Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Operating Systems Software Linux

Torvalds Says It's No Picnic To Become Major Linux Coder 222

Posted by CmdrTaco
Jack Spine writes "Linus Torvalds has given an interview to ZDNet.co.uk about the trials and tribulations of becoming a Linux kernel developer. 'Torvalds said that, while it is relatively easy for coders and organisations to contribute small patches, the contribution of large patches, developed in isolation, could lead to both new and established contributors becoming frustrated. "It's definitely not easy to become a 'big contributor'," wrote Torvalds. "For one thing, the kernel is quite complex and big, and it inevitably simply takes time to learn all the rules — not just for the code, but for how the whole development environment works. Similarly, for a new developer, it will take time before people start recognising the name and start trusting the developer to do the right things.""
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Torvalds Says It's No Picnic To Become Major Linux Coder

Comments Filter:
  • huh (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworld@nOSpAM.gmail.com> on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:44AM (#24645055) Homepage
    Similarly, for a new developer, it will take time before people start recognising the name and start trusting the developer to do the right things.

    In other words, it's hard because I make it hard.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I Agree. Coding a kernel is not trivial, we all know that. But sometimes it seems that core devs in Linux kernel are so self-sufficient they don't want anyone else really involved in the project. Or at least that's the opinion i've extracted along the years from mailing lists, interviews and whatnot. It's a luck they have been doing a good job until now.
      • by fictionpuss (1136565) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:59AM (#24645361)

        Qualify "luck". It seems to me that any large distributed development effort is going to require some sort of process - the anarchic development model isn't terribly successful.

        With that in mind, developing the Windows kernel requires you to be employed by Microsoft etc, whereas developing for the Linux kernel just requires you to follow some established open processes.

        What's the problem with that?

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          That's not a problem.
          What i was trying to say is that from time to time there are news that could drive to think that core dev team is full of egoes.

          And with 'luck' i was trying to say that I, as a linux user, am lucky that however they organize it works, wich is the whole point of it anyway.
          • by cervo (626632) on Monday August 18, 2008 @12:08PM (#24646511) Journal
            As further evidence of the egos, remember when Linus attempted to contribute the patches to Gnome as part of the Linus versus Gnome war?

            http://www.desktoplinux.com/news/NS8745257437.html [desktoplinux.com]

            Anyway he didn't start small at all. Go Ego :)
            • by GooberToo (74388) on Monday August 18, 2008 @02:07PM (#24648419)

              His experiences are far from unique. The problem is the gnome guys have huge egos and anyone offering suggestions are often meet with disdain.

              In the link provided above, it's not like Linus' comments are off base in the least. That's hardly egotistical. From the article it's obvious he already did the footwork. He already made an effort. The developers even confirmed it not only does not do what he wanted but they would not do it. He then went off to put his money where his mouth was. To summarize, this means Linus did the right thing and the Gnome developer are shamed and proved impotent, because of their own huge egos.

              While I much prefer Gnome to KDE, it has long been screwed over by ignorance and huge egos from none other than Gnome's own Miguel Icaza.

          • by x2A (858210)

            "I've fixed my scheduler so it does blah-blah... include it?"

            *tap* *tap* *tap*

            "ah it's okay, I see your improvement ideas, and I've added it to my schedular instead..."

            I do have to say I agree - sometimes that does appear to be the case.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Poltras (680608)

          By the time you are working on the Linux kernel as a contributor, you'd have accumulated enough knowledge/experience to get employed at Microsoft. I think at that point, it's more a matter of ideology.

          At Microsoft, working on the kernel pays as a fulltime job, while you still have to find a way to get money if you're just working on the Linux kernel as a hobby. And if you can get employed by some corp to get paid working on the Linux kernel, I'd think their employment standards would be comparable to MS's.

        • Although in some cases I've seen code that's more or less like this [stackoverflow.com]

    • Re:huh (Score:5, Insightful)

      by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:02AM (#24645403) Homepage Journal

      Nope.
      It is hard because.
      1. Programming is hard.
      2. System's programming is even harder.
      3. Kernel code is mission critical code which is really hard.
      4. When you are the new person it takes time before people trust that you know what you are doing.

      In other words it is just like everything else. The difference is that if you want to make changes to your Kernel you can. If you want to put up a site with your patches you can.
      If you want your code adopted in the "official" kernel you have to play by the rules and write good code.
      So it works exactly as it should and really can not work any other way.

