Open Source

Just because Linus does, should your boss ever tell you to 'Shut the hell up'?

Developer of the Linux kernel Linus Torvalds is known for ranting at fellow coders but some of his recent outbursts have been notable for their explosiveness - and expletives.

linus-torvalds-072013.jpg

Should your boss ever tell you to "Shut the **** up" or that your work is "Complete and utter ****"? While such an outburst might prompt some employees to quit or complain to HR, not everyone agrees that respect for people's feelings should be elevated above full and frank discussion.

The question of what is healthy for relationships between colleagues and necessary to get the job done - to let your feelings out or to couch criticisms carefully - has come to the fore among developers of the Linux kernel.

The debate centres on the colourful outbursts of Linus Torvalds, developer of the Linux kernel, well known for explosive rants at fellow kernel coders in which he has described other people's work as "total ****" and characterised others as "****ing morons".

In a recent discussion thread Sarah Sharp, an Intel developer, took exception at Torvalds' tone and called on him to behave in a more respectful manner.

"Violence, whether it be physical intimidation, verbal threats or verbal abuse is not acceptable. Keep it professional on the mailing lists," she said.

Torvalds is insistent that his cursing is not only acceptable, but necessary.

"The fact is, people need to know what my position on things are. And I can't just say, 'Please don't do that', because people won't listen."

Diplomacy vs brutal honesty

From his perspective, it's more efficient for managers to be clear about how they feel about their colleagues' work than to tiptoe around issues and let people continue to waste time working on the wrong things.

"I definitely am not willing to string people along, either. I've had that happen too - not telling people clearly enough that I don't like their approach, they go on to re-architect something, and get really upset when I am then not willing to take their work."

Sharp maintains that being abusive adds nothing that couldn't be communicated in a more civil manner: "Tell me, politely, what I have done wrong, and I will fix it.  You don't need to SHOUT, call me names, or tell me to SHUT THE **** UP!"

"If you misjudge someone's emotional state for the day, your yelling at them is not productive."

Yet for Torvalds, excessive politeness and shying away from conflict leaves feelings to fester and can ultimately result in colleagues acting in a more destructive manner towards each other.

"I'm *also* not going to buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords. Because THAT is what 'acting professionally' results in: people resort to all kinds of really nasty things because they are forced to act out their normal urges in unnatural ways."

Aggression from co-workers

Research into animosity in the workplace has found that aggression from co-workers, whether direct or passive, leads to higher staff turnover and bad feelings towards an organisation.

But does Torvalds have a point in believing that a bit of coarse language is just part of plain speaking and necessary to get the job done? And that the alternative is underhand manoeuvring and lingering resentment between colleagues?

Or is that simply excusing bad behaviour? When you can't be sure of the effect the language you use will have on another person, is it your responsibility not to throw insults their way?

The debate about co-worker conduct in an online discussion thread throws up another question, does remote working and the rise of the virtual office make for ruder organisations?

 Are people willing to be abrasive and critical of others in a way they wouldn't be if they had to sit next to them? And is it necessary to compensate for the lack of feedback from social cues such as body language by being more direct? 

As Torvalds puts it: "On the internet, nobody can hear you being subtle".

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

39 comments
Cos271
Cos271

So... Linus feels that not communicating emotions leads to "professional dishonesty" and resentment.  Yet, screaming and cursing also leads to resentment.  There has to be a middle solution that minimizes resentment.  I would venture something like this:

Linus:  I am way too flaming mad to respond at this time.

(hours/days pass)

Linus:  I really expect better quality work especially from someone who I hold in high regard.  Here is a list of issues I have and here are the reasons you made me angry.


/shrug  Anger expressed.  No outright shouting or abuse.  Rational response.

 That's what quickly comes to mind.  I'm sure there's an even better approach.

sar10538
sar10538

He is a great guy BUT all this says is that he has a complete lack of skills needed to communicate. Communication is the absolute key to efficient working relationships and when someone feels they have to be abusive to get their point over, they are really saying that they lack skills in English language. Perhaps he should attend an English language course and management training, especially in communication. This abrasive behaviour is always counter-productive as you have indicated in your article. He will loose respect of his colleagues and that will diminish his own effectiveness. It's not big and it's not clever!

yawningdogge
yawningdogge

Linus rocks. Oh, how I wish I could tell some of my colleagues to shut the f*** up when they say things that are absolutely and insanely stupid. Not only that, their pointless and clueless objections to progress usually cause everyone else (the ones actually doing the work) many extra hours of work. I'm certain I'm not alone on this.

