In mid-August I traveled to Vancouver to attend LinuxCon, the industry’s premier Linux conference. The conference is organized by the Linux Foundation, which is the nonprofit consortium dedicated to fostering the growth of Linux.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Linux, which made the conference particularly special. Most of the keynotes reflected on the impact of Linux on the computer industry and on society in general. A number of additional activities were also planned to celebrate this important milestone.
The history of Linux was summarized in this charming three and a half minute video:
“ . . . It was August of 1991, and a 20 year old computer science student named Linus Torvald sat down at his computer in Helsinki to post what is now one of the most famous entries in computer history: ‘Hello everybody out there, I am doing a free operating system, just a hobby, won’t be anything big and professional like gnu, it probably will never support anything other than AT-hard disks, as that is all I have’ . . . word of the Linux open source project quickly spread around the globe . . . Linus named his OS kernel Linux, and chose a penguin as a mascot after a little incident at the zoo.”
“He soon made a very important decision that would shape Linux’s future just as much as the technology. He chose the GPL license created by a visionary named Richard Stallman. The Linux kernel, along with the GPL license and other GNU components revolutionized the computer industry with a few very simple, yet very important freedoms: the freedom to use the software for any purpose; the freedom to change the software to suit your needs; the freedom to share the software with your friends and neighbors; and the freedom to change the changes you make. . .”
. . . and the rest is history.
I had the privilege of giving one of the keynotes at the conference: Linux: a Disruptive Force - Then and Now. Like a number of other speakers, I started out my talk by recounting how I first got involved with Linux. In early 1999, I kept hearing about Linux from colleagues in IBM, who were experimenting with Linux in a variety of Internet and Web-based applications, as well as people in the supercomputing community who were urging IBM to develop Linux-based systems.
At the time, I was co-chair of PITAC, the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee. A number of the members, highly respected leaders from industry and universities, felt that we should initiate a study on the importance of Linux and open source software in general to the advancement of high-performance computing. We launched the study later in the year and formally sent our report to President Clinton in September of 2000.
In the summer of 1999, we launched two major Linux studies in IBM, one focused on supercomputing and the other on Linux as a platform for high-volume Internet applications and application development. Both studies strongly recommended that IBM embrace Linux across its product lines, that we work closely with the open community as a partner in the development of Linux, and that we establish an IBM-wide organization to coordinate Linux activities across the company. Ultimately the recommendations went to Sam Palmisano current IBM Chairman and CEO, who was then head of IBM's Enterprise Systems Group.
A few days before Christmas in 1999, I got a call from Sam. He said he was ready to implement the recommendations to embrace Linux across IBM and wanted me to lead the new initiative reporting to him. I asked Sam when he wanted to announce this IBM-wide embrace of Linux, and he said we should do it right after we come back from the holidays in January.
We made our announcement on January 10, 2000. A few weeks later I gave a keynote presentation at the LinuxWorld conference in New York's Javits Center. I used the occasion to explain IBM’s decision to embrace Linux. Later the same day, I also talked about Linux in an interview with Charlie Rose, which was broadcast a few weeks later.
In the recent Vancouver presentation I included some of the original slides from the 2000 presentation in New York, because our reasons for embracing Linux seem as valid today as they were almost twelve years ago. We did not look at Linux as just another operating system any more than we looked at the Internet as just another network. People don’t use the Internet because of TCP/IP, and IBM did not embrace Linux because of the Linux kernel, which at the time we knew needed a lot of work.
But we looked at the Linux community, really liked what we saw, and that gave us confidence that Linux would get much better over time, especially if companies like IBM contributed to its development, which we did. We formed the Linux Technology Center, an IBM team of developers who work closely with the Linux open source development community. We viewed Linux as a platform for innovation just like we viewed the Internet.
So, how did that then daring bet on Linux work out for IBM? I devoted the rest of my presentation to answering that question by discussing four major current IBM initiatives where Linux has played a major role as an enabling technology: Cloud Computing, Smarter Planet and Smarter Cities, Information Analytics, and Supercomputing.
I finished my keynote by reminding the LinuxCon audience not to lose sight of what makes Linux so important. What is so precious about Linux, I said, is the community. That’s the one thing we can absolutely never lose. Keeping our open ecosystem going is very important, so that we can continue to play a role in addressing some of the most important issues facing our society.
A number of other speakers also focused on open innovation and collaboration in their keynotes. Clay Shirky, - writer, consultant and NYU faculty member, - gave a very good talk with the intriguing title: Good Collaboration in Two Words: Structured Fighting.
Shirky stated his main point right up front: with complex, mass collaboration initiatives, like Linux and Wikipedia, you can never disentangle the soft human squishy stuff from the hard technologies and content the community is developing. When you are looking to tap into the world’s cognitive surplus, you need to pay lots of attention to how you organize the project, so that something productive actually gets done instead of just becoming a place where people go to chat, have fun and argue.
He explained what he meant by cognitive surplus, the theme of his 2010 book - Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. In the more advanced world economies, people have lots of free time, the bulk of which is spent watching television. He estimates that someone born in 1960 has watched around 50,000 hours of television. He has calculated that the world’s educated population has about a trillion hours per year of such free time.
