#176 Linus Torvalds Creator of Linux



In "Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary," co-authored by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond, the narrative delves into the origins and philosophy behind the Linux operating system, exploring Torvalds' personal journey and the unconventional management style that propelled Linux to global success. Torvalds, a self-proclaimed lazy programmer, initiated Linux for fun, emphasizing the importance of passion and enjoyment in work. Despite being labeled a benevolent dictator, he attributes the project's success to his hands-off approach, allowing volunteer programmers to contribute as they wish. His story underscores the idea that creativity and quality, not control, drive success, and that the ultimate goal in life, as reflected in his work, is to have fun. The book breaks the fourth wall, discussing its own creation and Torvalds' guiding principle that fun is the pinnacle of life's meaning, after survival and social order.

Summary Notes

The Rise of Linux and Open Source

  • Linux OS rapidly gained attention in the late 20th century.
  • Linus Torvalds' creation expanded from his bedroom to a global phenomenon.
  • Linux became a common server OS and a model of collaborative development.
  • The success of Linux and open source inversely affected Torvalds' desire to discuss it.
  • Torvalds initiated Linux for fun, highlighting that revolutions are unplanned and revolutionaries are often accidental.

"During the euphoria of the final years of the 20th century, a revolution was happening among all other revolutions. Seemingly overnight, the Linux operating system caught the world's attention."

This quote sets the stage for the transformative impact of Linux, emphasizing its rapid rise and global reach.

"Not only was it the most common operating system, running server computers dishing out all the content on the World Wide Web, but its very development model, an intricate web of its own, encompassing hundreds of thousands of volunteer computer programmers, had grown to become the largest collaborative project in the history of the world."

This quote highlights the significance of Linux's development model and its status as a monumental collaborative effort.

"The accidental revolutionary started Linux because playing on a computer was fun."

This quote underscores the serendipitous nature of Linux's origin and Torvalds' motivation rooted in enjoyment.

Linus Torvalds' Book: "Just for Fun"

  • Torvalds co-authored "Just for Fun" with David Diamond.
  • The book provides a history of Linux and insights into Torvalds' mind.
  • It is written in a unique, engaging, and conversational style.
  • The book breaks the fourth wall, discussing its own creation process.
  • Torvalds' personal philosophy centers on fun, influencing his approach to life and work.

"And it was written by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond."

This quote identifies the authors of "Just for Fun," providing context for the discussion that follows.

"The story of an accidental revolutionary."

This quote encapsulates the theme of the book, framing Torvalds as an unexpected catalyst for change.

Linus Torvalds' Life Philosophy

  • Torvalds believes life's meaning is structured around survival, social order, and entertainment.
  • He posits that the ultimate goal is to reach a state where one can have fun.
  • This philosophy is pivotal to understanding Torvalds' decisions and actions.

"There are three things that have meaning for life. They are the motivational factors for everything in your life and for anything that you do or any other living thing does. The first is survival. The second is social order. The third is entertainment."

This quote outlines Torvalds' hierarchy of life's meaning, which influences his personal and professional ethos.

"So in a sense, the implication is that the meaning of life is to reach that third stage. And once you've reached that third stage, you're done."

This quote explains Torvalds' view that reaching the stage of entertainment is the culmination of life's purpose.

Torvalds' Early Life and Interest in Programming

  • Torvalds describes himself as a nerdy child with a passion for computers.
  • He excelled in math and physics but lacked social graces.
  • Torvalds found solace and control in programming, contrasting with the illogical nature of human interactions.
  • His early obsession with computers was a form of escape and enjoyment.

"I was an ugly child... I was a nerd, a geek from fairly early on."

This quote provides a candid glimpse into Torvalds' self-perception during his childhood and his early identification with geek culture.

"You're 12, 13, 14, whatever. Other kids are out playing soccer. Your grandfather's computer is more interesting."

This quote reflects Torvalds' early preference for computers over typical childhood activities, indicating his burgeoning passion for technology.

Linus Torvalds' Character Traits

  • Torvalds is portrayed as unassuming and approachable, with a lack of ego in the context of his peers.
  • He is knowledgeable about various topics beyond technology.
  • Torvalds' openness about his flaws and humanity is refreshing and engenders trust.

"Linus has no handlers, doesn't listen to voicemail, and rarely responds to email."

This quote illustrates Torvalds' independence and disinterest in the trappings of his status.

"Amid Silicon Valley's bombastic elite, I found Linus to be unexpectedly knowledgeable about American business history and world politics."

