The mind behind Linux | Linus Torvalds


Chris Anderson: This is such
a strange thing. Your software, Linux,
is in millions of computers, it probably powers much of the Internet. And I think that there are, like, a billion and a half active
Android devices out there. Your software is in every
single one of them. It’s kind of amazing. You must have some amazing
software headquarters driving all this. That’s what I thought — and I was shocked
when I saw a picture of it. I mean, this is — this is the Linux world headquarters. (Laughter) (Applause) Linus Torvalds: It really
doesn’t look like much. And I have to say, the most interesting part in this picture, that people mostly react to, is the walking desk. It is the most interesting
part in my office and I’m not actually using it anymore. And I think the two things are related. The way I work is … I want to not have external stimulation. You can kind of see,
on the walls are this light green. I’m told that at mental institutions
they use that on the walls. (Laughter) It’s like a calming color, it’s not something
that really stimulates you. What you can’t see is the computer here,
you only see the screen, but the main thing I worry
about in my computer is — it doesn’t have to be big
and powerful, although I like that — it really has to be completely silent. I know people who work for Google and they have their own
small data center at home, and I don’t do that. My office is the most
boring office you’ll ever see. And I sit there alone in the quiet. If the cat comes up, it sits in my lap. And I want to hear the cat purring, not the sound of the fans in the computer. CA: So this is astonishing, because working this way, you’re able to run this vast
technology empire — it is an empire — so that’s an amazing testament
to the power of open source. Tell us how you got
to understand open source and how it lead
to the development of Linux. LT: I mean, I still work alone. Really — I work alone in my house, often in my bathrobe. When a photographer shows up, I dress up, so I have clothes on. (Laughter) And that’s how I’ve always worked. I mean, this was how I started Linux, too. I did not start Linux
as a collaborative project. I started it as one
in a series of many projects I had done at the time for myself, partly because I needed the end result, but even more because I just
enjoyed programming. So it was about the end of the journey, which, 25 years later,
we still have not reached. But it was really about the fact
that I was looking for a project on my own and there was no open source,
really, on my radar at all. And what happened is … the project grows and becomes something
you want to show off to people. Really, this is more of a, “Wow,
look at what I did!” And trust me — it was not
that great back then. I made it publicly available, and it wasn’t even
open source at that point. At that point it was source that was open,
but there was no intention behind using the kind of open-source
methodology that we think of today to improve it. It was more like, “Look, I’ve been working
on this for half a year, I’d love to have comments.” And other people approached me. At the University of Helsinki, I had a friend who was one
of the open source — it was called mainly
“free software” back then — and he actually introduced me
to the notion that, hey, you can use these open-source
licenses that had been around. And I thought about it for a while. I was actually worried about the whole
commercial interests coming in. I mean, that’s one of the worries
I think most people who start out have, is that they worry about somebody
taking advantage of their work, right? And I decided, “What the hell?” And — CA: And then at some point, someone contributed
some code that you thought, “Wow, that really is interesting,
I would not have thought of that. This could actually improve this.” LT: It didn’t even start
by people contributing code, it was more that people
started contributing ideas. And just the fact that somebody else
takes a look at your project — and I’m sure it’s true
of other things, too, but it’s definitely true in code — is that somebody else
takes an interest in your code, looks at it enough to actually
give you feedback and give you ideas. That was a huge thing for me. I was 21 at the time, so I was young, but I had already programmed
for half my life, basically. And every project before that
had been completely personal and it was a revelation when people
just started commenting, started giving feedback on your code. And even before they started
giving code back, that was, I think, one of the big
moments where I said, “I love other people!” Don’t get me wrong — I’m actually not a people person. (Laughter) I don’t really love other people — (Laughter) But I love computers, I love interacting with other
people on email, because it kind of gives you that buffer. But I do love other people who comment
and get involved in my project. And it made it so much more. CA: So was there a moment
when you saw what was being built and it suddenly started taking off, and you thought, “Wait a sec,
this actually could be something huge, not just a personal project
that I’m getting nice feedback on, but a kind of explosive development
in the whole technology world”? LT: Not really. I mean, the big point for me, really,
was not when it was becoming huge, it was when it was becoming little. The big point for me was not being alone and having 10, maybe 100
people being involved — that was a big point. Then everything else was very gradual. Going from 100 people to a million people
is not a big deal — to me. Well, I mean, maybe it is if you’re — (Laughter) If you want to sell your result
then it’s a huge deal — don’t get me wrong. But if you’re interested in the technology and you’re interested in the project, the big part was getting the community. Then the community grew gradually. And there’s actually not
a single point where I went like, “Wow, that just took off!” because it — I mean — it took a long time, relatively. CA: So all the technologists