And since when is Linus a Kernel developer's "boss"? Does he pay kernel developers a salary? Last I checked, it was simply a mailing list of people. If you don't like how he treats you then find work on one of the thousands of other open source projects to donate time to. But be prepared to have issues there too, because your failure as a kernel developer just might be your own fault. Did it ever occur to you that Linus might be right and your ideas really are stupid?

jsargent
jsargent

I've NEVER and many bosses around the world have never had the need to resort to this behavior which is why it is unacceptable. Torvals is just trying to justify his own bad behavior. He needs to grow up. If he believes it is ok to have such behavior then he should take his own advice. I wonder if he has ever accepted such behavior himself. Anyone who resorts to this obviously cannot justify their own arguments so they resort to verbal bullying. I find it far more acceptable and justified to hear "I am the boss so do as I say" than expletives. 

Madsmaddad
Madsmaddad

If the boss was to sit down and think, and send me a memo/email stating what I had done wrong, how I should amend my behaviour, or what I could do to fix it, I would be a hell of a lot more scared that if he just had a rant. 


I have worked under both types on manager, and know which I had more respect for. 



Rajdeep Biswas
Rajdeep Biswas

Yes :D if you do not have spiritual power, you ought to have physical power!

Sanders Kaufman Jr.
Sanders Kaufman Jr.

There is no justification for being abusive. There are reasons that people try to use as excuses - but there are no justifications. I modern communities, that lesson is taught to kids the very first time they act out, and every time after that. It's only among the lunatic fringes (Tea Partiers, Libertarians, religious extremists, and a few other hate groups) that abuse is ever considered to be acceptable.

mudpuppy1
mudpuppy1

There are very few situations when such behavior is justified. I don't think the coding field is one of those. Torvalds needs to grow up and learn some people skills. If I worked for him, we would have words about his behavior.

I had a boss once who behaved in a similar manner towards me. After a few times, I told him, politely but very firmly, that I was not going to tolerate such behavior towards me from him unless I was doing something that might harm life or limb. I am an adult and expect to be treated as such. If I make a mistake, I expect to be talked to about it, not screamed at. When he saw that I stood up to his almost-bullying tactics, he backed off and our relationship was cordial after that. I still see him occasionally and we get along fine.

Sandra Gladwish
Sandra Gladwish

no -- this would be called a jerk ... and who wants to work with jerks? I believe respect is required in the workplace -- if you can't get your message across and be effective without showing some decency then you need some serious management skills.

ParNeverhood
ParNeverhood

He sounds like he is a douche.  I won't subject myself to people like this, if he can't learn basic respect then one us is going to leave.  Unfortunately at the same time I understand the frustration with the new workplace.  In all honestly you cannot be frank with anyone anymore, even when you employ tremendous tact.  Feelings and emotion are valued greater than results, so maybe Linus will figure that out and earn how to push people without hurting their feelings.

Zorched
Zorched

Torvalds sounds like a bully wanna-be that was picked on a lot because he was a geek, and now he feels justified in lashing out because he finally has some street cred.

Grow up little man. Your attitude isn't welcome in polite society.  If you're incapable of speaking to others in such a way to effectively get your point across without resorting to blatant violent verbal abuse, then maybe you should crawl back into whatever dark CSCI lab-hole you hobbled out of.

aidemzo_adanac
aidemzo_adanac

I don't know about the US but up here it is reason to quit, and you will be excused as being laid off. (For unemployment acceptance it makes it fast and easy).  Such verbal abuse in a workplace is actually recognized here as being unreasonable physical abuse. 

If you work a good salary job, you can quite and the employer can be held responsible for your salary for 6 months or more while you find suitable employment, IF you are in a sector where any kind of specialty is concerned.

"The fact is, people need to know what my position on things are. And I can't just say, 'Please don't do that', because people won't listen."

That's the most pathetic excuse for an inability to communicate that I have ever read.

He is suggesting that, if he can't swear at and degrade an employee, the only other solution is to say "please don't do that" ?  

What a tosser!

"Sharp maintains that being abusive adds nothing that couldn't be communicated in a more civil manner: "Tell me, politely, what I have done wrong, and I will fix it.  You don't need to SHOUT, call me names, or tell me to SHUT THE **** UP!"

Exactly!  The inability to see a difference, which I feel in Torvald's case is an extreme opposite just to excuse his methods, simply illustrates someone who has no place managing a team of any size, or even being a parent, spouse or friend.  

Such people are weak, pathetic and in need of a good cuddle I think.  After all, it's not my fault that your dad used to beat you and now you don't know how to manage your unwarranted anger.