      • Re:huh (Score:5, Insightful)

        by mr_mischief (456295) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:21AM (#24645697) Journal

        One additional point: don't try to take over a whole subsystem in one rewrite. Contribute small patches that are easily reviewed to get your feet wet and get noticed. Then, as you're better known and respected within the community, start scaling up your contributions.

        It works the same way in any open source community. The new guy who rewrites half the code all at once isn't going to get a review of his code. Show that you can do the small changes right first.

        Actually, it works this way in almost any cooperative group. You don't show up to your first meeting at Kiwanis, the Jaycees, or the Lions and start making resolutions. You don't sit in on drums once for a band and start telling them how to write songs. The US Senate even has a rotating term cycle so that there are always Senators with more experience to get the junior Senators acquainted with how things work.

        People who think they should suddenly be in charge of a large portion of an established organization they've just joined are showing signs of detachment from society or megalomania. If you've never contributed anything worthwhile, you're nobody special compared to the people who have been doing the work. Don't expect to be a big part of a group without being a small part first. Some people move up the ranks faster than others through skill and hard work, but everyone pays some dues.

        • Re:huh (Score:5, Insightful)

          by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:37AM (#24645991) Homepage Journal

          And the honest truth is that.
          Unless you are some kind of super prodigy or have years of experience writing systems code odds are your complete subsystem rewrite is total junk.
          It takes time to be good at anything.

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward

            And if you are a super prodigy, save yourself the heartache and just write your own OS. It's better than slowing yourself down to the same speed as the rest of the retards writing patches.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Just Some Guy (3352)

              And if you are a super prodigy, save yourself the heartache and just write your own OS. It's better than slowing yourself down to the same speed as the rest of the retards writing patches.

              The thing is that the Linux kernel (and in fact most other major FOSS projects) is packed with super prodigies. Each and every one of them has had to prove their chops before being handed the keys to the kingdom.

              There's an optimum level of ego in programmers. For example, if I didn't think I was one of the best, I wouldn't be able to do my job as brilliantly as I do. Still, once you pass that level you turn into someone like Hans Reiser. His personal problems aside, he was clearly an excellent programme

      • Re:huh (Score:5, Insightful)

        by v(*_*)vvvv (233078) on Monday August 18, 2008 @12:02PM (#24646407)

        I am no kernel developer, but I think Linus is getting at why "it works exactly as it should and really can not work any other way" has some demerits, and that it not being able to work any other way is why we are in a fix.

        In other words, it works as it should, but it is very slow, so how can we improve the process and make better patches faster?

        If the answer is that there is no better way, then that is a sad awakening for a lot of us, because it means precisely that Linux isn't going anywhere sooner than it has since the current state has been established.

        But there has to be a better way, and I think Linus is trying to find it, as are many others.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by LWATCDR (28044)

          Kernel development is actually doing just fine I think. Documented hardware gets added quickly to the Kernel and Kernel stability, performance, and security are all pretty good right now.
          I would still like to see to some drivers moved out the the kernel and into the user space and a stable binary driver interface but those are political and not technical issues.

          I think too many people are worried about the Kernel and not enough about the other projects that make Linux useful.
          Sound still has a lot of issues.

      • by phorm (591458)

        5. Sometimes you're working with things that are very poorly documented, or vendors that are somewhat wary or even hostile about providing full documentation to a FOSS project

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ivan256 (17499)

        Nope.

        It's hard because (ironically) it's easy.

        It's hard because there are so many talented programmers out there, and most of the problems are already very well defined. Most of the roles for major contributions are already filled. Many new roles are filled by people who get into that position because they have early access to hardware, etc...

        It's hard because it's not enough to be good (which is fairly easy), it's hard because you also have to be dedicated and political.

        You were right on with #4 though.

    • Re:huh (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Seakip18 (1106315) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:07AM (#24645515) Journal

      Would you let a doctor fresh out of med school slice and dice in heart surgeries?

      Would you let pilots start out flying fully loaded commercial jets?

      In my limited experience, you don't let a n00b make permanent or long-lasting changes till they have gotten their training wheels off and you know that the n00b knows what the fuck they are doing or at least understand what is going on.

      Not to say they couldn't be more welcoming to new developers, but a single bad line (sound familiar debian devs?) and a whole bunch of stuff could stop working.

      • Re:huh (Score:4, Informative)

        by fishbowl (7759) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:46AM (#24646131)

        >Would you let a doctor fresh out of med school slice and dice in heart surgeries?

        Yes, if that was their residency specialty. Do you know much about med school matriculation?

