Pet the cat, own the bathrobe: Linus Torvalds on working from home

Linus Torvalds created Linux and Git from home. Here's how.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

So your boss isn't sure you'll be productive while working at home. Perhaps, they should consider Linus Torvalds. He created a little operating system called Linux, which runs everything in the world except desktops, and Git, which is used by all major software developers everywhere, all while working from his home.   

Torvalds admits that when he started, "I worried about missing human interaction -- not just talking to people in the office and hallways, but going out to lunch etc. It turns out I never really missed it."

Of course, just saying "'don't be social' isn't much of a great tip, is it?" Nor, as many extroverts are now finding out, is working from home necessarily at all comfortable. 

So, Torvalds suggests that you take "advantage of the "real" upside of working from home: flexibility. Don't try to re-create an office from your home."

Instead, "If you spend hours in online meetings from home, instead of spending hours in meetings at the office like you used to, you've just taken the worst part of office life, and brought it home, and made it even worse."

Linux kernel runs on e-mail lists, instead of meetings to keep on point. James Bottomley, IBM Research Distinguished Engineer and senior Linux kernel developer who works closely wth Torvald, explains:

The main rules are try to be as clear as you can be in written communication, so re-read before sending and try to imagine how the reader will see it. Also try to be as brief as possible because people lose interest and start skimming if you're not -- skimming causes loads of miscommunication because they haven't fully absorbed the idea.

Torvalds says, "if you make your new life a '9-5, but from home' kind of thing, I think you're just going to hate your home, yourself and your life. All the downsides, none of the upsides."

Torvald's attitude towards meetings can be summed up as: "My life is too short for more than one hour of meeting per week." He believes that instead of using "video conferencing instead to recreate exactly what we used to do before, you should" try to really change how you work. Use asynchronous communication models: messaging, email, shared calendars, whatever.

Torvalds continues: 

Have a way to track what you need to do. For me it's mainly my inbox (I just leave pending stuff in the inbox), since that's how I work anyway. But it might be a separate calendaring thing, a 'need to do today/this week/this month' shared thing or whatever. Use that to actually keep track of what you have done and what you have pending, and if you work in a group and there's some sharing capability, all the better."

One such program, which runs on all desktop operating systems including Linux is RescueTime. Besides helping you avoid wasting your day on Facebook and the like it collects data on exactly what you're really doing on your computer. With this information, it creates detailed reports on just how much time you spend on work, social networking, games, online shopping, and so on. 

In any case, Torvalds urges you to "make it asynchronous, not some 'now everybody needs to attend this stupid web meeting to let everybody else know what they've been doing or what they should do.'"

Sometimes though Bottomley thinks video-conferencing is a must. He thinks, 

There are some individuals for whom email and phone/IM works just great. These are usually the self starters, so they're looking simply to get guidance and then get stuck in. Then there's the rest who are demanding more explicit instructions. For the latter, video conference tools are invaluable because you can pick up on the decision not to listen to you anymore visual cues. I mostly use Zoom (horrible proprietary app, but does have binaries for every Linux distro) or NextCloud Talk... although my server can't stand a huge video load so it only really works one-on-one.

Torvalds adds you really should "take advantage of the whole "I'm not bound to a location and other people, and I can work more flexibly as a result because then working from home gives you real advantages with regards to scheduling. Sure, you're not supposed to go out, but you'll need to go for groceries etc anyway. Do that any time you're bored and there's nothing obvious that you need to do: you're not stuck in the office! Or play with the cat!" 

Finally, Torvalds concludes: "OK, it might take years to get over the shame of accepting a package from the UPS guy in your bathrobe at 3 PM  because you never bothered to get dressed, but that should be your end goal: 'Whatever, I'm home, and nobody is here to judge.'"

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