Linus Torvalds: The Mind Behind Linux at TED (Full Transcript)

Linus Torvalds – The Mind Behind Linux at TED Talk 2016 – Transcript

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Chris Anderson: This is such a strange thing. Your software, Linux, is in millions of computers, it probably powers much of the Internet. And I think that there are, like, a billion and a half active Android devices out there. Your software is in every single one of them. It’s kind of amazing. You must have some amazing software headquarters driving all this. That’s what I thought — and I was shocked when I saw a picture of it. I mean, this is — this is the Linux world headquarters.

Linus Torvalds: It really doesn’t look like much. And I have to say, the most interesting part in this picture, that people mostly react to, is the walking desk. It is the most interesting part in my office and I’m not actually using it anymore. And I think the two things are related.

The way I work is — I want to not have external stimulation. You can kind of see, on the walls are this light green. I’m told that at mental institutions they use that on the walls. It’s like a calming color, it’s not something that really stimulates you. What you can’t see is the computer here, you only see the screen, but the main thing I worry about in my computer is — it doesn’t have to be big and powerful, although I like that — it really has to be completely silent. I know people who work for Google and they have their own small data center at home, and I don’t do that. My office is the most boring office you’ll ever see. And I sit there alone in the quiet. If the cat comes up, it sits in my lap. And I want to hear the cat purring, not the sound of the fans in the computer.

Chris Anderson: So this is astonishing, because working this way, you’re able to run this vast technology empire — it is an empire — so that’s an amazing testament to the power of open source. Tell us how you got to understand open source and how it led to the development of Linux.

Linus Torvalds: I mean, I still work alone. Really — I work alone in my house, often in my bathrobe. When a photographer shows up, I dress up, so I have clothes on. And that’s how I’ve always worked. I mean, this was how I started Linux, too. I did not start Linux as a collaborative project. I started it as one in a series of many projects I had done at the time for myself, partly because I needed the end result, but even more because I just enjoyed programming. So it was about the end of the journey, which 25 years later, we still have not reached. But it was really about the fact that I was looking for a project on my own and there was no open source really on my radar at all.

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And what happened is — the project grows and becomes something you want to show off to people. Really, this is more of a, “Wow, look at what I did” And trust me — it was not that great back then. I made it publicly available, and it wasn’t even open source at that point. At that point it was source that was open, but there was no intention behind using the kind of open-source methodology that we think of today to improve it. It was more like, “Look, I’ve been working on this for half a year, I’d love to have comments.”

And other people approached me. At the University of Helsinki, I had a friend who was one of the open source — it was called mainly ‘free software’ back then — and he actually introduced me to the notion that, hey, you can use these open-source licenses that had been around. And I thought about it for a while. I was actually worried about the whole commercial interests coming in. I mean, that’s one of the worries I think most people who start out have, is that they worry about somebody taking advantage of their work, right? And I decided, “What the hell?” And —

Chris Anderson: And then at some point, someone contributed some code that you thought, “Wow, that really is interesting, I would not have thought of that. This could actually improve this.”

Linus Torvalds: It didn’t even start by people contributing code, it was more that people started contributing ideas. And just the fact that somebody else takes a look at your project — and I’m sure it’s true of other things, too, but it’s definitely true in code — is that somebody else takes an interest in your code, looks at it enough to actually give you feedback and give you ideas. That was a huge thing for me.

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So I was 21 at the time, so I was young, but I had already programmed for half my life, basically. And every project before that had been completely personal and it was a revelation when people just started commenting, started giving feedback on your code. And even before they started giving code back, that was, I think, one of the big moments where I said, “I love other people!” Don’t get me wrong — I’m actually not a people person. I don’t really love other people — But I love computers, I love interacting with other people on email, because it kind of gives you that buffer. But I do love other people who comment and get involved in my project. And it made it so much more.

Chris Anderson: So was there a moment when you saw what was being built and it suddenly started taking off, and you thought, “Wait a sec, this actually could be something huge, not just a personal project that I’m getting nice feedback on, but a kind of explosive development in the whole technology world”?

Linus Torvalds: Not really. I mean, the big point for me, really, was not when it was becoming huge, it was when it was becoming little. The big point for me was not being alone and having 10, maybe 100 people being involved — that was a big point. Then everything else was very gradual. Going from 100 people to a million people is not a big deal — to me. Well, I mean, maybe it is if you’re — If you want to sell your result then it’s a huge deal — don’t get me wrong. But if you’re interested in the technology and you’re interested in the project, the big part was getting the community. Then the community grew gradually. And there’s actually not a single point where I went like, “Wow, that just took off!” because it — I mean — it took a long time, relatively.

Chris Anderson: So all the technologists that I talk to really credit you with massively changing their work. And it’s not just Linux, it’s this thing called Git, which is this management system for software development. Tell us briefly about that and your role in that.