Linus Torvalds is not the shy and retiring type, to put it mildly. In the decades since he developed the Linux kernel, he’s become famous for his profanity-laced broadsides into various groups and people who have attracted his ire—if you want a small taste, check out his comments about chip manufacturer Nvidia in this video (the fun starts at the 49:37 mark, and concludes with Torvalds making that lovely gesture in the screen-capture above).
That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, really: Torvalds is notorious for blowing up at other developers on message threads (“What the [EXPLETIVE], guys?”), taking shots at the Slashdot community (“Slashdot people usually are smelly and eat their boogers, and have an IQ slightly lower than my daughters pet hamster”), and generally creating the impression that he has a hair-trigger temper.
And now he’s really sorry about all of it. Really.
In a Sept. 16 message to the Linux community, Torvalds wrote:
“I am not an emotionally empathetic kind of person and that probably doesn’t come as a big surprise to anybody. Least of all me. The fact that I then misread people and don’t realize (for years) how badly I’ve judged a situation and contributed to an unprofessional environment is not good.”
“The above is basically a long-winded way to get to the somewhat painful personal admission that hey, I need to change some of my behavior, and I want to apologize to the people that my personal behavior hurt and possibly drove away from kernel development entirely.”
Torvalds plans on “taking some time off” and will “get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.” Presumably that means less profanity directed at developers, conference attendees, and various tech firms.
This is a good excuse to remind every tech pro out there: It doesn’t pay to be a jerk, even if you’re an influential genius whose code has changed the world. Indeed, within the tech industry, there’s a growing emphasis on “soft skills”: Communication, empathy, and the ability to listen to others’ concerns and arguments.
Having those skills can even give you an advantage in the job hunt, especially when it comes to younger workers. Last year, a McKinsey study found that 40 percent of employers had difficulty filling vacancies because younger workers lack soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and punctuality. A PayScale survey released at roughly the same time arrived at similar conclusions, with managers focusing on leadership and ownership as skills lacking among Millennials. If you can demonstrate that you’re a “team player” (and yes, that term is a horrible cliché), you’re positioned well to land the gig you want.
Granted, there’s a considerable distance between “just” being mediocre at communicating with co-workers, and flambéing them with profanity that would give a sailor a heart attack. Even so, there’s a big lesson to take from Torvalds’s apology: Being negative and unprofessional will eventually catch up with you, no matter who you are.