Ex-Maintainer Bemoans Linux Kernel Community’s ‘Toxic Background Radiation’

Longtime Linux kernel developer Sarah Sharp last week published a blog post detailing her reasons for quitting the Linux kernel community.

Sharp maintained the USB 3.0 host controller driver until January, when she decided to leave rather than continue to “contribute to a community where I was technically respected, but I could not ask for personal respect,” she wrote.

Among her concerns:

  • Maintainers often were blunt, rude or brutal, spewing vile words;
  • People were allowed to get away with sexist and homophobic jokes;
  • The Code of Conflict lacked both specificity and teeth; and
  • Senior kernel developers defended the “right” of maintainers to indulge in verbal and emotional abuse in order to release their own frustrations.

And So It Goes

While it has shone a light on a problem that others previously have pointed out, Sharp’s resignation may do little to change the status quo.

“She is not the first person to quit the Linux kernel community over toxicity issues, and we have not seen much change when this has happened in the past,” observed Robert Treat, CEO of OmniTI.

“While she is fairly well respected within the open source community — which makes this a more visible case for sure, I think — you would need a larger and more abrupt exodus of developers to truly have a large impact,” he told LinuxInsider.

Linux creator Linus Torvalds is famous for his take-no-prisoners attitude.

“Some would point to that as a weakness in his leadership style, but in other cases we look at folks who take a ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ approach and we praise them. At the moment there is no comparison to the Linux project in terms of success, so it is hard to argue with the results,” Treat said.

The community’s problems involve a complexity of issues that are not just about management style, he noted. They include cultural and national differences as well.

New Old Boys’ Club

The issues Sharp raised aren’t limited to the Linux kernel community. They’re a problem in the tech sector in general, and the larger Linux community in particular, suggested Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

The Linux community is less a hotbed of revolutionaries than a hangout for folks who cannot behave civilly — particularly toward women, he said.

“It is kind of a new old boys’ club. There are a lot of corporations that have zero-tolerance rules on the books for this kind of behavior, and I doubt it will be long before some enterprising HR attorneys figure out this could be a massive gold mine for wrongful termination and hostile workplace lawsuits,” Enderle told LinuxInsider.

Sharp works for Intel, which has strict rules regarding behavior, particularly given its public position promoting women in tech, he pointed out.

The Linux kernel community’s behavior reflects a social perspective that’s still largely in the dark ages, Enderle added.

Linux at a Crossroads

If community members feel so abused that leaving becomes a trend, then Linux could have a problem. Maybe changing the kernel community’s culture is key to heading that off.

“Linux has two markets it needs to worry about: a steady stream of users, and a steady stream of new developers,” said Treat.

As Linux goes, so goes a lot of open source, he added.

However, as long as businesses, consumers and contributors continue to prop up Linux as the dominant player in the open source ecosystem, the community may not have to change, Treat noted.

“This is not to say that there are not plenty of alternatives to these toxic communities,” he added, “so if you are into open source development — as a consumer or contributor — I would encourage you to seek out more welcoming communities.”

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear. You can connect with him onGoogle+.

3 Comments

  • I AM glad that linux is free from the corporate nonsense . I AM glad that linux is a toxic environment for the corporation feminist bitching and the perpetually offended progressives .

    • @ Jondoe: your comments indicate that you are either a Troll or a Neanderthal…neither which the Linux community needs. Your lack of empathy for others is a sad commentary on your upbringing.

      • The last thing that the Linux community needs is attention whoring , feminist bitching , progressive victimization ans social justice warriors . The last thing that the linux community needs is the introduction of corporate nonsense culture, much less from intel. Didn’t you read the article? Linux does not need that crap in order to be great and successful . All it needs is talented people in technical terms , there’s no need to impose a certain culture from a certain corporation, Linux is much more diverse than that and it should stay that way . So i AM glad that Linux is toxic for these "Elen Paos" that bring nothing more than uncalled and unnecessary associations of liabilities with women

        If you are not able to tolerate other cultures, and that is non progressive and gynocentrists , then you are free to go . If you want to impose your own culture, then good luck with that .

        And since you decided to start personal attacks here, i decided that i have zero empathy and sympathy for retarded trolls like you .

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