Interview with Linus Torvalds -- "On Being Linus"

Interview with Linus Torvalds

Apr 9, 2001

Linus TorvaldsThe creator of Linux and uberpenguin, talks of his work at Transmeta, adjusting to life in Silicon Valley, some thoughts on Linux and Open Source, and the Tao of being Linus.


The month of April, 2001 marks the thirtieth anniversary of Nikkei Electronics. As part of the plans for our celebratory 30th anniversary issue, we asked our readers, mainly engineers working for large Japanese companies, who they would want to see interviewed. One overwhelming answer was Linus Torvalds, the Finnish creator of Linux, the wildly successful Open Source operating system which is credited with giving Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, at the very least, a few nervous moments. While a student at Helsinki University, Linus's decided to release the source code to the operating system over the Internet, a decision which will certainly be looked upon as a defining moment in computing history.

Linus and his family, which now includes his wife and three daughters, have now abandoned the northern clime of his native Finland for the warmer environment of California's Silicon Valley. What brought him here was a job at Transmeta, a Silicon Valley startup developing a new CPU (Central Processing Unit) which is now giving Craig Barrett and Andy Grove at Intel a competitive prod in the ribs.

This led to Naoki Asami, the editor in chief of Nikkei Electronics, Rocky Eda, Silicon Valley correspondent for the same magazine, and myself showing up in the scantily decorated, nondescript one of a thousand in Silicon Valley lobbies of a Transmeta building, mikes in hand and cameraperson in tow.

Transmeta's CPU is innovative in that it uses software to help it emulate Intel's x86 architecture, the most popular personal computer CPU architecture. Linus, a former student of CPU architecture, is on the Transmeta software development. We talked with him of his experiences in working at Transmeta, life in Silicon Valley, musings on Linux and the Open Source movement, and not least, the philosophy of being Linus.

On Transmeta

Nikkei Electronics: How did you get your job at Transmeta?

Linus Torvalds: I knew an engineer here at Transmeta who was originally from Sweden, and he'd been a long-time Linux user. He went back to Sweden on a personal trip, and, once you get to Sweden, it's very easy to come over to Finland where I lived at the time. He actually came over just to talk about Linux, and we hooked up. He told me that I can't tell you what I'm working on, but if you're interested, I can talk to some people. So they flew me out here. This was the end of '96. Linux wasn't that well-known. It was well-known in the technical community, but it wasn't a huge deal. Your average person on the street had never heard about Linux. So I had to sign an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement). Everybody had to sign an NDA before they came into Transmeta. Transmeta flew me over from Finland without me actually knowing what they did. I was here for just two days I think, and the first day basically was interesting. But at the same time, I felt it was rather crazy. In '96 at Transmeta, I think we had five software engineers.

Q: Only five?

A: Only five people when I joined. And we didn't have any actual hardware. So everything was done in simulations. Simulations at that time booted Windows 3.1. This was '96, '97, so Windows 3.1 was kind of the normal Windows operating system at the time. And the demonstration at the time was to run Solitaire. That was pretty much the only thing you could do. And so after the first day I felt, okay, these people are crazy. But when I came back the second day I said, hey, it might just work. I mean it did work, but back then it wasn't that obvious. But I felt that the fact that people were a bit crazy was kind of a good sign, that it mean that people were doing something new and unexpected and on the second day, I was actually fairly excited about the position.