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Why Reclusive Linux Creator Linus Torvalds Believes Engineers Should Share Great Ideas

February 18, 2016, 1:45 PM UTC
TED2016 - Dream, February 15-19, 2016, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED
TED2016 - Dream, February 15-19, 2016, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED
Marla Aufmuth Marla Aufmuth / TED

We celebrate technology for its use of science to change reality. Yet what I learned Wednesday from some brilliant and perceptive technologists speaking at the TED conference in Vancouver is how important communicating is to realizing technology’s benefits.

The legendary software engineer Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, sat for an interview in which he provided a fascinating glimpse into his psyche. A self-professed non-people person, Torvalds explained that he likes to work alone—a telling statement from the man who did more than anyone to create the open-source software movement. Open source, said Torvalds, allows people to work together, even if they don’t like each other.

For all his technical prowess, Torvalds also presented to the thousand-plus-strong TED audience a master class in self-awareness. He harbors no ill will to billionaires like Larry Page and Sergey Brin for making far more money off his invention than he did. (He’s done just fine, thank you, he said.) And in an unsubtle poke at Page and Elon Musk, both passionate fans of the inventor Nikola Tesla, Torvalds said he’s more impressed with the accomplishments of Thomas Alva Edison, a less brilliant but far more successful technology pioneer. “I am not visionary,” said Torvalds. “I do not have a five-year plan. I have no moonshot. I’m an engineer.” What an epitaph that will be.

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Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, shared her epiphany that girls seek perfection but suffer a “bravery deficit” compared to boys. Teaching girls to code—her organization will instruct 40,000 girls this year in all 50 U.S. states—will help them be brave, she believes, and this is fundamentally a matter of communicating to them that perfection isn’t necessary.

Two examples of data visualization were the best things I saw at TED. Artist R. Luke Dubois gave a stunning peek into how his unique brain perceives facts as arcane yet telling as the words presidents use in their state of the union addresses. And Amit Sood, director of the Google (GOOG) Cultural Institute demonstrated an art-preservation project so brilliant and delightful you should click on this link and experience it yourself.

Technology is grand; communicating about it is critical.