        • by Seakip18 (1106315)

          Just what little I've gleaned off my 3rd year friend. The reference isn't literal. I just figure you don't let a recent graduate start removing and inserting hearts into patients, kinda like "Oh..So how long have you been doing this? Ah...this is my first time."

    • Re:huh (Score:5, Insightful)

      by moderatorrater (1095745) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:18AM (#24645645)
      I just started a new job 2 weeks ago. I haven't touched any code other than two trivial patches to some HTML. I expect it'll be another 2 weeks before I touch any actual code, and it'll be a few months before I'll touch anything that customers rely on. This is the same process that happens everywhere, the difference being that in the Linux kernel it's more open and ability based.
    • Re:huh (Score:5, Funny)

      by b4dc0d3r (1268512) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:20AM (#24645677)

      Mod parent down. I don't recognize him, therefore he can't know what he's talking about.

  • by Neuroelectronic (643221) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:45AM (#24645079)
    Who is this No Picnic fellow? I don't believe there is a new major Linux contributer.
  • by EmbeddedJanitor (597831) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:48AM (#24645153)
    I considered, and once tried, pushing a file system into Linux. Unfortunately the fs does not have the right coding style and a few other things which make it hard to put into mainstream. Instead it just sits independently as a big patch which is pretty easy to apply by running a simple script.

    This suites everyone that uses it pretty fine, except for the purist "it's got to be in the mainline" folks. Realists just pull it from a public cvs and apply it with minimal effort.

    Although I might consider mainlining it again, for the moment the effort just is not worth it. The current model is workable for those that use it.

    • by Vellmont (569020) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:00AM (#24645379)


      Although I might consider mainlining it again, for the moment the effort just is not worth it. The current model is workable for those that use it.

      It sounds like your FS serves mostly a niche that isn't served by the mainline FSs. Call me a "purist", but I just don't have the time or inclination to re-compile my kernel. I did it many years ago to save a few kilobytes of memory when it was at a premium, but these days, why? If you don't care about keeping up on kernel patches and have some specific needs that aren't supplied by the mainstream kernel, then re-compiling is fine. But if not, then the mainstream kernels (vendor provided) wind up being a lot easier to work with.

      • by x2A (858210)

        meh, depends how you work. I run stuff that's out of tree. Changing a few settings and recompiling takes no time at all, cuz I have source code for everything in place. With a binary distro installed (as in, without all the dev packages / srpms) yeah, recompiling stuff is a PITA, which is why I avoid them like the plague. Whether it's getting vmware-any-any to work, using clustered block devices, out of tree graphics drivers, or changing configuration to stop some random locking problem from cropping up and

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by SpooForBrains (771537)

      Although I might consider mainlining it again

      Don't! A recent study found that kernel hacking is fifty time worse than heroin.

    • Out of interest, have you tried getting it accepted in any other kernels (*BSD, Solaris, and so on)? If not, have you ported it to use FUSE?
    • by Fweeky (41046)

      Does it really need to be patched in? On FreeBSD, kernel modules are often (well.. occasionally) distributed as ports which build a kernel module; no kernel patching, recompiles or reboots necessary. This is how FUSE is distributed, for example. Having a stable kernel API/ABI probably helps, but I'm quite sure I've built standalone Linux kernel modules before too.

  • by Dorkmaster Flek (1013045) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:48AM (#24645159)
    Kernel development is hard! Film at 11.
  • by scenestar (828656) * on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:48AM (#24645169) Homepage Journal

    And considering the widespread usage plus amount of people that rely on the Linux kernel to be stable and not explode in a horrible firestorm I can certainly understand that Linux kernel development requires a Stalinist approach.

    • by houghi (78078) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:27AM (#24645781)

      I am sure this goes for closed source as well. If the rookie comes in, he will also have to prove himself. The same goes for every other aspect in life.

      If are new into a group, it is to be expected that you have to prove yourself. Whether this is with your local gang, a family you are married into or a bunch of coders is irrelevant.

      Even Neo had to prove himself first. Each group will have its own rules and speed of how fast you are accepted. A group of drunk people in a bar might have a lower standard, but if you do not fit in, they will not accept you and will not listen to your sugestions, no matter how wise they are. (Stop drinking? Why? This is FREE BEER)

  • by Fnord666 (889225) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:55AM (#24645291) Journal

    "...and it inevitably simply takes time to learn all the rules..."