This quote reveals Torvalds' breadth of knowledge and how he stands out among his peers in Silicon Valley.

Finland's Influence on Linus Torvalds

  • Torvalds offers insights into Finnish culture and its impact on his personality.
  • He describes Finns as stoic, silent, and technologically progressive.
  • His Finnish background influenced his approach to life and work.

"Finns are stoic to a fault. Silent suffering and fierce determination might be what helped us survive in the face of domination by Russia."

This quote provides context for the cultural traits that have shaped Torvalds and his compatriots.

"There are more Internet nodes per capita in Finland than in any other country."

This quote highlights Finland's technological advancement, which likely played a role in Torvalds' early exposure to and interest in computers.

Early Influence and the Power of Books

  • Linus Torvalds reflects on the profound impact a particular book had on his life.
  • He was inspired by "Operating Systems: Design and Implementation" by Andrew S. Tanenbaum.
  • The book introduced him to Minix, a Unix-like system, and the philosophy of Unix.
  • This led to his decision to get a machine capable of running Unix, which was the start of his journey with Minix and later Linux.
  • The book gave him an "enthusiastic jolt" that has persisted throughout his career.

"The book that launched me to new heights was operating systems design and implementation by Andrew S. Tanenbaum."

This quote highlights the transformative effect a single book had on Linus Torvalds, guiding him toward his future work in operating systems.

Philosophy of Simplicity and Work

  • Linus Torvalds values simplicity in design and associates it with the Unix operating system.
  • He compares the simplicity of Unix to the English language, with a small set of basic building blocks allowing for complex expressions.
  • He contrasts this with the Chinese language and Windows, suggesting they start off with complexity.
  • Torvalds emphasizes that simplicity requires design and good taste.
  • His approach to work and design is deeply influenced by the philosophy of "small is beautiful" and the power of simple, clean systems.

"Unix is the opposite. It gives you the building blocks that are sufficient for doing everything. That's what having a clean design is all about."

This quote encapsulates Torvalds's admiration for Unix's simplicity and how it informed his own design philosophy for Linux.

The Accidental Creation of Linux

  • Linus Torvalds did not initially plan to write his own operating system.
  • He spent a summer doing nothing but reading "Operating Systems: Design and Implementation," which led to his work on Minix.
  • His work on improving Minix led to the accidental creation of Linux.
  • Torvalds describes his intense focus and dedication during the early days of developing Linux.
  • The community's support, including raising money to pay off his computer, was a testament to the impact of his work.

"I was spending most of my time in a bathrobe, huddled over my unattractive new computer... By then I would have written Linux, which would be seen by many more people than just Sarah, that's his sister, and Lars, that's his friend."

This quote gives insight into the humble beginnings of Linux and the dedication Torvalds had to the project.

Financial Perspective and Open Source Philosophy

  • Torvalds discusses his financial situation, stating that he is well-off without having started a commercial company.
  • He values the ability to work on projects that interest him and that he believes matter to people.
  • Torvalds's philosophy on open source is that it allows individuals to demonstrate their skills to the world, which can lead to unforeseen opportunities.
  • He expresses disdain for paperwork and managing employees, preferring to focus on programming and innovation.
  • Despite his success, Torvalds maintains that he only pursues work that is fun and engaging.

"I'm not doing anything that's not fun and I'm not going to just do something that's not fun. To have a lot more money when I already have what I need out of life."

This quote reflects Torvalds's values and priorities, emphasizing the importance of enjoying one's work over financial gain.

Traits of Determined Individuals

  • Linus Torvalds's mother describes traits of determination and focus that are evident in her son.
  • These traits include intense concentration, a willingness to forego basic needs like food and sleep, and a never-give-up attitude.
  • Torvalds and his sister discuss the importance of enjoying one's work, which aligns with Steve Jobs's philosophy on the subject.
  • Torvalds's approach to problem-solving is driven by curiosity and a desire to conquer challenges the "right way."

"When you see a person whose eyes glaze over when a problem presents itself or continues to bug him or her, who then does not hear you talking, who fails to answer any simple question, who becomes totally engrossed in the activity at hand..."

This quote describes the level of focus and determination that Torvalds exhibited during the development of Linux, traits that are often found in successful individuals.

The Beauty of Programming and Entrepreneurship

  • Linus Torvalds speaks about his fascination with programming and compares it to playing a complex game.
  • He finds joy in the challenge of making the computer do what he wants by figuring out how.
  • Torvalds draws parallels between computer science and physics, with the creative aspect of building worlds within computers.
  • He also touches on the broader theme of entrepreneurship, suggesting that a key to success is loving what you do, which can lead to perseverance.

