Linus Torvalds and Others on Community Burnout

Open source developers talk about the stress of coding in the Linux world.
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Hang around the free and open source software community for any length of time, and you can't help seeing examples of burnout. A colleague takes on too much, and suddenly they're working harder for fewer results.

They have a hard time concentrating on their work. They neglect their personal life. When challenged, they become defense and unusually hostile. Eventually, they withdraw -- and, sometimes, they don't come back.

Burnout isn't unique to the Linux community, of course. However, at times, the problem can seem almost epidemic in the community, and people seem reluctant to talk about it publicly.

Both Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon and Ubuntu volunteer and journalist Amber Graner find that, when they deliver talks based on Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North's The Burnout Cycle, afterwards people approach them privately to talk about their own experiences with burnout.

Similarly, kernel hacker and Ada Initiative co-founder Valerie Aurora talks about sitting with a dozen women and technology activists and discovering that all of them were burned out, recovering from burnout, or else had been burned out in the past.

No one seems immune, not even Linus Torvalds. Although he begins by saying, "I've never really had a burnout event," he goes on to recollect a situation that sounds very much like the early stages of burnout:

"We had really big fights back in 2002 or so ("Linus doesn't scale") where I was dropping patches left and right, and things really weren't working. It was very painful for everybody, and very much for me, too. Nobody really likes criticism, and there was a lot of flaming going around -- and because it wasn't a strictly technical problem, you couldn't point to a patch and say, 'hey, look, that patch improves timings by 15%’ or anything like that: there was no technical solution. The solution ended up being better tools, and a work flow that allowed much more distributed management."

What causes burnout, particularly in the free software community? What can be done to prevent it, both individually and on a community level? These are questions that an increasing number of free software organizers are struggling to answer as burnout starts to be recognized as a problem that needs to be addressed.

Sources of Burnout

The organization of free software makes community members especially prone to stress. As Bacon points out, when contributors are scattered around the globe and some are volunteers, each has to monitor their work-levels themselves.

Yet when someone somewhere is likely to be working on a project at any hour, setting limits is difficult. As with a real-time simulation game, there is no obvious moment to quit. In fact, because of the instant responses that are the norm on the Internet, others may become annoyed when others are not immediately available.

The stress may be increased because the first generations of community members are now well into middle-age, and some are starting to have trouble working the hours to which they are accustomed, either because of reduced stamina or family obligations.

Graner points out, too, that some community members may add to their stress by taking on more work to prove themselves. She observes, for example, that non-developers in Ubuntu may feel less part of the project than developers, or take on extra responsibilities in the hopes of having their expenses paid so that they can attend the Ubuntu Developer Summit.

"They think that if they don't take on more and more and be that super community person, people won't think they're doing enough," Graner says.

However, as Torvalds points out, burnout is not just about stress. "I personally tend to get really fired up and love the occasional flame-fest," he says. "That can be stressful, but it's also often really invigorating, and I think that if you don't have those kinds of occasional flare-ups, your project is dying, or just don't care enough."

However, Torvalds adds, "But constant stress can just wear you down. For me, it's pretty much always been about some work flow issue, where just the way I do something doesn't really work well any more, and the stress is about just not having enough energy (or hours in the day) to do what I need to be doing. So that is why, for the kernel, I feel like the big stressful events have been about work flow issues."

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Tags: Linux, FOSS, Torvalds, open source apps

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