    1. Linus is always right
    2. If in doubt, see rule #1
  • Allegiances (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:57AM (#24645323)

    What happens if:

    1. Batman is more or less responsible for a big chunk of the kernel, e.g. the scheduler.

    2. Torvalds knows Batman, and knows that Batman is employed by Redhat to work on the scheduler.

    3. The Joker writes a new improved scheduler which has the potential to replace the old one.

    Now, how does Torvalds react? It would be hard to tell Batman that he's no longer in charge of the scheduler. Batman's job might be on the line - why would Redhat keep paying Batman if he suddenly had a lot less work to do? Maybe Torvalds met Batman a few times and had a beer with him, making it even harder to replace his work because it becomes personal. Torvalds could harm Batman's career.

    Surely this makes it hard to become a big new contributor? All the existing contributors already know eachother and they won't want to dump eachother's work.

    Am I right or am I right?

    • Re:Allegiances (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fictionpuss (1136565) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:07AM (#24645517)

      Am I right or am I right?

      You're a tautology.

      But let's take your unproven hypothetical as given for a second. If these sorts of decisions are being made, which provide technically inferior solutions for the Linux kernel.. then over time it will become obsolete.

      But way before then we'll all be using the nuLinux kernel which has all of "The Joker"s fancy code.

      In other words, F/OSS can take care of itself; we're just the dumb monkeys hitting random keys.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Actually, the parent was slightly overgenerous, because he mentioned only the case of Batman being a wholly nice guy (implied).

        The bigger problem occurs when Batman is a regular human with a large ego and a dislike for NIH code (or worse, Not Invented By Me code), rather than an objective engineer fully willing to accept that another developer has come up with something better.

        Although we heard about one high-profile case recently where this happened, with an outcome that was more political than based on en

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Kjella (173770)

          Although we heard about one high-profile case recently where this happened, with an outcome that was more political than based on engineering merits

          One of the worst things that could happen to a system is to be neglected. If someone's been around and doing their job ok for a long time, then you push him out for a someone new you want to be certain they'll take over the daily maintenance. As long as you're the "new subsystem" there's news, discussions, benchmarks, attention and glory. What happens when your system is established and accepted and there's just hard work and gritty detail? If you've been working for a while, you're bound to run into the ar

      • by Spatial (1235392)

        You're a tautology.

        I think it's more like an excluded middle, except he just thought "What the hell," and excluded the the sides too while he was at it. :)

    • by KasperMeerts (1305097) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:19AM (#24645671)
      You forgetting these are full-time kernel developers. They would offer their firstborn son in exchange for a 0.049% better scheduler if they could ever have partners.
    • by russotto (537200)

      What happens if:

      1. Batman is more or less responsible for a big chunk of the kernel, e.g. the scheduler.

        No fair using a counterfactual which is actually factual. That incident certainly shows that the process is broken. Just how many years do you have to work on a major kernel section and have your code out there being run by actual users in favor of the mainline before you're trusted?

    • by bigstrat2003 (1058574) * on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:31AM (#24645849)

      3. The Joker writes a new improved scheduler which has the potential to replace the old one.

      when (process.wantsToRun) {
      retort(process, "Why so serious!?");
      kill(process);
      }

      Very efficient. I like it.

    • by papabob (1211684) on Monday August 18, 2008 @12:11PM (#24646569)

      Can you explain your point of view with a car analogy, please?

  • by Stormwatch (703920) <rodrigogirao@hot[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:03AM (#24645451) Homepage

    For one thing, the kernel is quite complex and big

    If that's the problem, wouldn't it be easier to work on it if it was a microkernel?

    • Re:Andy's revenge (Score:5, Interesting)

      by 0xABADC0DA (867955) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:56AM (#24646313)

      Seriously though, the problem with microkernels is that they (in theory) help the system cope with mistakes but they don't help prevent mistakes in the first place. Each component in a microkernel is isolated from others using memory protection, but they can still corrupt themselves or crash themselves.

      There's very few parts of the kernel that actually need pointer arithmetic, unsafe casts, or for that matter need to operate particularly quickly. You don't have to believe me just look at the code. Open up some random source files from the kernel and look for pointer math, unsafe casts. Figuring out what locks are held when is harder, but can be done (performance being more important when locks are held).

      Microkernels are solving the wrong problem. They should be focussed on preventing the errors in the first place not on recovering from them. So, a 'safe kernel' that is mostly written in a language that prevents errors, such as Limbo/Dis or for that matter Java or C#. That would be much easier to work on and an improvement over Linux style kernels.

