This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a year now. It has never been the right time to post this. I have always been worried about the backlash. I’ve skirted around talking about this issue publicly for some time, but not acknowledging the elephant in the room has eaten away at me a bit. So, here goes.
Here’s the deal: I’m not a Linux kernel developer any more. I quietly transferred the maintainership of the USB 3.0 host controller driver in May 2014. In January 2015, I stepped down from being the Linux kernel coordinator for the FOSS Outreach Program for Women (OPW), and moved up to help coordinate the overall Outreachy program. As of December 6 2014, I gave what I hope is my last presentation on Linux kernel development. I was asked to help coordinate the Linux Plumbers Conference in Seattle in August 2015, and I said no. My Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board (TAB) term is soon over, and I will not be running for re-election.
Given the choice, I would never send another patch, bug report, or suggestion to a Linux kernel mailing list again. My personal boxes have oopsed with recent kernels, and I ignore it. My current work on userspace graphics enabling may require me to send an occasional quirks kernel patch, but I know I will spend at least a day dreading the potential toxic background radiation of interacting with the kernel community before I send anything.
I am no longer a part of the Linux kernel community.
This came about after a very long period of thought, and a lot of succession planning. I didn’t take the decision to step down lightly. I felt guilty, for a long time, for stepping down. However, I finally realized that I could no longer contribute to a community where I was technically respected, but I could not ask for personal respect. I could not work with people who helpfully encouraged newcomers to send patches, and then argued that maintainers should be allowed to spew whatever vile words they needed to in order to maintain radical emotional honesty. I did not want to work professionally with people who were allowed to get away with subtle sexist or homophobic jokes. I feel powerless in a community that had a “Code of Conflict” without a specific list of behaviors to avoid and a community with no teeth to enforce it.
I have the utmost respect for the technical efforts of the Linux kernel community. They have scaled and grown a project that is focused on maintaining some of the highest coding standards out there. The focus on technical excellence, in combination with overloaded maintainers, and people with different cultural and social norms, means that Linux kernel maintainers are often blunt, rude, or brutal to get their job done. Top Linux kernel developers often yell at each other in order to correct each other’s behavior.
That’s not a communication style that works for me. I need communication that is technically brutal but personally respectful. I need people to correct my behavior when I’m doing something wrong (either technically or socially) without tearing me down as a person. We are human. We make mistakes, and we correct them. We get frustrated with someone, we over-react, and then we apologize and try to work together towards a solution.
I would prefer the communication style within the Linux kernel community to be more respectful. I would prefer that maintainers find healthier ways to communicate when they are frustrated. I would prefer that the Linux kernel have more maintainers so that they wouldn’t have to be terse or blunt.
Sadly, the behavioral changes I would like to see in the Linux kernel community are unlikely to happen any time soon. Many senior Linux kernel developers stand by the right of maintainers to be technically and personally brutal. Even if they are very nice people in person, they do not want to see the Linux kernel communication style change.
What that means is they are privileging the emotional needs of other Linux kernel developers (to release their frustrations on others, to be blunt, rude, or curse to blow off steam) over my own emotional needs (the need to be respected as a person, to not receive verbal or emotional abuse). There’s an awful power dynamic there that favors the established maintainer over basic human decency.
I’m not posting this for kernel developers. I’m not posting this to point fingers at specific people. I’m posting this because I grieve for the community that I no longer want to be a part of. I’m posting this because I feel sad every time someone thanks me for standing up for better community norms, because I have essentially given up trying to change the Linux kernel community. Cultural change is a slow, painful process, and I no longer have the mental energy to be an active part of that cultural change in the kernel.
I have hope that the Linux kernel community will change over time. I have been a part of that change, and the documentation, tutorials, and the programs that I’ve started (like the Outreachy kernel internships) will continue to grow in my absence. Maybe I’ll be back some day, when things are better. I have a decades long career in front of me. I can wait. In the meantime, there’s other, friendlier open source communities for me to play in.
When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.
– Alexander Graham Bell
(FYI, comments will be moderated by someone other than me. As this is my blog, not a government entity, I have the right to replace any comment I feel like with “fart fart fart fart”. Don’t expect any responses from me either here or on social media for a while; I’ll be offline for at least a couple days.)
Edit: I would highly recommend you read my follow-up post, “What makes a good community”