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Linus Torvalds Works in His Bathrobe

"I’m actually not a people person," Torvalds said at the TED conference. "I don’t really love other people. I love computers."

Bret Hartman / TED

You might think that the person who birthed the greatest open source software project in history would be someone who likes working closely with his fellow humans.

And you would be so wrong.

Linus Torvalds began Linux as a solitary project without any intention of working with others.

“I’m actually not a people person,” Torvalds said in an interview with Chris Anderson at the TED conference in Vancouver. “I don’t really love other people. I love computers.”

That was clear from his talk and equally clear as he met uneasily, but graciously, with throngs of attendees during the morning break. Another indicator: Torvalds left blank the section on his conference badge where attendees are told to list topics they are interested in talking about.

Amid all the celebrities, business titans, artists and scientists circulating through the Vancouver convention center, Torvalds stands out. He’s not raising money for a new startup, hawking a new book or looking to convince people to take up a social cause.

“I don’t have an agenda,” Torvalds said during a brief interview after his talk. Asked about his latest project, Torvalds says there isn’t one. He is still happy working on Linux, even after 25 years.

And he’s totally fine that Red Hat, Google, Facebook and others have made huge businesses using his creation. Torvalds said the last thing he would want to do is have to run a company.

“I’d never, ever start a business — Christ, the headaches,” he told Re/code. “You’d have to care about all these things I have zero interest in.

Torvalds said he built Linux not to create a business or even to make it widely available, but rather because it was a tool he needed for himself. But, after six months of working on Linux, he decided to make it public — not so much to have others contribute, but to get ideas and feedback on where to go next.

“It wasn’t open source,” he said during the talk. “It was source that was open. There was no intention.”

Nor was he really looking for collaborators. That said, Linux did take off, gathering first tens, then hundreds and thousands of contributors.

But that hasn’t made Torvalds any more interested in people.

Torvalds says he prefers to work from home, often in his bathrobe. If a reporter or photographer is visiting, he’ll get dressed.

It’s just the way he’s always worked, he said, showing a childhood photo of himself staring at a Rubik’s cube, ignoring his nearby younger brother. At family gatherings, he said, his sister would have to quickly remind him who each person was.

Being an antisocial geek, Torvalds said, is not all that unusual, saying there were probably many like him in the audience. What his sister says makes him unique is his refusal to quit on a project.

“That’s about being stubborn,” he said. “That’s about starting something and not saying ‘I’m done, let’s do something else.'”

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