By Paula Rooney CRN
3:00 PM EST Fri. Nov. 12, 2004
From the November 15, 2004 CRN

He’s neither a chief executive nor a chairman. He holds no executive title. And just last year, he accepted his first paying gig in the Linux industry that he founded.

Yet Linus Torvalds, the 34-year-old Finnish programmer and composer of the Linux kernel, is being honored as CRN’s most influential executive of 2004 because of his devotion to the Linux development process for nearly 15 years. It’s been a watershed year for Linux and the open-source movement, and Torvalds had a lot to do with it.

The completion of the Linux 2.6 kernel has taken the open-source operating system to the next level, making it enterprise-ready and forcing Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and other operating system vendors to make strategic changes to their business models.

This has also been a pivotal 18 months for Torvalds, who signed off on the Linux 2.6 kernel and accepted his first official role in the Linux industry as a fellow with the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), a vendor-neutral organization in Beaverton, Ore., founded by IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Computer Associates International, Intel and NEC.

Joining the OSDL gave Torvalds a title and business card in the Linux community, but it hasn’t disturbed his daily routine. Leaving microprocessor developer Transmeta, Santa Clara, Calif., and joining the OSDL in June 2003 ensured that Torvalds could devote his full-time attention to the Linux kernel and his family while working from his home office.

“I was originally planning on just taking a year of unpaid leave from Transmeta because I felt I had to concentrate on getting 2.6.x out the door with no distractions,” Torvalds says. “OSDL turned out to be a great way to do that without losing health coverage or pay and still remaining neutral.”

But his move meant a lot more to the open-source community. His agreement to serve in an official capacity at a time when the Linux development process was under fire—and under the legal microscope following The SCO Group’s litigation against IBM—inspired confidence and relief among his followers and underscored Torvalds’ role as the maestro of Linux.

This June, Torvalds, with his wife, Tove, and three daughters, ages 3, 6 and 7, moved from Northern California and settled into a quiet neighborhood above Portland, Ore., where private drives, large lots and wooded hillsides hide houses from view. His home is one of the newer ones in the neighborhood and is furnished casually, with a few pieces in Danish modern. He dresses casually as well, wearing denim jeans to greet the photography crew that have come to invade his privacy. He seems amused by the fuss they create.

His office has a private entrance at the back of the house, equipped with a mini-kitchen and still-empty bookshelves. It looks out on the backyard, where a playhouse he is building for the girls sits against a forest backdrop. This is Torvalds’ sanctuary, a place where he concentrates on the Linux operating system while remaining detached from business concerns and office politics.

On most days, he toils before a glowing terminal, playing his keyboard like a baby grand, not much different from his early days conceiving the kernel in Helsinki back in 1991. But now Torvalds orchestrates thousands of Linux developers distributed around the globe, synthesizing and arranging the bits into the masterpiece that disrupted the software establishment, crippling Sun, reviving IBM and giving Microsoft a taste of mortality.

Torvalds has been instrumental in making Linux the most successful open-source project to date and challenging the establishment in the software industry, says the top guru of another successful open-source project.

“Linus proved that with savvy community management and dedication, you can challenge the big players in this industry,” says Marc Fleury, chairman and CEO of JBoss, developer of a J2EE-based application server. “Linus paved the way for many professional open sourcers. Linus was the inspiration that prompted me to start JBoss in open source.”

Eric Raymond, author of “The Cathedral & the Bazaar,” a treatise on open-source development, says Torvalds’ talent and management skills enabled Linux to flourish and not perish as some pundits predicted. “Linus’ design sense is excellent, avoiding the over-ambition that has brought previous projects of similar scope crashing down,” Raymond says. “Even more important has been his reinvention of the decentralized development model of open source. It existed before him, but he systematized it in important ways.”

It’s truly a labor of love for Torvalds, who holds the trademark to Linux yet pockets no profits from it. He is a paradox in an industry that breeds billionaire babies: While he changed the business of software, he has no interest in the business of software.

“I don’t think I could ever have been the Bill Gates of this decade,” Torvalds says. “You need to get in at the very early beginnings of a new technical thing, and commodity operating systems are not that anymore. Perhaps more importantly, you have to have the business instincts. Me? I couldn’t care less about business.”

In spite of his humility, Torvalds’ work has injected new life into a stagnant operating system market and helped raise thorny philosophical and social issues about how—and for whom—software ought to be developed. Many in the open-source world believe that software is a utility, and, like electricity, ought to be owned and regulated for the public good, not privately owned by a handful of capitalists. For the more radical open-source advocates who view the increasing competition between Linux and proprietary operating systems as a battle of good vs. evil, Torvalds is a liberator, here to free the world from the bondage of Microsoft Windows.