The key challenge is how to tap into this cognitive surplus resource for creative, collaborative activities, - leveraging our online tools and social networking platforms. He pointed out that many people will devote their creative energies to somewhat frivilous activities like Lolcats, - a cute photograph of a cat with accompanying humorous text, - which they will post online and share with the world. This is nothing new, he said. Erotic books where among the first published when the printing press was invented around 1440, while it took another 100 years before the advent of scientific journals.
But, properly motivated and organized, these creative energies can become a very important new means of collaborative production. In a seminal 2002 paper, Coase's Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm, Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler, - then at Yale Law School, - coined the term commons-based peer production: “. . . a new model of economic production in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated (usually with the aid of the Internet) into large, meaningful projects mostly without traditional hierarchic organization. These projects are often, but not always, conceived without financial compensation for contributors.”
There is so much cognitive surplus out there, that even if you tap into a tiny fraction, you can achieve remarkable things. For example, according to Shirky’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, around 100 million hours of human labor have gone into Wikipedia, including all the articles, edits, and arguments about articles and edits. While that is a lot of time, it is only a very small fraction of the estimated trillion hours a year of cognitive surplus time.
He observed that increasing people’s ability to communicate with one another does not lead to world peace, as had been hoped in the past. Rather, it leads to many arguments and fights. Why is that? Because while we may not be good at critiquing our own work and beliefs, we are very good at scrutinizing those of other people. That, in fact, is why scientists publish their work and subject it to peer review before publication, as well as to continued discussions afterwards. It is a form of structured, well organized fighting that has led to remarkable accomplishments.
He then pointed out the importance of managing collaboration effectively. When you look at mass collaboration projects like Wikipedia and Linux, what you find is that while they may have thousands of individual contributors, the bulk of the work is done by a small core of well organized contributors with a well defined governance process. This core group selects the best contributions coming from the larger community, integrates them into the overall project, and selects the members of the core group once they have proven themselves.
The governance of Linux is one of the most innovative organizational models around. The Linux organization has no hierarchic, central authority. Instead, Linux has a distributed decision-making process in which different people - the Linux maintainers - decide which ideas they will accept from contributors around the world. The maintainers are selected by the community, based on which people have the right technical and communications skills, and which are best connected with and trusted by the members of their community.
What makes it all work is the very effective leadership of Linus Torvalds, “ . . . the Helsinki-based programmer who started it all, [and who] orchestrates this world-wide army of developers from his home office in Portland, Oregon as a Fellow of the Linux Foundation.” Linux is successful both because its community includes some of the best and brightest programmers around the world, but also because of Torvald’s creativity and leadership qualities.
His deep technical talent and unique social skills have proven very effective as the leader of one of the major forces in IT over the last two decades. At an IBM customer meeting in Rome a few years ago, Torvalds said that Linux has no central authority because of his inability to be a great leader. I don't know anyone who believes that. I hope that that even Linus said that partly tongue-in-cheek.
At this same meeting he was asked why people would spend so much of their time on a volunteer project like Linux with no immediate financial gain. As an engineer, he said, there is no better feeling than solving a problem that has bedeviled you for days. Suddenly a light goes on, and you get the rush of having finally solved it. In the end, he said, a lot of technical people find solving such technical problems very satisfying, and that is why they do it.
In a Conversation with Linus Torvalds at LinuxCon, he gave his opinions on a variety of subjects and answered questions from the audience. He said said that he no longer gets that involved in development, but spends his time guiding the process. “I end up being pretty far removed from the day to day development. Most of the code I write... is in the e-mail saying 'this is the approach I'd like to see. . . very few commits of mine make it into the kernel.’”
He is very candid about his views, both what he likes and doesn’t like. In answer to a question about how some project is going he replied “at this point pretty good. Not as bad as when I started to scream at people.” He later added that when the bad behavior of the project got to him: “I just snapped, and instead of running around naked with a chainsaw like I usually do, I started talking to people. . . and a lot of people admitted it's a problem.” By directly dealing with the source of the problem and engaging the people involved, things are now getting somewhat better. That's what a great social leader does.
He told our audience that he is just an engineer not a visionary leader, and that he likes to spend his time focusing on the problems right in front of him. “I'm not a very visionary guy. . . if I'm feeling very visionary, I'm looking two or three releases ahead. . .” In answer to a question he said that he is not a virtualization guy, preferring to play with real hardware. He said, tongue in cheek, that while application developers are very important, they are not quite real men like kernel developers, but are still necessary for Linux to succeed.
Linus Torvalds is truly respected and liked by the Linux community and just about everyone. After the final question, the LinuxCon audience gave him a standing ovation, - in response to which he quickly exited the stage.
For me personally, being part of the 20th anniversary of Linux was a real treat. It was part nostalgic, - an opportunity to reminisce with people I had not seen in a while about all that we accomplished as well as the tough challenges we had to overcome. And, it was another opportunity to see in action one of the best collaborative innovation communities the world has ever produced as well as their remarkable leader. It was a wonderful celebration of the profound impact they have made on the IT industry and society.