that I talk to really credit you with massively changing their work. And it’s not just Linux, it’s this thing called Git, which is this management system
for software development. Tell us briefly about that
and your role in that. LT: So one of the issues we had, and this took a while to start to appear, is when you … When you grow from having 10 people
or 100 people working on a project to having 10,000 people, which — I mean, right now we’re in the situation
where just on the kernel, we have 1,000 people involved
in every single release and that’s every two months,
roughly two or three months. Some of those people don’t do a lot. There’s a lot of people
who make small, small changes. But to maintain this, the scale changes how
you have to maintain it. And we went through a lot of pain. And there are whole projects
that do only source-code maintenance. CVS is the one that used to be
the most commonly used, and I hated CVS with a passion
and refused to touch it and tried something else
that was radical and interesting and everybody else hated. CA: (Laughs) LT: And we were in this bad spot, where we had thousands of people
who wanted to participate, but in many ways,
I was the kind of break point, where I could not scale to the point where I could work
with thousands of people. So Git is my second big project, which was only created for me
to maintain my first big project. And this is literally how I work. I don’t code for — well, I do code for fun — but I want to code
for something meaningful so every single project I’ve ever done
has been something I needed and — CA: So really, both Linux
and Git kind of arose almost as an unintended consequence of your desire not to have
to work with too many people. LT: Absolutely. Yes. (Laughter) CA: That’s amazing.
LT: Yeah. (Applause) And yet, you’re the man
who’s transformed technology not just once but twice, and we have to try
and understand why it is. You’ve given us some clues, but … Here’s a picture of you as a kid,
with a Rubik’s Cube. You mentioned that you’ve been
programming since you were like 10 or 11, half your life. Were you this sort of computer
genius, you know, übernerd, were you the star at school
who could do everything? What were you like as a kid? LT: Yeah, I think I was
the prototypical nerd. I mean, I was … I was not a people person back then. That’s my younger brother. I was clearly more interested
in the Rubik’s Cube than my younger brother. (Laughter) My younger sister,
who’s not in the picture, when we had family meetings — and it’s not a huge family, but I have,
like, a couple of cousins — she would prep me beforehand. Like, before I stepped
into the room she would say, “OK. That’s so-and-so …” Because I was not — I was a geek. I was into computers, I was into math, I was into physics. I was good at that. I don’t think I was
particularly exceptional. Apparently, my sister said that my biggest exceptional quality
was that I would not let go. CA: OK, so let’s go there,
because that’s interesting. You would not let go. So that’s not about being
a geek and being smart, that’s about being … stubborn? LT: That’s about being stubborn. That’s about, like, just starting something and not saying, “OK, I’m done,
let’s do something else — Look: shiny!” And I notice that in many
other parts in my life, too. I lived in Silicon Valley for seven years. And I worked for the same
company, in Silicon Valley, for the whole time. That is unheard of. That’s not how Silicon Valley works. The whole point of Silicon Valley
is that people jump between jobs to kind of mix up the pot. And that’s not the kind of person I am. CA: But during the actual
development of Linux itself, that stubbornness sometimes brought
you in conflict with other people. Talk about that a bit. Was that essential to sort of maintain
the quality of what was being built? How would you describe what happened? LT: I don’t know if it’s essential. Going back to the “I’m not
a people person,” — sometimes I’m also … shall we say, “myopic” when it comes
to other people’s feelings, and that sometimes makes you
say things that hurt other people. And I’m not proud of that. (Applause) But, at the same time, it’s — I get people who tell me
that I should be nice. And then when I try to explain to them
that maybe you’re nice, maybe you should be more aggressive, they see that as me being not nice. (Laughter) What I’m trying to say
is we are different. I’m not a people person; it’s not something
I’m particularly proud of, but it’s part of me. And one of the things
I really like about open source is it really allows different
people to work together. We don’t have to like each other — and sometimes we really
don’t like each other. Really — I mean, there are very,
very heated arguments. But you can, actually,
you can find things that — you don’t even agree to disagree, it’s just that you’re interested
in really different things. And coming back to the point
where I said earlier that I was afraid of commercial people
taking advantage of your work, it turned out, and very
quickly turned out, that those commercial people
were lovely, lovely people. And they did all the things that I was not
at all interested in doing, and they had completely different goals. And they used open source in ways
that I just did not want to go. But because it was open
source they could do it, and it actually works
really beautifully together. And I actually think
it works the same way. You need to have the people-people,
the communicators, the warm and friendly people who like — (Laughter) really want to hug you
and get you into the community. But that’s not everybody. And that’s not me. I care about the technology. There are people who care about the UI. I can’t do UI to save my life. I mean, if I was stranded on an island and the only way to get off that island
was the make a pretty UI, I’d die there. (Laughter) So there’s different kinds of people, and I’m not making excuses,
I’m trying to explain. CA: Now, when we talked last week, you talked about some
other trait that you have, which I found really interesting. It’s this idea called taste. And I’ve just got a couple of images here. I think this is an example of not
