Interview with Linus Torvalds -- "On Being Linus" (page 8)

Interview with Linus Torvalds

Apr 9, 2001

On Being Linus

Q: Especially on the Japanese side, many engineers feel pride about their work when they produce a successful product that is producing revenue for the company. How about yourself? What areas about your work that gives you the most satisfaction?

A: Some people just like to program. I think that's programming for its own sake. And to a large degree, to me most programs are in the end only as useful as people actually find them. I still program just for fun, but at the same time, a lot of the satisfaction, at least these days, comes from fixing a real problem for a real person who couldn't get his work done because of something or maybe we added a feature that somebody really needed. So in that sense, it's not about selling well or generating money. But it's the same kind of thing. But I still think that a lot of the pride comes from knowing that you did something the right way, even if people don't even notice. You know you could have worked around the problem some other way, but the pride is in knowing that you did the clever thing, you fixed it for good.

Q: We are also asking all of our interviewees for our anniversary issue this same question: what do you see as the most exciting things that have happened to the IT industry in the last three decades?

A: I've been barely alive for the last three decades. I would just say Moore's Law. It's not any specific feature. It's just the fact that things just improve so much and became so much cheaper. It's not a thing, maybe that's a bad answer. But I think it's something that the industry has had for the last three decades and probably will have for three more decades. Eventually, it will have to stop. So in that sense, I think it's something that has been interesting and is fairly unique to this particular timeframe.

Q: Can you give us the names of some people who you look up to? Who do you consider your heroes?

A: Very few people in the technology area.

Q: How about in areas other than technology?

A: I'd have to say scientists. Like Feineman or Einstein obviously or Bohr. These kinds of people.

Q: How about any engineers?

A: Maybe Steve Wozniak? People don't remember him as well as Steve Jobs because he was just a technical guy and he got out of Apple when it wasn't interesting to him anymore. But if you had to ask who in my industry I'd like to be like, I would probably say Steve Wozniak.

Q: For you, what is the definition of an engineer?

A: It's somebody who does it for the technology. So that why I count Steve Wozniak as an engineer. Part of the reason why I mentioned Steve is that I grew up in the timeframe when other computers were competitors to the Apple. So I was aware of all the strange things Apple was doing with their graphics and floppy chips and things like that. That was true engineering. Some of the things that Apple did in those early ages were things that people actually would not have thought possible. That was not what the chips were even meant to do. That's engineering, and that was Steve Wozniak. That was not Steve Jobs.

Q: Have you ever met Steve Wozniak?

A: Never met him. I know he's around, and he's teaching kids about computers.

Q: How about Bill Gates?

A: No. He's a business person.

Q: He was an engineer.

A: I don't think so. He was technical, but if you look where he went, he wasn't at MIT. He was at Harvard. I think math and law or something like that. Yes, he was technically knowledgeable, but he was not an engineer.

Q: Have you ever met him before?

A: No. We've been to some conferences.

Q: Would you like to meet him?

A: I don't know what I'd say to him. I'd probably like to meet him.

Q: Have you ever thought about what you would like to be remembered for? Something you would like someone to put on your gravestone? You still have a lot of time ahead of you.

A: I don't know. I've never been the kind of driven person that some people are. They have a big goal in life and they want to climb Mt. Everest or something. I've never had anything specific like that. And if anything, my gravestone says, Good Guy. I'm okay. Maybe that sounds a bit too goody-goody. It's not that I want to be Mother Theresa. It's more that I want to do something interesting and do it in a way that's respected.

Note to Steve Wozniak. E-mail Linus and invite him out for a beer. I think you two will have a lot to talk about.

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