Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Male Putdown Style Bags A Coder

Via Slashdot, a fairly prominent example of something I was writing about the other day in a more general context, the centrality of the male putdown as a way to remind everyone that respect is in limited supply. One of its freer users is Linus Torvalds, whose kernel development lists are widely known as flamefests. Developer Sarah Sharp recently announced she would step down in a blog post, citing a toxic communication style as the fundamental reason:
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.
Sharp tried and failed to get a policy of greater civility instituted on the kernel mailing list. Torvalds, of course, rejected it vociferously (as he does), citing a need for clarity by electronic communications as the justification:
The fact is, people need to know what my position on things are. And I can't just say "please don't do that", because people won't listen. I say "On the internet, nobody can hear you being subtle", and I mean it.

And I definitely am not willing to string people along, either. I've had that happen too - not telling people clearly enough that I don't like their approach, they go on to re-architect something, and get really upset when I am then not willing to take their work.
I'm generally a fan of civility; it's unfortunate that Sharp quit over this, but in a volunteer project, nobody makes you work. Given it's Linus' name on the project, he gets to call the shots.

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