particularly good taste in code, and this one is better taste, which one can immediately see. What is the difference between these two? LT: So this is — How many people here actually have coded? CA: Oh my goodness. LT: So I guarantee you, everybody who raised their hand, they have done what’s called
a singly-linked list. And it’s taught — This, the first not very
good taste approach, is basically how it’s taught to be done
when you start out coding. And you don’t have to understand the code. The most interesting part to me is the last if statement. Because what happens
in a singly-linked list — this is trying to remove
an existing entry from a list — and there’s a difference
between if it’s the first entry or whether it’s an entry in the middle. Because if it’s the first entry, you have to change
the pointer to the first entry. If it’s in the middle, you have to change the pointer
of a previous entry. So they’re two completely different cases. CA: And that’s better. LT: And this is better. It does not have the if statement. And it doesn’t really matter — I don’t want you understand
why it doesn’t have the if statement, but I want you to understand that sometimes you can see
a problem in a different way and rewrite it so that
a special case goes away and becomes the normal case. And that’s good code. But this is simple code. This is CS 101. This is not important —
although, details are important. To me, the sign of people
I really want to work with is that they have good taste,
which is how … I sent you this stupid example that is not relevant
because it’s too small. Good taste is much bigger than this. Good taste is about really
seeing the big patterns and kind of instinctively knowing
what’s the right way to do things. CA: OK, so we’re putting
the pieces together here now. You have taste, in a way that’s meaningful
to software people. You’re — (Laughter) LT: I think it was meaningful
to some people here. CA: You’re a very smart computer coder, and you’re hellish stubborn. But there must be something else. I mean, you’ve changed the future. You must have the ability
of these grand visions of the future. You’re a visionary, right? LT: I’ve actually felt slightly
uncomfortable at TED for the last two days, because there’s a lot
of vision going on, right? And I am not a visionary. I do not have a five-year plan. I’m an engineer. And I think it’s really — I mean — I’m perfectly
happy with all the people who are walking around
and just staring at the clouds and looking at the stars
and saying, “I want to go there.” But I’m looking at the ground, and I want to fix the pothole
that’s right in front of me before I fall in. This is the kind of person I am. (Cheers) (Applause) CA: So you spoke to me last week
about these two guys. Who are they and how
do you relate to them? LT: Well, so this is kind
of cliché in technology, the whole Tesla versus Edison, where Tesla is seen as the visionary
scientist and crazy idea man. And people love Tesla. I mean, there are people who name
their companies after him. (Laughter) The other person there is Edison, who is actually often vilified
for being kind of pedestrian and is — I mean, his most famous quote is, “Genius is one percent inspiration
and 99 percent perspiration.” And I’m in the Edison camp, even if people don’t always like him. Because if you actually compare the two, Tesla has kind of this mind
grab these days, but who actually changed the world? Edison may not have been a nice person, he did a lot of things — he was maybe not so intellectual, not so visionary. But I think I’m more
of an Edison than a Tesla. CA: So our theme at TED
this week is dreams — big, bold, audacious dreams. You’re really the antidote to that. LT: I’m trying to dial it down a bit, yes. CA: That’s good. (Laughter) We embrace you, we embrace you. Companies like Google and many
others have made, arguably, like, billions of dollars
out of your software. Does that piss you off? LT: No. No, it doesn’t piss me off
for several reasons. And one of them is, I’m doing fine. I’m really doing fine. But the other reason is — I mean, without doing the whole
open source and really letting go thing, Linux would never have been what it is. And it’s brought experiences
I don’t really enjoy, public talking, but at the same time,
this is an experience. Trust me. So there’s a lot of things going on
that make me a very happy man and thinking I did the right choices. CA: Is the open source idea — this is, I think we’ll end here — is the open source idea
fully realized now in the world, or is there more that it could go, are there more things that it could do? LT: So, I’m of two minds there. I think one reason open source
works so well in code is that at the end of the day, code tends to be somewhat black and white. There’s often a fairly good way to decide, this is done correctly
and this is not done well. Code either works or it doesn’t, which means that there’s less
room for arguments. And we have arguments despite this, right? In many other areas — I mean, people have talked about
open politics and things like that — and it’s really hard sometimes to say that, yes, you can apply the same
principles in some other areas just because the black and white
turns into not just gray, but different colors. So, obviously open source in science
is making a comeback. Science was there first. But then science ended up
being pretty closed, with very expensive journals
and some of that going on. And open source is making
a comeback in science, with things like arXiv and open journals. Wikipedia changed the world, too. So there are other examples, I’m sure there are more to come. CA: But you’re not a visionary, and so it’s not up to you to name them. LT: No. (Laughter) It’s up to you guys to make them, right? CA: Exactly. Linus Torvalds, thank you for Linux,
thank you for the Internet, thank you for all those Android phones. Thank you for coming here to TED
and revealing so much of yourself. LT: Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “The mind behind Linux | Linus Torvalds