Guys like that always have to run their own company though, they wouldn't survive in anyone elses workplace.


william.ketcher
william.ketcher

if that guy says those things to me and it's OK, then is is OK for me to tell him to Kiss my a _ _?

g01d4
g01d4

It's simply a matter of style that's not suitable for everyone. That being said it's a style that requires strong support to be effective. And whether it's effective will be seen in the quality of the product.

eoschlotz
eoschlotz

Being frank and being respectful are not mutually exclusive.

Brandon Sims
Brandon Sims

Do what works. Let someone else build a feel good organization. Go work for MS, I'm sure Bill Gates is a really nice guy to have around the office.

adornoe
adornoe

A real leader inspires, and a loser needs to yell and insult in order to try to get his way.  Linus is a loser, and not a leader, but, he is a first-class coder with intolerance of those who dare follow or admire his work.  


Arrogance is more of what Linus is about.  Their previous accomplishments leads them to believe that, they are gods in their field, therefore, they think they can get away with anything.

Rexxrally
Rexxrally

Yelling and profanity are signs of low class. Intelligence does not beget class. While intelligence may attract other intelligence to work with them, class will inspire them to stay. Nothing can be done by intelligence that does not stay, and we (the entire Linux community) lose the benefit of their intelligence when they leave.

If someone is doing something incorrectly, not up to standards or will not fit into the "big picture", then they can certainly be told in no uncertain terms without resorting to yelling and profanity. Not yelling or using profanity is not the same thing as delving into office politics, stringing people along or tiptoeing around the issues.

Yelling and profanity are barely one step above a neanderthal level of management, clubbing them over the heads and dragging them back to their caves.


eScoop
eScoop

There are 2 ways to say this...

- Torvalds is a stupid F*&^ing moron who acts like a spoiled 12 year old boy because he's a selfish b#$%ard who has has his own way at the great expense of the creativity that could have come from a frank but civil discussion. What percent of the market does Linux dominate after how long? Obviously his way is getting results? Not.

- Torvalds is someone who may have significant expertise but his selfish spoiled 12 year old boy antics come at the great expense of the creativity that could have come from a frank but civil discussion. What percent of the market does Linux dominate after how long? Obviously, the results his combative counterproductive methods are likely that the best most creative minds and ideas stay away from the fray and the product stagnates in last place.

Point being, there are always ways to say things that are direct but not chidish. You CAN get your point across and the discussion is enhanced by civility not intimidated into submission and silence.

JoShurety
JoShurety

If you have one style of management then in my opinion you limit the effectiveness of your team.  There is no debate about the success of the company but is that down to this approach?  I would question that.  Loyalty is built by respect and trust and if that's his version of that then he may find that he limits the level and quality of people who want to work for him - over time that may become an issue as the star people who put up with the treatment find other exciting and challenging companies want them and are willing to treat them in a better way.  Arrogance in itself to think that no-one can ever take your crown and therefore behave in any bad way you like...

dimonic
dimonic

It really depends on situation. The trouble with Linus' approach is that he will not be able to work with more than half the potential workers out there. There are just as many people who are shy and deferent who could develop good (and sometimes bad) code as there are arrogant and ignorant people. Such an abbrasive attitude will instantly scare away the shy ones, and so only the loud, crass and arrogant will remain. Ironically, this wil of course reinforce Linus' position on the matter. In his world, all (other) kernel developers will be arrogant, crass and opinionated. This has unfortunately been the way of developer lists for at least a decade.

Just because he has dealt with one or two folks who have ignored his advice, he has developed a harsh and abbrasive tone he uses on everyone.

Kathy Gallup Keating
Kathy Gallup Keating

You can give frank and honest feedback without being verbally abusive. In fact, many studies show that frank and honest feedback is heard, understood and digested more fully than outbursts of aggression. He needs to take his own medicine -- when he behaves this way he needs to realize that his own behavior is bollocks. If he truly wants to create spectacular software he'll learn how to grow beyond his own shortcomings.

danmckaig
danmckaig

I have seen the business environment become more and more crass the past several years.  Profanity, obsenities and the like have no place in business discussions regardless of reason.  Less and less consideration of the other people in the discussion, with more of Linus' selfish opinion "I can only get my point across if I communicate this way" has led us to un-grownup displays of temper when things do not go as someone envisioned.

vineel
vineel

Linus is not running a corporation. He's running a volunteer team of people doing incredibly complex work. These people, by the nature of trying to be core to the Linux team, are by definition strongly opinionated, arrogant, and bull-headed. At the end of the day, Linus is responsible for their work quality, in the most direct way possible -- he rejects stuff he doesn't like. Anyone that's ever managed programmers know that he is right -- subtlety leads to confusion, and confusion leads to failure.