"I'm personally convinced that computer science has a lot in common with physics. Both are about how the world works at a rather fundamental level."

This quote demonstrates Torvalds's philosophical view on programming and its relation to understanding and creating within our world.

Control and Leadership

  • Linus Torvalds values control over his work and enjoys the freedom of not managing others.
  • Leading the open source movement, he is seen as an unwilling leader who is more interested in the work itself than the leadership role.
  • Torvalds is driven by his passion and the utility his creation provides to others.

"It's control. Control over what you get to do." "I don't even know if he considered the leader. Kind of like an unwilling leader."

These quotes highlight Torvalds' focus on maintaining control over his work and his ambivalence toward being recognized as a leader. His priority lies in the work itself rather than the accolades or responsibilities of leadership.

Problem Solving and Persistence

  • Torvalds discusses two approaches to problem-solving: brute force and finding the right approach for an epiphany.
  • He emphasizes the importance of persistence and the satisfying feeling that comes with solving a problem in a beautiful way.
  • The discussion on problem-solving is extended to the broader theme of perseverance in the face of challenges, as illustrated by quotes from James Dyson.

"You can do something the brute force way... Or you can find the right approach and suddenly the problem just goes away." "It's still hard to explain what could be so fascinating about beating your head against a wall for three days... But once you find that way, it's the greatest feeling in the world."

Torvalds describes the two different methods of problem-solving and the intense satisfaction that comes with finding an elegant solution. The quotes emphasize the value of persistence and the joy of overcoming challenges.

Work Ethic and Determination

  • Torvalds' work ethic is highlighted by his "program sleep" routine during the early development of Linux.
  • His determination is evident in his willingness to continue working on Linux despite the possibility of it not being worth the effort.
  • He finds satisfaction in his work, which is motivated by his interest and enjoyment rather than external factors.

"This was the point where I almost gave up thinking it would be too much and not worth it." "I hadn't been doing anything that summer except working on the computer... I was having fun."

The quotes illustrate Torvalds' dedication to his project and the internal motivation that drove him to persevere even when success was not guaranteed. His work ethic and enjoyment of the process are key factors in his persistence.

The Growth of Linux

  • Torvalds released the first version of Linux to a small group by private email, which parallels the humble beginnings of other successful ventures like FedEx.
  • The anecdote of FedEx's first day with only a few packages serves as a metaphor for the small beginnings of significant projects.
  • Torvalds' preference for postcards over money reflects his curiosity about where Linux was being used rather than a desire for financial gain.

"I felt a great sense of satisfaction... I hadn't been doing anything that summer except working on the computer." "Big things start small. The biggest oak starts from an acorn."

The quotes underscore the modest start of Linux and the satisfaction Torvalds felt in his work. The comparison to an acorn growing into a large oak tree symbolizes the potential for small projects to become significant over time.

Open Source Culture and Motivation

  • Torvalds explains the open source culture, where contributions are recognized in credit lists or history files.
  • He discusses the non-monetary motivations of open source contributors, such as peer recognition and potential employment opportunities.
  • The esteem gained from peers and the visibility of one's work in the open source community are significant motivating factors.

"The most prolific contributors attract the attention of employers who troll the code, hoping to spot and hire top programmers." "Hackers are also motivated in large part by the esteem they can gain in the eyes of their peers by making solid contributions."

These quotes highlight the non-monetary rewards of contributing to open source projects. Contributors gain recognition and opportunities for professional advancement, which can be as motivating as financial compensation.

Leadership Philosophy

  • Torvalds' leadership style is characterized by allowing people to work on what interests them and divesting himself of tasks that do not hold his interest.
  • He believes the best leaders acknowledge their mistakes and enable others to make decisions.
  • Torvalds attributes the success of Linux to his personality flaws, such as laziness and the desire to get credit for others' work, which led to a decentralized and collaborative development model.

"The best and most effective way to lead is by letting people do things because they want to do them, not because you want them to." "Much of Linux's success can be attributed to my own personality flaws."

The quotes reflect Torvalds' unconventional leadership philosophy, where personal flaws are turned into strengths that contribute to the success of a collaborative project like Linux. His approach emphasizes autonomy and the intrinsic motivation of contributors.

Life Changes and Adaptation

  • Torvalds experienced a period of significant life changes, including moving to a new country, starting a new job, becoming a father, and getting married.
  • He describes the stress of these changes and the strategy of undergoing all major life transitions at once.
  • His decision-making process included practical considerations, such as the weather and job opportunities in California.