  1. Lessor footnote in history … Linus, former business partner long long long ago in a school far far away, stole my code!

  2. Stop comparing Linus to Steve Jobs. Jobs was a business man Wozniak was the genius.

  3. linus is real musk)) w/o hype, just for fun – the way it is gotta be! message for you young linusess!!!

  4. damn i respect that "i don't have a 5 year plan, i'm an engineer". Fucking respect Torvalds

  5. youtube should provide the data how many comments stating "changing the world" or "he is as great as jobs" are actually sent by mac or windows

  6. I wish I had never seen this.the creator of Linux is more of an edison person. such a shame. omg i was in love with linux but ..

  7. One interesting thing I though of when watching this was how much implications him growing in Finland had on Linus developing his abilities to the full extent. Finns are fairly introverted culturally with lots of value on education, so I guess being a nerd and on the spectrum wasn't that big deal for him. And I can't help but would how would he fare if he went to your run-of-the-mill american school where they force you to be extraverted, being nerd is a total bottom of social ladder and football team jocks abuse you all the way?

  8. I would really love to switch to Linux from Windows but my steam library is holding me back…

  9. I know he is directly responsible for bringing open source to the interent…fantastic.

  10. Hey Linus, why does git have stupid names when it comes to options that you can pass to it?

  11. "There are even people who name their companies after him"
    Killed me 😂😂

  12. He codes alone with his cat and doesn't like people. He's like Dr. Evil.

  13. I use both Linux Ubuntu and Windows on my PC. Ubuntu for programming, Windows for normal usage (;

  14. Linux said that there's an "end goal" but after 25 years, he didn't reach his "end goal" yet… What was his "end goal" or Linux's "end goal"? Anyone know? I wonder why the interviewer did not interrupt and ask for clarification on it.

  15. Linus Torvalds really don't like sweds yet Sweden rely heavely on technology he has final aproval over in everything from smartphones to servers. That is not wise.

  16. This is so interesting to me. Why is that one guy like Linus, who is obviously smart but says himself that he's not that "exceptional", invents Linux AND Git and tangibly touches the lives of literally every single person who will ever use a computer in our day, but also likely for many centuries into the future? His work and ideas will affect architectural and practical trends for a huge period of time, and because computing is such a revolutionary thing that is already beginning to transcend every area of our society, his ideas will probably, in an indirect way, even influence culture outside of the technical community. Is it just because he "wouldn't let go" of programming, had a gift for it, and happened to be on the early side of the adoption curve?

