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Jim Zemlin at TEDx: What We've Learned from Linus Torvalds


Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin is likely one of a handful of people in the world who has had a front row seat to the largest collaborative development effort in the history of computing, Linux. He understands that speed of innovation and quality of software development is dictated by forward thinkers who are working in collaboration.

That is why he was recently invited to speak at TEDx about what the technology industry has learned from Linux, and specifically its creator Linus Torvalds, and how some of those lessons can be applied to a variety of efforts and projects across geographies and disciplines. 

Linux has been pretty successful and the TEDx audience was eager to learn how it has achieved such success and how they could apply some of the Linux community's best practices to their own work. In true Zemlin style, the lessons seemed a little surprising at first but as he elaborated, the audience soon understood how Linux has become the largest shared technology resource known to man. It runs the Internet, our smartphones, televisions, the world's high performance computing systems and eight out of 10 of the world's stock exchanges. It's literally the foundation for our global economy, he explained.

He attributes the success of Linux during his talk to four primary principles:

Don't Dream Big

Zemlin quotes poet David Frost in his first point about not dreaming big: "Don't aim for success if that's what you want. Do what you love and believe in and it will follow." This is exactly what Linus Torvalds did when he put his Linux operating system on the Internet in 1991 and said he didn't think it would be much, just something he was doing for fun. 

Give It All Away

Zemlin also makes an important point about how companies make money from software that is given away. By giving Linux away, Linus Torvalds and the entire Linux community have created more value than anyone could have imagined. Linux today is estimated to be worth more than $10B. IBM and Red Hat continue to see increasing shareholder value, while companies using largely closed development models have seen little return to their shareholders.

stock comps

Zemlin says that even Apple gets the value of Linux and open source software. Inside every iPhone and iPad, there is free software. He says," Apple knows something that many people don't. When you stand on the shoulders of giants you can innovate at higher levels."

Don't Have a Plan

He goes on to explain that the plan for Linux is there is no plan and shares with the TEDx audience how self-forming communities result in faster, better collaboration. Seven changes are made to Linux every hour, 24 hours a day, because people are self-motivated and care about what they're working on. 

Don't Be Nice

His last point is perhaps the most entertaining and provocative. Zemlin talks here about the value of flame wars, defending ideas and ridiculing code. The result? Better software. He cites a UC Berkeley study that found groups that are encouraged to debate rigorously and defend their ideas, opposed to traditional brainstorming where every idea is a good idea, come up with better ideas.

I don't want to spoil the ending so I'll just say that he makes the argument that the future is one where you can enrich yourself while at the same time enriching others. Check out the 18-minute talk here and share. If this TEDx Talk inspires you, let the TED team know and help us spread the word about Linux.



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  • Stephan Wehner Said:

    About " Inside every iPhone and iPad, there is free software": one of these is the operating system, Darwin. From : "Darwin is an open source POSIX-compliant computer operating system released by Apple Inc. in 2000. It is composed of code developed by Apple, as well as code derived from NeXTSTEP, BSD, and other free software projects. Darwin forms the core set of components upon which Mac OS X and iOS are based." Cheers, Stephan

  • Jim Michaels Said:

    Good article! Should be required reading for all engineers, and--most importantly--engineering and technical managers at ALL levels. Regards...

  • Jim Said:

    With all due respect, and admiration for Mr Zemlin, I would

  • Jim Said:

    (cont'd from last comment; sorry) ...respectfully disagree regarding his point about 'brainstorming'. 'Brainstorming' is not a stand-alone technique, but rather a tool to be used when "writers' block" grips the creative team. The whole point of "all ideas beig good" is to encourage everyone to contribute, especially the reticent ones. THEN, the winnowing process takes place, in which the ensuing, lively free-for-all should result in the best solution. Just one person's opinion, who has used this technique to good effect. Regards...

  • grigor Said:

    With all due honor to Linux, some other collaborative projects in the history of computing are larger. In the free software alone, there is the GNU Project (almost a magnitude larger, as lines of code). / LibreOffice is substantially larger, too. And if Wikipedia can be considered as a part of the history of the computing, it would dwarf all these three together.

  • Jim Said:

    "...Linux today is estimated to be worth more than $10B..." From the "Before-you-start-crowing-about-how-dumb-they-were-in-the-old-days" files: the last time I checked--around 1998--the base of Cobol was estimated to be valued at around this number: $10B-$20B. You read that correctly--COBOL! The dinosaur from the 1950's which no one knows--except dinosaurs--because it's not cool. There is, literally, a million dollars to be made by any individual who is willing to trade "cool" for "really smart" and become a COBOL programmer/maintainer consultant

  • wumpus Said:

    With all the "be like Steve Jobs" idiocy that bounced around the net, I would caution anybody thinking that managing like Linus would be smart. Linus mentioned that when he joined transmeta they made him a manager, seeing how he was overseeing one of the biggest software projects in history. He failed badly. My guess is that high level Linux developers (at least the ones who work with Linus, those who work directly on the code might easily not care) are self-selected to like working in that environment. Linus gets enough people with the skills he needs that he has no interest in the efficiency of his organisation, just that it produces the Linux kernel. At Transmeta, he was forced to manage a (mostly) fixed number of people that had been already hired, and the same methods (and probably a few others that Linus tried) failed miserabley. While I'm sure his coding skills were useful for Transmeta, and they really hired him just for the marketing buzz, his experience there shows that you have to be careful how you take "Linus's teachings" to places outside kernel development.

  • Joseph Said:

    No, we're still waiting on a GNU kernel for more than a decade, so there'd be a lot of things not to learn from GNU's OS efforts.

  • Andrew Haley Said:

    I was wondering about that. When the author speaks of "the largest collaborative development effort in the history of computing" do they mean the whole thing or just the kernel? It sounds like it's just the kernel ("its creator Linus Torvalds") but it's hard to tell.

  • jsgrant Said:

    The Linux kernel is still dependent on GNU's userland, historically , for many of it's most-known distributions. Response to that slide remark aside though, I think there's a lot positive and negative things to learn from both ends.

  • 3uu3in3er Said:

    Sheesh, "Don't be nice" lame here i go not being nice... Ok :) Well there is a problem with that statement. Some in the FOSS 'Community' are effing jack wagons. This is why some folks are not inclined to participate. Sure there is crap code and morons who post patches that are garbage. But there comes a point in time when it's just abusive. ( and or entertaining) Coding in public is a sport that is not for the inhibited. So prepare to defend your code!., But you need less assholes not more. You need trusted advisers not pathetic trolls. All in all ...Linux Rules!

  • Gene Ricky Shaw Said:

    He makes a lot of good points, but it's a little misleading. While Red Hat has been very profitable, it doesn't give away all of its products for free. Similarly, there have been a number of companies that have tried RH's model and failed. Microsoft has been less profitable over the past few years, yes, but it still is a huge company with no signs of falling off the charts any time soon. I do love Linux but I think we need to be a little cautious about some of the claims made in the video.

  • Sam Moffatt Said:

    Of that $10B, I wonder how much Linus gets?

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