Linus Torvalds is one of the most influential hackers in modern computing, having created the Linux kernel as an open source alternative to the Unix operating system. He’s since spent nearly 20 years maintaining the kernel in a leadership role (as well as continuing to have an active coding role) through the Linux Foundation. Linus is a regular attendee at Linux.conf.au (last year he was spotted tooling around the conference on a home brew Segway – possibly the geekiest moment in history). He’s back again for LCA this year, and we were thrilled to score an interview with him yesterday.
I explained to Linus that Lifehacker readers would be interested to know what his day to day computing and desktop setup was, as well as any productivity tips he might have to offer.What transpired was much more plain and simple than you might expect.
“I am the least organised person you’ll ever meet. My desk is a complete mess.I don’t organise my emails – everything is in one big email folder,” says Linus.
He says that he works largely in text-based windows rather than GUIs – with multiple windows open at once. But he’s not a multiple monitor kind of guy. “I have a single monitor, 24 inch, 1920 by 1200.”
Even his mail reader is purely text-based – so don’t bother sending any HTML emails. “I don’t want pretty pictures,” he explains. “I don’t do word processing. The only graphical thing is my browser (Firefox).
He uses a text-based email application called Alpine (the new version of longtime University of Washington mail app Pine). “I use the keyboardfor everything.”
When I asked about his productivity system, he has some pretty clear guidelines in place.
“I figured out the best way to kill productivity is to give talks and go to meetings,” says Linus, who says he now avoids doing either. “Even if I prepared for a talk the night before, I ended up spending the two weeks beforehand getting stressed about it.”
“So my calendar is basically empty.”
He says he plans ahead for the couple of conferences he likes to attend each year (which include Linux.conf.au). He recently pushed out the latest stable version of the Linux kernel (220.127.116.11), deliberately timing it so he could finish it before travelling to Australia for LCA.
Another part of his productivity system is KAlarm – a reminder program for the KDE desktop. He says having a reminder pop up for things like “pick the kids up from school” is a must.
So how does Linus keep in touch on the road? Is he a mad texter? Doesn’t seem likely, does it?
“I hate phones. I don’t have a mobile phone,” he says. “They’re a way to spread that evilness and take it with you all the time.”
Email is his strong preference for communicating. “I don’t do any business over the phone.”
Chat is also out – it’s just a distraction. “I don’t use IRC, I hate these chat programs. They’re real time so you have to answer and interact synchronously. It just doesn’t suit his workstyle, he says. “I’m so bad at multi-tasking. When I read a book, I block out everything else. I hate phones, they disturb you. When you have an IRC channel open, messages disturb you.
“I want to sit in my darkened den and do it in my own time – that’s how I work!”
So there you go, some plain and simple methods for keeping your work text-based, and making sure your workplace is distraction free, courtesy of geek legend Linus Torvalds.
Thanks to Linus for making the time to speak to Lifehacker AU, and to Linux.conf.au for helping set up the interview. Image from Wikimedia Commons, usedunder the GFDL license.