Linus Torvalds and Others on Community Burnout: Page 2

Open source developers talk about the stress of coding in the Linux world.
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Bacon perceives burnout in much the same way, defining it as "when you carry over stress from the previous day, and it builds until you can't get rid of it."

By contrast, former Fedora chair and community organizer Paul Frields sees burnout as originating in group interactions, as occurring:

"When people have mismatched sets of expectations. For example, maybe it's an expectation that other team members deliver the same level of output regardless of their capability, time, or personal situation. Or maybe the expectation is for everyone to love your radical new idea right off the bat. If those expectations aren't met, and you continue to grind away on it, chances are excellent that you're going to burn out."

Still another source of burnout for women in particular is their under-representation in the community. Depending on the project, women typically make up one to five percent of the community. Not only do women have to endure sexist remarks, pornographic presentations, and outright hostility, but they often feel the need to prove themselves -- often, to established women as much as the male majority.

"It's similar to being in the military," says Graner, a veteran from the first Gulf War. "You need to do ten percent more than everyone else to be seen as good as they are."

For women actively trying to alter the culture, the stress is even greater. "There are simply too few women in open source to do all the work," Aurora says. "A one percent community that's already struggling is just a recipe for burnout. You're already in a precarious situation where you're getting a lot of messages saying that you don't belong, and you're adding on top of that hours of volunteerism for activism. You feel bad for not doing the programming, and for having doubts at all."

Nor is the situation improved by the fact that, until recently, one woman has tended to be the figurehead for women's activism at any one time. "You become the lightning rod for criticism and death threats," Aurora says. "This is a huge cost. Every time someone becomes a leader for women in open source, their career suffers."

To further complicate matters for men and women alike, burnout is a condition that everybody has trouble seeing or admitting to. "They can see the signs in everyone else, but can't see the reality in their own reflection looking back at them," Graner says. "And sometimes they believe that to use the term 'burnout' is negative -- like they can't tell anyone they've burned out."

Such denial is especially common when those in leadership roles burn out, either because they see themselves as essential or are more used to giving help than being in need of help themselves. But, in all cases, this denial only aggravates the situation by making people more reluctant to take the steps they need to recover.

Dealing with Burnout

On a personal level, Torvalds suggests, the key to recovering from burning out is to:

“Learn to let go. If not of the whole project, then at least letting go of trying to control it entirely. I've done both. With the kernel, I may be the to-level maintainer, but I simply trust others to do the right thing. There are still a few areas that I'm fairly closely involved with, but even there I'm more than happy to be overridden by people I trust.

Or, just let go of the project entirely. I did that with git [The distributed version control system]: I really enjoyed doing it, but I also felt like I couldn't really afford to be the full-time maintainer that the project needed, and I was more than happy to find a great maintainer (Junio Hamano). I really felt it was my project, but, at the same time, I also felt that the best thing for it would be to have somebody else maintain it.”

Of course, as Torvalds adds, "Sometimes people seem to have problems with letting go. Me included."

To counter the natural resistance to letting go, Frields suggests that "you need to be willing to engage in self-examination, to check your balance and your ability to give time to the things that fulfill you. And, more than being willing, you have to consciously take the time to do it."

Bacon is even more specific. Based on his own experience with burnout about a year after he joined Canonical, he has given considerable thought about how to create a balanced life that will might make himself and others more resistant to burnout.

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Tags: Linux, FOSS, Torvalds, open source apps

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