​Linus Torvalds on Linux, life, and bathrobes

The most famous programmer ever is happy his work is meaningful and that he gets to do much of it in his bathrobe.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Steve Jobs was never seen without his trademark black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers. It's been said Bill Gates, the world's richest man, dresses like your high-school math teacher. But Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, likes to be comfortable in his home office, so he spends his workdays in his bathrobe. Life is good when you're the world's most influential developer.

At The Linux Foundation's Open Source Summit in Los Angeles, Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Foundation, interviewed Torvalds in front of a packed audience. Zemlin asked how Torvalds felt about his fame. Torvalds replied he doesn't really think about it, but "I'm happy I did something meaningful. Everyone wants to do something that matters."

And, Torvalds added, he does work in "my home office in my bathrobe". Zemlin joked that The Linux Foundation has a shower before eleven policy. Torvalds replied, "That's why I don't go into the office."

Moving on to more serious subjects, Torvalds added that he was glad that Linux has enabled so many people to earn a living from it, which, in turn lets them have fun. He added that in Finland, where school is free, it's much easier to have fun working on technical challenges without having to worry about survival.

He added that while some free software fans still hate companies, "that's not how people should look at it. It's very important to have companies involved in open source ... You shouldn't hate those companies that can actually help make your project better. They can bring you all those users, because, without users, your project doesn't really matter."

Over time, Torvalds noted, it's gotten much easier for people to work with companies. "It used to be a huge problem. Companies wouldn't allow them to work on open-source projects" For example, they weren't allowed to use their company email address and businesses were worried about developers working on projects that weren't theirs.

Those days are done. "Companies have learned they can work with open source." Indeed, business without open-source software is now unthinkable.

Open-source security, like it is for any kind of software, is still a concern. Torvalds said, "Even if we do a perfect job, there are still going to be bugs. Linux may be perfect, the program may be perfect, but the deployment will be bad, and all our work will be for nothing."

Torvalds wishes that software attackers would join Linux. "I am always very impressed by people who are attacking our code," he said. "Sometimes I get the feeling these smart people are doing bad things, but I wish they were on our side because they are so smart and they could help us. We need to try to get as many of those smart people before they go to the dark side."

Still, Torvalds admitted, "In order to get into the kernel, you have to be interested in low-level programming that most people are not interested in. I don't think the kernel will ever be something that you would want to teach in a high school class. It's fairly esoteric, and you need a certain type of dedication to really even bother to care." That said, "We get a large percentage of people who are interested in these kinds of low-level problems."

Looking ahead Torvalds isn't worried about the kernel developers graying. "We have thousands of new people every single release. A lot people will only do something small. But from a health perspective, the kernel has more developers than just about any other project out there."

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