    This is fascinating. How can we be like this? How can we affect others for as much good as he has, although he is obviously a relatively poor communicator and wants to avoid people. Do we, like the book Outliers, have to relegate all this simply to the "chance" structure of our cumulative situation? Maybe, but I doubt it.

  17. man this guy is why I use Linux, honest good man instead of greedy shady inc

  18. Linus change the world, making it free for all IT! He is a it GOD in the IT community!

  19. While being new to the Linux environment (and still using more Windows than MacOS) Linux seems actually pretty awesome.and while I’m not using Ubuntu(ElementaryOS) i am pretty ok to say I have him to thank for everything.

  20. microsoft in 2000
    microsoft: "linux is like cancer"
    microsoft in 2019
    microsoft: we are co devs of linux

  21. Watch 'Rowan Atkinson – Interview with Elton John' and tell me Torvalds Linus resembles John Elton not 😛

  22. "Everyone's looking at the stars, saying 'I want to go there,' while I'm looking at the ground, and I want to fix the pothole that's right in front of me before I fall in."

    I swear, I could live by every word that comes out of this man's mouth.

  23. Devs out there just make sure you right a program that counts how much reps you do when exercising

  24. Dont forget that windows gave the light to coding world and he made ,also inspire linus trovolds to do it so. linus trovald u r the next genious after bilgates.

  25. I am probably the only one that didn't like that interview. It was like something People Magazine put on as opposed to Wired Magazine. But that is the TED schtick.

  26. what's interesting is nice people are being told to be even nicer and in the off chance that they get angry, people get uncomfortable. On the other hand, rude people are never told they should be nice cause i guess people just give up on them.

  27. Amazing that the moderator couldn't manage to pronounce "Linus" properly, especially right after saying the rhyming "Linux"; things like that are why Linus doesn't like people very much. 😁 Also, never occurred to me until I watched this video that pudgy Tux the penguin may have been physically modeled after Torvalds. 🐧

  28. I'm from HOnduras and let me say somenthing, l linux' fanatic but I user novel it's great OS, I don't know if is better than windows. but Linux its for those person whom want experiment

  29. I think git might even have changed the world more than Linux. I freaking love Linux, but OS were around before and we'd probably have ok-ish OS options with or without Linux. But git really makes almost all modern software possible and there wasn't and isn't an alternative around.

  30. Bill gates earned hundreds of billions thru windows closed source and then doing philanthropy.
    Linus gave the Linux free as open source making computers accessible to billions of people. There will be no Android and smart phone revolution without Linux

  31. I woudn't expect to see any dislike for such a great person like Linus Torvalds. Thank you, Linus, for your amazing work.

  32. This is my simple eq" thoughts(must be postive) >words>action>habit>character>Destiny "

  33. It's bad enough we have to see so many ads everywhere we go, but when you put an ad in the middle of the content I am viewing, I will make certain that I will not EVER buy that product/service! Put ads at front or end, but not mixed in the middle. >:(

  34. I love how he accepts and uses his uniqueness for everyone. It's very inspiring to be myself and try my best.

  35. Cool that he did the talk even though he does not like this kind of situation.
    You don't need to be brave if you are not scared.

  36. I'd just like to interject for moment. What you're refering to as Linux, is in fact, GNU/Linux, or as I've recently taken to calling it, GNU plus Linux. Linux is not an operating system unto itself, but rather another free component of a fully functioning GNU system made useful by the GNU corelibs, shell utilities and vital system components comprising a full OS as defined by POSIX.

    Many computer users run a modified version of the GNU system every day, without realizing it. Through a peculiar turn of events, the version of GNU which is widely used today is often called Linux, and many of its users are not aware that it is basically the GNU system, developed by the GNU Project.

    There really is a Linux, and these people are using it, but it is just a part of the system they use. Linux is the kernel: the program in the system that allocates the machine's resources to the other programs that you run. The kernel is an essential part of an operating system, but useless by itself; it can only function in the context of a complete operating system. Linux is normally used in combination with the GNU operating system: the whole system is basically GNU with Linux added, or GNU/Linux. All the so-called Linux distributions are really distributions of GNU/Linux!

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