Graying Linux developers look for new blood

The top Linux developers are getting older and The Linux Foundation is addressing the issue.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

It's not that Linux's core developers are "old." After all, Linus Torvalds, Mr. Linux himself, is only 42. But for a few years now, the core Linux kernel developers have been aware that the top programmers have been getting older.


This isn't just an impression. While as Amanda McPherson, The Linux Foundation's VP of marketing and developer programs, told me that "participation in Linux is greater than ever before" and that "more than 8,000 people had contributed to the Linux kernel since 2005," a closer look at the Linux developer numbers reveals that the older generations of Linux programmers are fading away.

Jesús M González-Barahona, one of the founders of software development analysis company Bitergia, found that when you look at Linux kernel developers considering “age” as “time in the project,” new "generations" of programmers" are getting smaller and smaller. In general all generations are now much smaller than they were five or six years ago."

Bitergia's "study is based in the analysis of commits to the git repository, which means that we rely on git information, which is available only since 2005, when the project started to use it." So far this ongoing study has made three conclusions:

  • Generations, which are three months long, are shrinking over time from about 100-150 to 30-50 per quarter.
  • Older generations are getting less active. 
  • Recent generations of younger developers are quite smaller now than they were six years ago

The Linux community has been aware of this problem for some time. In 2010, at the The Linux kernel panel at the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit, Greg Kroah-Hartman, a senior Linux kernel developer and head of the Linux Driver Project, said, "Turnover at the upper level is not happening."And James Bottomley, the CTO of sever virtualization at Parallels, added that "There are more gray beards. The graying of the Linux kernel is going to continue until people start dying." Andrew Morton, a Google software engineer and senior Linux kernel' developer concluded, "Yes, we're getting older, and we're getting more tired. I don't see people jumping with enthusiasm to work on things the way that I used to."

So what to do about this? For one thing The Linux Foundation is trying to widen the developer door to hobbyist programmers.

McPherson added that "The Linux Foundation's mission is to advance and protect Linux. A big part of that is providing the infrastructure necessary for collaboration. Events are a key part of that. We think about events providing both a place for the developers to meet face-to-face--which is crucial since everything is done remotely--and a place for users, industry and the greater ecosystem to learn about Linux and the open cloud direct from the source: the developers themselves."

So, "while participation in Linux is greater than ever before, we always want to reach new people and new talent." That said, "Consistently our members and those we survey say finding Linux talent is an impediment to even more growth of Linux. One of the small ways we hope to impact that is making LinuxCon a welcoming place to new comers. We have always had a 'big tent' approach to that event, perhaps sometimes too big as people aren't sure if it's a developer or sys admin/architect event. And the fact is that it's both."

Specifically the Foundation is starting "new programs to help facilitate participation from newcomers as well increase contributions from women and other groups. We want these events and the Linux and open cloud communities to be welcoming and inclusive and hope these programs can play a small part."

So, for example at LinuxCon in New Orleans this September, the Foundation "will host a Newcomers Reception on Sunday night, September 15. We're inviting first-time attendees to join us and meet some of the Linux kernel developers who will also be in attendance. We hope by hosting this before the event actually opens newcomers can get the very most out of their week and make connections early on."

In addition, McPherson concluded, "We're hosting our first Women in OSS [Open Source Software] luncheon. We're looking forward to bringing this group together to learn more about how we can increase participation among women in open source and Linux and to give these people an opportunity to meet each other."

Hopefully, all of this will bring new blood and vigor to the Linux development community.

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