Being Excellent

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Article from Issue 216/2018
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Try to keep in mind the immortal words of Bill and Ted, "Be excellent to each other." Linux Code of Conflict 2015

Dear Reader,

Try to keep in mind the immortal words of Bill and Ted, "Be excellent to each other." Linux Code of Conflict 2015 [1]

The Linux kernel community is an amazing collection of superhuman programmers who have succeeded beyond anyone's dreams in changing the world. But the kernel list is also known as a pretty rough and tumble place, where maintainers don't mince words and are often known to mince people with their words. Past efforts have attempted to dial down the harsh language, but as we learned recently, the issues have lingered.

Few in the Linux community would have missed Linus Torvalds' recent announcement [2] that he was taking some time off to "…get some assistance on how to understand people's emotions and respond appropriately." This dramatic mea culpa from the Linux creator, which appears to have resulted from some form of intervention by top lieutenants, was big news in the Linux blogs and message boards, and it predictably took on an operatic level of dramatic attention, given the grand maintainer's reputation for irascible, and sometimes overly colorful, intensity.

I wish all the best to Linus with his time off, and I commend him for self-awareness, which is currently a scarce commodity in our public life. I feel, though, that the personal story surrounding Linus has tended to overshadow the real story, which is the appearance of a new Code of Conduct [3]. The human story is a fine scoop for the news blogs, but the new Code of Conduct represents a real, lasting change and a positive step to address a persistent problem.

For a bit of context, after a similar intervention three years ago, Linus and the kernel team ratified a rudimentary behavior standard, which was known as the Code of Conflict.

The Code of Conflict was quite brief, and, despite the whimsical quote from Bill and Ted (see above), it had a slightly defensive and legalistic feel to it. The whole first paragraph was not about the rights of contributors but was, instead, a defense of the process, stating "Your code and ideas behind it will be carefully reviewed, often resulting in critique and criticism. The review will almost always require improvements to the code before it can be included in the kernel. Know that this happens because everyone involved wants to see the best possible solution for the overall success of Linux…"

The document did provide a mechanism for contributors to complain if they felt abused or attacked, adding that if "…anyone feels personally abused, threatened, or otherwise uncomfortable due to this process, that is not acceptable. If so, please contact the Linux Foundation's Technical Advisory Board at <tab@lists.linux-foundation.org>, or the individual members, and they will work to resolve the issue to the best of their ability." But the lack of specificity left it largely up to the participants to define what was meant by "be excellent," not to mention what was meant by "abused, threatened, or otherwise uncomfortable."

The new document, which is borrowed from an online source known as the Contributor Covenant [4], clears up those questions by enumerating examples of right and wrong behavior:

"Examples of behavior that contributes to creating a positive environment include:

* Using welcoming and inclusive language

* Being respectful of differing viewpoints and experiences

* Gracefully accepting constructive criticism

* Focusing on what is best for the community

* Showing empathy towards other community members

Examples of unacceptable behavior by participants include:

* The use of sexualized language or imagery and unwelcome sexual attention or advances

* Trolling, insulting/derogatory comments, and personal or political attacks

* Public or private harassment

* Publishing others' private information, such as a physical or electronic address, without explicit permission

* Other conduct which could reasonably be considered inappropriate in a professional setting"

Perhaps even more significant than these examples is that, rather than starting with a careful "defense" of the process as it was known in the past, the new doc begins with a pledge to the community that is oriented toward creating a better environment for the future:

"In the interest of fostering an open and welcoming environment, we as contributors and maintainers pledge to making participation in our project and our community a harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of age, body size, disability, ethnicity, sex characteristics, gender identity and expression, level of experience, education, socioeconomic status, nationality, personal appearance, race, religion, or sexual identity and orientation."

The 2018 Code of Conduct is a significant improvement over the 2015 Code of Conflict and appears to represent a genuine effort to impose some order on the wild world of the kernel developers. Some may miss the fireworks. To be honest, the new Code of Conduct will make working on the kernel more like working for a regular old corporation (most corporations have some similar language in their employee handbooks) and less like living around Mount Olympus.

Mount Olympus is a wonderful place for the people with the lightening bolts, but for everyone else, it often tastes of flash-burned moussaka.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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