Torvalds isn’t wired to think along those same lines: “I’m still not very philosophical about open source,” Torvalds says. “To me, it’s pretty pragmatic. [I have] a very strong belief that cooperation and open sharing of knowledge ends up resulting in better development.”

He also says cooperation sometimes needs to be enforced with licenses because there are “greedy” people who have no qualms about poaching other people’s work. “I guess you could call the belief in sharing of knowledge a ‘philosophy,’ but I just think it’s a fact,” Torvalds says. “It’s what differentiates science from alchemy or witchcraft. Anybody who doesn’t believe in it is just wearing some serious blinders.”

His passion for coding is what makes Torvalds a developer’s developer, especially to those in the open-source world.

“Linus is a brilliant developer, a developer with taste,” says Dirk Hohndel, director of Linux and open-source strategy at Intel and one of the early developers who began working on the Linux kernel shortly after its inception in 1991. “He looks for clean, intelligent, structured solutions to problems and tries to make hard things simple. To me, that is the difference between a good developer and a great one.”

Torvalds’ right-hand man, Andrew Morton, the No. 2 Linux developer who now serves as the maintainer of the kernel for the OSDL, says Torvalds sets the bar high, and that’s one reason why the open-source project has been successful. “He seems to have achieved a sort of laid-back egalitarianism, which allows people to self-organize into roles and positions ... without allowing personal frictions to impact the project too much,” Morton says.

And that’s no easy task, says Alan Cox, a developer at Red Hat who is among the inner circle of top Linux contributors. “Linus has two great strengths: He’s fair, and he’s willing to change his mind if shown wrong,” Cox says. “He has a good ability to lead, a good sense of the right choice in technical decisions and an ability to deal rationally with most people. Programmer management often gets described as ‘herding cats,’ and Linus is good at doing it without getting anyone upset.”

Torvalds is relaxed, easygoing and rarely gets involved in industry politics, but for all of that diplomacy, he is unabashedly opinionated and not afraid to speak his mind. He criticizes Microsoft’s Windows code openly and calls SCO “a failing company trying to take credit for our work.”

Torvalds is proud of the enterprise-ready Linux 2.6 kernel, which was completed in December 2003 and provides a higher level of performance, reliability and scalability to support enterprise applications, making Linux suitable for all data-center tasks and giving it near parity with other operating systems. He is also proud of the formal tracking process he and Morton established to better manage updates and fixes to the kernel. Still, he keeps a healthy distance from the legal and business issues, says Stuart Cohen, CEO of the OSDL.

“He’s not interested in becoming general counsel or the vice president of engineering,” says Cohen, noting that Torvalds calls his own shots. “We don’t burden him with the overhead. He has latitude to work on things interesting to him.”

Torvalds also generally shies away from the limelight, although occasionally attending industry conferences, and he is as precise about his role as he is with his code, preferring these days to call himself the chief technical lead rather than chief software architect since he is overseeing more and programming less. And he is quick to give credit to the many developers on the open-source project, including the early C and Unix developers from Bell Labs: Brian Kernighan, Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson.

Still, Torvalds is undeniably the inventor and face of Linux. He has amassed such a devout following worldwide, in fact, that one zealous developer who attended a LinuxWorld Expo panel discussion in which Torvalds participated a few years back proclaimed loudly that he had named his infant son Linus.

Torvalds does not view himself as a hero, but he is not a bad role model for any kid, friends say. Hohndel recalls an incident when Torvalds was preparing to give his keynote speech at LinuxWorld Expo and disappeared just moments before going onstage. Panic and confusion ensued among expo staff until Torvalds’ wife, who frequently travels with him, daughters in tow, stepped in to calm those worries, explaining that he just walked out to the car to get a diaper bag.

It’s typical of Torvalds, Hohndel says. In spite of his friend’s worldwide renown in the technology community, Torvalds lacks the ego and the entourage of personal assistants that accompany many high-tech celebrities. He says Torvalds is an ordinary person, someone you’d meet at Starbucks or at the zoo with his family.

“He’s a nerd—even more dangerous, a famous nerd. But thankfully that hasn’t kept him from being a mostly normal person and a good friend,” Hohndel says. “I love watching him with his family. Once you see him deal with his three daughters, you realize that inside he has stayed a normal guy.”

It’s only the world around him that’s changed.

 Published for the Week Of November 15, 2004