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.”