working on the Linux kernel, I know I’m safe, warm and comfortable. He’s like some sort of ancient god, casting his light upon his followers and sheltering them from the evils of other false deities.
Linus, a god? Well, if you’re a software developer that has spent any time at all working in organizations, open-source projects, or even local groups like hackerspaces or non-profit community centers, you should be intimately familiar with just why Linus deserved the 2014 IEEE Computer Pioneer Award.
As you may already know, humans can be a tad irrational. Anyone among you who has tried to build an organization consisting of more than about five people has probably noticed that at a certain point, things change from being an “us” mindset to being an “us over here, and that person or persons over there,” mindset. This happens in thousands of ways. One of the most common and frequently in the news of late is due to sexism, racism, and/or harassment.
Put another way: Communities are hard work. It only takes one incident to split a community right down the middle, or worse yet, to disenfranchise many of those involved. This has happened repeatedly at San Francisco’s famous Noisebridge hackerspace, affectionately known as “Dramabridge” to those who frequent its extremely incendiary mailing list.
This also happened at Mozilla. At GitHub. At a dozen other places in the Valley. Someone says or does something stupid, and it is taken as representative of the community as a whole. The community then extricates the person at fault. Or, in really bad situations, the community splits along fault lines and no one ever knows who was really at fault. (An aside about Git: Linus, in May 2005, said “I could write better source control in two weeks.” He finished Git in June 2005, and handed it off to someone in
July 2005 as an open-source project. He was absolutely right.)
But this is exactly why we should all continue to worship Linus as a god. None of the things that happened at any of the above-mentioned communities had anything whatsoever to do with the end goals of those communities. They were sidetracked issues of the sort that pop up when your organization does anything even remotely ancillary to its overall goal.