Does he have to use foul language? No -- but it's his game. The Linux culture has managed to grow and scale beyond anybody's expectation based on his personal definitions of fair play, communication, and collaboration. Heck -- he not only started the kernel codebase, he even wrote the collaboration tool (git) that ties everyone together. He also defined the workflows to allow contributions. If you don't like the Linux culture, there are plenty of other volunteer projects that would love your help. Trying to make Linus "nice" would probably destroy the quality of the operating system in months.

paulshotan@hotmail.com
paulshotan@hotmail.com

No level of wealth, status, power, or titles buys anyone the right to abuse others. Especially when they can't take it back themselves. I don't care who you are, I would never allow anyone to speak to me that way. If it costs me my job so be it, I would never work under such intimidation, and neither should anyone else!

The Gordon Ramseys, Alan Sugars and other testosterone fueled bully boys make me sick. Kow Towing I thought went out with the Ming dynasty? We are all born with equal rights to respect ... king or beggar.

If the only way to put your point across is to yell and swear at people then you need to enrol in  management class, grow up and stop behaving like a spoilt brat.

Sanders Kaufman Jr.
Sanders Kaufman Jr.

Sadly, many techies have such low self-esteem that they are willing to put up with this kind of behavior. They're just grateful that someone bothered to engage them at all, regardless of the context. Nowhere is this more true than in the Linux world.

Jerry Hanson
Jerry Hanson

hell no!! anyone tell me to shut the hell is going to find them self on their ass, and that goes for bosses or even god himself. I will not put up with that crap.

Michael Lucas
Michael Lucas

Yes I do... Your boss should be able to tell you to shut up. To much PC in the world

Craig_B
Craig_B

Treat others how you would like to be treated.  I believe that all people deserve respect.  People don't have to be fake, just be honest and say your point in a respectful way.  Instead of telling people to shut the *@$! up, it seems you can get the point across in a better way.  Such as I disagree with your process, I think it would be best to go in this direction.  People may even want to work with you, instead of battling with you.  No need to bring power, ego, fear, bullying, swearing, yelling into the picture for all those things will come back to you.  It's much better to be respectful and honest, to bring out the best in others and you will soon find it brings out the best in you.  We all make mistakes, so forgive yourself and others when it happens and then move on.

jsargent
jsargent

@g01d4 Do you believe it is a matter of style or socially acceptable behavior to answer in that way? If we said "shut the f$%k up" to you on this forum you would declare it as unacceptable and flag it as insulting.  I understand what you say but style has to fit into socially acceptable behavior otherwise we would have to consider all forms of violence as style instead of bad behavior. This is where some people CHOOSE to consider was is acceptable and cross acceptable boundaries. Next you will tell me that if an employee doesn't like it then it is acceptable to dismiss him. Where do you want the consequences to stop?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"What percent of the market does Linux dominate after how long?" 

That depends.  Which market are you asking about?  Desktops, not much.  Servers, possibly a slim majority.  Embedded single-function devices, it rules.

adornoe
adornoe

@vineel@vineel.com Some people, like Linux, don't need to be involved with management of people, and being smart and innovative, does not entitle him to be arrogant and insulting, and stupid about how he treats people.  

A person such as Linus are better working alone, and not around people.  That's why there are smart and innovative people who leave the management of a team to others.  All that is needed from a person such as Linus, is his input and comments regarding others' work.  But, direct contact with others is something that Linus should avoid.  

dkramer3
dkramer3

@Craig_B

"I disagree with your process, I think it would be best to go in this direction."

This kind of coddling is extremely inefficient. I can understand this kind of polite correction in a learning environment. There it makes sense to politely correct someone and have them go back and do it again until they get it right.  But by the time you get to the top of your profession, you shouldn't be making bad decisions and stupid mistakes.  If I hired a builder to construct my house, I wouldn't expect to have to ask him to do things over, and politely correct his mistakes.  I should be able to trust that he knows what he is doing and not feel the need to look over his shoulder and review his work at every step of the way.  And if he is doing things incorrectly I have the right to get upset about it.  If I had to coach my builder along every step of the process, the house would take 3 times as long to build as it should.  That being said, there is such a thing as taking it too far.  There is no need for personal attacks, but cold brutal honesty should not be looked down upon at that level.  So maybe instead of  "Your code is complete S@&!" or "That's really nice but maybe you could try it this way"  how about "This is completely unacceptable, I will not include it in my project".  No personal attacks but no doubt that the work is not up to standards.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

@Craig_B I agree that you can get your point across without being demeaning or abusive.

techrepublic@
techrepublic@

And more than 90% of top 500 super computers, huge on clusters, huge on the "cloud", 2/3 web servers, 3/4 mail servers, some 70% smart phones, and the international space station. :)

Editor's Picks