    • Re:Andy's revenge (Score:4, Insightful)

      by serviscope_minor (664417) on Monday August 18, 2008 @12:40PM (#24647031) Journal

      If that's the problem, wouldn't it be easier to work on it if it was a microkernel?

      Yes. Fortunately linux is half way to being a microkernel now. I can personally attest that writing a user-space file system (eg in FUSE) is vastly easier and quicker than hacking (let alone writing) a filesystem in the kernel.

      The evidence is on my side. Look at how many filesystems Linux supports, and count how many are in FUSE, versus how many are in the kernel.

  • by Rik Sweeney (471717) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:06AM (#24645505) Homepage

    Surely you only need to know a bunch of C keywords and you should be set. Here's the bunch I know

    malloc
    free
    <<
    >>
    ++
    --
    That star thingy I see every now and again.

    I might have a look at this so called complicated kernel later :)

  • Wisdumb (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stonecypher (118140) <stonecypher&gmail,com> on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:13AM (#24645591) Homepage Journal

    It's no picnic to become a major anything. Major people are people who have differentiated themselves from minor people. The means by which they've done that is to do something that's more difficult, which the other people cannot do. This is a tautology masquerading as wisdom.

  • by MostAwesomeDude (980382) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:38AM (#24646003) Homepage

    Just walk in, sit down, and lurk. Don't write code, just read code. Analyze what patches do. Start small.

    You don't have to be friends with developers, but you shouldn't be trying to make enemies. You're dealing with highly rational people here, so keep a level head. Don't bug a developer about what a piece of code does until you study it thoroughly, and don't be surprised if they'd rather tell you about what it's supposed to do instead of what it currently does.

    ~ C.

  • No picnic (Score:2, Funny)

    by Captain Spam (66120)

    Of course it's no picnic to become a major Linux coder. It takes two luncheons, a dinner date, three nonconsecutive brunches, and an order of take-out to do that!

  • by mkcmkc (197982) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:57AM (#24646321)

    Although coming up to speed technically can involve a lot of work, it is at least a fairly predictable process. The larger and more mysterious challenge is figuring out how to get things done within a project's culture and bureaucracy. This entails figuring out who the powers-that-be are for different aspects of the project, what their preferences are (whether justified or capricious whim), and what kinds of submissions they will accept.

    Recall, for example, the Linux CML2 fiasco. Eric Raymond is a bit on the obnoxious and arrogant side, IMO, but even without looking closely at CML2, I'm ready to believe that it was probably a worthy improvement to the Linux kernel. But nonetheless it got nixed, and apparently not for technical reasons. I'm sure he found this quite frustrating.

    In my experience with Open Source projects, I notice that I often have luck getting patches that fix clearcut bugs in. Patches that fix broken design points, even exceedingly minor ones, are more problematic, perhaps because they're not seen as worth the bother, or because the PTB are simply used to the way things are, NIH syndrome, etc.

    Major changes are even worse, as they present a serious challenge to the self-evaluation of the people that created the system being changed. I'm reminded of a quote: Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to shove them down people's throats.

  • Firstly, this applies to any project out there. Secondly, it applies to people already in the team. I run a project and have persuaded the main contributors (ie those with CVS write access) tp prefre many small changes to one big blob. It's easier to follow what has happened in CVS for one thing, and it's easier for other devs to scan through the auto-diffs on the mailing list.

  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Monday August 18, 2008 @12:23PM (#24646787)

    Similarly, for a new developer, it will take time before people start recognising the name and start trusting the developer to do the right things.

    Simply Photoshop [slashdot.org] yourself into a few choice picts with Linus and start blathering on about "spin locks" or some such stuff...

  • Gee wiz (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Abcd1234 (188840) on Monday August 18, 2008 @01:50PM (#24648145) Homepage

    So the Linux kernel is developed like every major software project that's ever existed.

    How completely and utterly unremarkable.

  • Relativistic physics "quite difficult" claims Stephen Hawking.

    Rocket Science "harder than you might think" says NASA chief.
  • by Opportunist (166417) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @01:16AM (#24654969)

    'scuse me, but does this have to be said? You don't come into a new project and take the lead of a critical component. Duh. Really? Usually I hand the guy of who I know nothing but some nickname the responsibility of making-or-breaking my project...

    Is that some sort of consultant thing? Everyone knows that it's right, but it has no merit until His Holyness blessed it?

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the demigodic party. -- Dennis Ritchie

Working...