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Nikolai Bezroukov. Portraits of Open Source Pioneers
For readers with high sensitivity to grammar errors access to this page is not recommended :-)
We wanted to interview Linus Torvalds because all the computers at our school run Linux. Mr. Torvalds lives in our neighborhood so we sent him an email and asked for an interview.
So what happens when Linus Torvalds sits down with a high school freshman for an interview? You get to hear what every 15 year-old wants to know about our favorite open source software developer.
Linus Torvalds Q & A, by Anthony Q.
Q: What is something you want the public to know about Linux or yourself?
Linus: “Not a lot, I usually keep a low profile. I try to concentrate on the technical side. The nicest thing is that because Linux is open source, I don’t do any of the marketing stuff and I’ve never had a company around Linux. Other people have made companies around Linux. That means that I don’t have any incentive to go and spread the word.”
Q: Did you ever imagine that you would become a famous computer programmer?
Linus: “No. When I grew up I actually wanted to be a scientist, I mean everyone dreams of being something. Being a famous scientist, when I was a teenager, was my goal in life. I guess it's close enough. It was more of a daydream.”
Q: What was your first computer?
Linus: “My first computer was a (were not that common in the US) commodore VIC 20 which ran at one megahertz, not gigahertz, megahertz, and had 3 ˝ kilobytes of memory. In many ways it was a very simple (computer) one. It’s much easier to get into computers when they are simple, so you can understand exactly what they are doing.”
Q: Who was your idol when you were growing up, and is it the same now?
Linus: “I didn’t have any particular one person, but if I had to pick one I would say Isaac Newton. The reason is I grew up in a family of journalists and scientists, and to some degree, it was the scientist side that I was thinking of. No rock stars or anything like that.”
Q: What do you like/dislike about the Riverdale school district?
Linus: “I’m not very familiar, because my wife takes care of that stuff and helps around the grade school. Anyway we used to have the kids in private school in California, and the reason I wanted the kids to be in public school is I like the fact that people in the same neighborhood would be their buddies which has worked out really well.”
Q: When did you know that Linux was going to “take off”?
Linus: “For me it was actually a long time ago. I started doing Linux in 1991 and in early ’92, when I had done it for less than a year, there were already over 100 people using it. It sounds like a small number, but for me personally it went from something that I used on my own computer and had some friends try out, to having over 100 people I didn’t know using it. That for me was the biggest step. After that it has obviously grown, but just growth.
Q: What was your best memory of high school?
Linus: “I don’t know. I actually enjoyed school very much, but I was never really a very good student. I got good grades but it was mostly the social side of high school, it wasn’t just one single event. Some people hate high school I actually enjoyed it, and like university even more.
Q: What do you want to achieve in life?
Linus: “My goal is to do something fun and interesting, that makes a difference, and Linux has been all of that. In that sense I’ve achieved it and just want to continue it. It doesn’t have to be Linux, but just do something interesting. It doesn’t have to be something that helps people out, like I did Linux because it was fun and interesting, but I want to be relevant.
Q: What do you want Linux to become or what is your final image?
Linus: “I don’t have one. It’s a huge advantage, because Linux outgrew anything I ever wanted it to be so long ago. I don’t have a vision on where I want it (Linux) to go, I’m perfectly happy having other people give input on what they think is the problem which is great with a project like Linux. The fact that I don’t have a tunnel vision on where I want it to go means that I can collaborate with everyone, because I think it is cool how different people have different notions of what they think is the right thing to do.
Q: What can kids my age (15) or younger do for Linux?
Linus: “Programming, not necessarily, because you need to learn about the system first. I think that’s what it boils down to. The best thing you can do is get into it and do whatever comes natural. What I did when I started was program small games for myself. You don’t start with, 'Hey there’s a big project and I want to get involved.' You start off doing things that interest you. If you end up using Linux and learning the system, eventually you’ll get to the point where you’ll notice, 'Hey that doesn’t do what I want it to do' and you’ll fix it yourself.
Q: How can we help Linux grow?
Linus: “Linux growing isn’t the point, but I think It will happen as long as we keep the technology better, and that’s what I’m doing. The most important thing is use it, and helping other people use it. A lot of people find computers scary. Not Linux per se but computers in general and technology.
Q: How many emails do you get from fans and how do you deal with them?
Linus: “I deal with them mostly by ignoring them. I get too much email and the way I handle it is by just prioritizing it, very roughly. I only answer the stuff that I feel I must personally answer which tends to be technical stuff.”
Q: How many emails about technical questions do you get?
Linus: “It's not that much. I actually know people who get more than I do.”
