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

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.

Linus Torvalds: So one of the issues we had, and this took a while to start to appear, is when you — when you grow from having 10 people or 100 people working on a project to having 10,000 people, which — I mean, right now we’re in the situation where just on the kernel, where you have 1,000 people involved in every single release and that’s every two months, roughly two or three months. Some of those people don’t do a lot. There’s a lot of people who make small, small changes. But to maintain this, the scale changes how you have to maintain it. And we went through a lot of pain. And there are whole projects that do only source-code maintenance. CVS is the one that used to be the most commonly used, and I hated CVS with a passion and refused to touch it and tried something else that was radical and interesting and everybody else hated.

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And we were in this bad spot, where we had thousands of people who wanted to participate, but in many ways, I was the kind of break point, where I could not scale to the point where I could work with thousands of people. So Git is my second big project, which was only created for me to maintain my first big project. And this is literally how I work. I don’t code for — well, I do code for fun — but I want to code for something meaningful so every single project I’ve ever done has been something I needed and —

Chris Anderson: So really, both Linux and Git kind of arose almost as an unintended consequence of your desire not to have to work with too many people.

Linus Torvalds: Absolutely. Yes.

Chris Anderson: That’s amazing.

Linus Torvalds: Yeah.

Chris Anderson: And yet, you’re the man who’s transformed technology not just once but twice, and we have to try and understand why it is. You’ve given us some clues, but — here’s a picture of you as a kid, with a Rubik’s Cube. You mentioned that you’ve been programming since you were like 10 or 11, half your life. Were you this sort of computer genius, you know, übernerd, were you the star at school who could do everything? What were you like as a kid?

Linus Torvalds: Yeah, I think I was the prototypical nerd. I mean, I was — I was not a people person back then. That’s my younger brother. I was clearly more interested in the Rubik’s Cube than my younger brother. My younger sister, who’s not in the picture, when we had family meetings — and it’s not a huge family, but I have, like, a couple of cousins — she would prep me beforehand. Like, before I stepped into the room she would say, “OK. That’s so-and-so …” Because I was not — I was a geek. I was into computers, I was into math, I was into physics. I was good at that. I don’t think I was particularly exceptional. Apparently, my sister said that my biggest exceptional quality was that I would not let go.

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Chris Anderson: OK, so let’s go there, because that’s interesting. You would not let go. So that’s not about being a geek and being smart, that’s about being stubborn?

Linus Torvalds: That’s about being stubborn. That’s about, like, just starting something and not saying, “OK, I’m done, let’s do something else — Look: shiny!” And I notice that in many other parts in my life, too. I lived in Silicon Valley for seven years. And I worked for the same company, in Silicon Valley, for the whole time. That is unheard of. That’s not how Silicon Valley works. The whole point of Silicon Valley is that people jump between jobs to kind of mix up the pot. And that’s not the kind of person I am.

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