"I wrote my thesis over a long weekend and turned it in minutes before taking Tove to the hospital to deliver Patricia, who was born 40 hours later." "Being a father seemed like the most natural thing in the world."

These quotes convey the whirlwind of personal and professional changes Torvalds experienced in a short period. They illustrate his ability to adapt to new circumstances and the importance he places on family and personal satisfaction.

Transition to a New Country

  • Linus Torvalds moved to a new country for work, which was a significant life transition.
  • Initially, he had limited time to devote to Linux due to the demands of settling in.
  • Financial responsibilities included purchasing furniture and a car, which consumed his salary despite it being substantial.
  • His computer was being shipped slowly, leading to his temporary absence online, causing concern among the Linux community.

"It was a fairly busy time. We had absolutely no money. I had a great salary, but everything went towards getting furniture, buying a car."

This quote highlights the financial and time constraints Linus experienced during his move, which affected his ability to contribute to Linux.

Work-Life Balance and Personal Philosophy

  • Linus Torvalds prioritizes work-life balance, emphasizing the importance of sleep for productivity and well-being.
  • He challenges the notion that long working hours are necessary for success.
  • Linus finds support for his views on sleep from other successful individuals like James Dyson and Jeff Bezos.
  • He discusses the philosophical differences between Linux and Microsoft, with a focus on management style and personal approach.

"I'm not one of them. My job nor Linux has ever gotten in the way of a good night's sleep."

This quote underscores Linus's belief in the importance of sleep over working excessively long hours, which he sees as detrimental to productivity.

Management of Linux

  • Linus Torvalds describes his management of Linux as a "benevolent dictator," a term he finds amusing yet somewhat uncomfortable.
  • He emphasizes trust from the Linux community as the basis for his control over the Linux kernel.
  • His management approach involves allowing volunteers to take initiative rather than proactively delegating tasks.
  • Linus characterizes himself as "lazy" in the context of management, preferring to let things happen naturally.

"My method for managing the project with hundreds of thousands of developers is the same as it was when I coded away in my bedroom."

This quote reflects Linus's consistent approach to managing Linux, which is based on trust and natural progression rather than forceful direction.

Personal Traits and Open Source Philosophy

  • Linus acknowledges his flaws, including deficient social skills, but argues that the open-source model renders these irrelevant.
  • He stresses that the power of open source lies in the ability of people to work independently of his influence.
  • The success of Linux and creativity in general is tied to the ability to produce unique and valuable contributions rather than mimic others.

"It's not about me being open, it's about them having the power to ignore me."

The quote illustrates the essence of open source: the freedom to contribute or diverge from the main project without the need for permission from a central authority like Linus.

Business Insights and Predictions

  • Linus discusses the impermanence of businesses and the importance of focusing on quality products over control.
  • He uses historical examples to argue that companies relying on control rather than innovation will eventually fail.
  • The discussion includes analogies to the music industry and the inevitability of technological advancements that disrupt existing power structures.

"The way to survive and flourish is to make the best damn product you can."

This quote encapsulates Linus's belief that the key to business success is to focus on creating high-quality products that meet consumer needs, rather than attempting to maintain control over a market.

Future of Operating Systems and Technology

  • Linus speculates on the future of operating systems, suggesting that their prominence should diminish as technology becomes more integrated into daily life.
  • He believes that people are ultimately interested in solutions, not the products or technologies that provide them.
  • Linus emphasizes the need for the tech industry to adapt to change and focus on serving user needs rather than preserving outdated business models.

"What everybody wants is this magical toy that can be used to browse the web, write term papers, play games, balance the checkbook and so on."

This quote reflects Linus's forward-thinking perspective that the true value of technology lies in its ability to seamlessly facilitate various activities, rather than the technology itself being the focus.

The Meaning of Life and Motivation

  • Linus Torvalds shares his views on the meaning of life, boiling it down to survival, social order, and entertainment.
  • He believes that fun is a fundamental driver of human behavior and that pursuing enjoyable activities leads to sustained motivation and innovation.
  • Linus's personal journey with Linux exemplifies this philosophy, as his enjoyment of the project has been a key factor in its evolution and success.

"Survive, socialize, have fun. That's the progression. And that's also why we chose just for fun as the title of the book, because everything we ever do eventually ends up being for our own entertainment."

This quote reveals Linus's core belief that the pursuit of enjoyment is not only a personal preference but a universal principle that underlies all human endeavors.

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