Q: I heard that you have some people in front of you that answer questions like that. If they can't answer it, it's then sent to you?
Linus: “Right, and also, I don't encourage people to send me emails. I am only really in dialog with people that are really technical, which really cuts down on a long email. I think I get something like 50 personal emails a day, and they all tend to be really technical. The people that email me tend to be the 'lieutenants around me.' I'm on a mailing list, the kernel mailing list. The mailing lists are a couple hundred emails a day, but they're not personal to me so I don't read them all.”
Q: Who helped in influencing you to keep making improvements to Linux?
Linus: “It hasn't been a single person per say, I mean it's been all the developers around me. The biggest motivational factor is just that people are using it. Having people give input on the issues helps too. It's mostly the community.”
Q: What was it like dating a martial arts champion?
Linus: “Tove actually stopped doing martial arts by the time we started dating. I've not seen her do a lot of martial arts. It didn't make a huge difference.”
Q: Were you considered a nerd in high school?
Linus: “I was absolutely considered a nerd in high school. Not in a bad way, but I was known as the guy who always did good in math. I did have glasses, but no tape.”
Q: What's the best part about you, your life, and your job?
Linus: “About my job its the fact that I'm self-motivated and I do what I want to do which very few people can actually do that. I actually consider most of my work to be my hobby. It's wonderful when you're good at your hobby and you get paid to do it.”
Q: How do you make a living?
Linus: “Right now, I actually get a perfectly regular salary which is for this industry, which helps companies that use Linux and want to make sure Linux succeeds. (I work for the) Open Source Development Lab (OSDL) and I'm just a regular employee.”
Q: What did you want your job to be when you were in elementary school?
Linus: “One of the people who influenced me was my grandpa who was a professor at Helsinki University and I really thought that I was going to be a professor at that university.
Q: What are some funny things that happened to you or, that you did, when making Linux?
Linus: “Really early on when I was making Linux, one of the things I was really doing was reading Internet news from the university computer. I was dialing up to the university, I usually got a busy signal, so I programed an auto dialer. It would dial and if it got a busy signal, it would wait a minute then redial. I wasn't using Linux full time yet but was still using it. By mistake, I auto dialed my hard disc and basically I overwrote the operating system with the dial strings. So I had to decide if I would reinstall the OS I was using or start using Linux full time. I said OK, that's a sign, I'll start using Linux full time.”
Q: How did you come up with the name TUX, and how did you come up with the name Linux?
Linus: “Tux I actually never came up with, I came up with the logo, but it never had a name. It's really short for Tuxedo. Linux was my working name for the system. I thought it was unprofessional to name it after myself. It was going to be released as Freeaks Free was for Free and also freaks for freaks. I didn't actually have a website of my own, this was before web sites. It was an FTP site. The guy who set it up didn't like the name Freeaks because he thought it was too unprofessional. I'm actually happy it was named Linux because it was unprofessional.”
Q: Is it hard to get Linux hackers (programmers) to work together?
Linus: “There are a lot of really good programmers that have a hard time communicating.
I consider one of my jobs to be a channel between different people. What helps is that the community has worked up. It can be interesting.”
Q: What be in the new 2.8 Kernel?
Linus: “I don't know. We haven't made a 2.7 yet which is the unstable version because most people are really happy with the 2.6. The only reason would be more technology. So far we are just getting along because people are pretty happy.”
Q: What is your favorite website?
Q: What is your favorite computer game?
Linus: “I don't really play a lot of games. I have PS2 and I played Prince of Persia. When Doom came out, I played it because there was a Linux client and I played for about three months.”
Q: What kind of questions do you like to be asked?
Linus: “I talk to journalists a lot, and I find the slightly aggressive questions, where they try to put me on the spot. They aren't the greatest ones but I find them much more interesting.”
Q: What are your future plans with life and also with Linux?
Linus: “I try not to have a plan too far ahead. They way I work is what ends up happening is what people complain about, maybe not complain but the issues they bring up month to month.”
When I first emailed Linus I was expecting to get a quick interview on how he made Linux and how he was this new Bill Gates. As I learned more and more about Linux and the community around it, which I now participate in, I learned that Linus is really there to help develop the new kernels so that people will enjoy Linux and have a say in it. I wanted to ask questions that he might want to be asked and wanted the public to know rather than create a whole biography on his life. What it boiled down to, was that I wanted to concentrate on now and not so much the past. I also wanted to get questions from his fans like, “What is your favorite website, What was your first computer and what was it like dating a martial arts champion?” This made it so that not just our school would want to read the interview, but the whole Linux community.
I want to Thank Linus for the opportunity to interview him and hope we can do it again in a few years to see what has changed.
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