How Linus Torvalds Invented Today's Work From Home Paradigm In 1991

from the way-of-the-penguin dept

Working from home is beginning to move from being a necessary but temporary way of achieving social distancing in offices, to a radical shift in how many companies will operate. Until now, most of the evidence of that change has been anecdotal. But a Twitter thread by Chris Herd, who is CEO of FirstbaseHQ, which "lets you supply, finance and manage all the physical equipment your remote teams need to do great work at home", provides some fascinating statistics on the scale of the shift to working from home. Herd says he has talked to around 1000 companies over the last six months about their plans for remote work. One trend is that corporate headquarters are "finished", he says: companies will cut their commercial office space by 40 to 60%, with people working from home for two to four days each week. Some 30% of the companies Herd talked to say that they intend to get rid of offices completely, and move fully to remote working.

Some of the reasons for this shift are obvious. Things like increasing worker satisfaction by avoiding stressful daily commuting, and enabling them to participate in family life during the entire day through flexible working patterns. Slashing office costs is a major factor for the companies, but also cited is the reduction in the pollution generated by traditional office working. However, the main driver for a shift to remote working may be surprising:

The first reason they are going remote-first is simple -- it lets them hire more talented people

Rather than hiring the best person in a 30-mile radius of the office, they can hire the best person in the world for every role

Traditional ways of running a company have made it hard to bring about this change. But there is one sphere whose stunning success is built on this very shift. The world of free software and open source has embraced distributed teams working at home for nearly 30 years. This has allowed projects to select people on the basis of their skills, rather on their availability for a local office. It also means that people can work on what they are best at, and most interested in, rather than on what their local team needs them to do. As a result, open source software has gone from a bit of coding fun in the bedroom of a Finnish student, Linus Torvalds, to the dominant form of software in every field, with the lone exception of the desktop. Its success has also inspired a range of related movements, such as open access, open data, open science and many more.

What's remarkable is that Linus did not set out to create this new kind of global, distributed software development methodology. It simply evolved from the time he placed his first, rough version of the Linux kernel on an FTP server in Finland, and invited people to download it freely. The crucial step was his willingness to accept suggestions to improve the code from anyone, provided they were good ones. That encouraged people to join the project, because they knew that there was no traditional business hierarchy based on seniority, just a meritocracy, where their suggestions would be accepted if their work was demonstrably better than the existing code. The companies that will thrive most from today's epochal shift to working from home will be those that are willing to implement similar ideas to those of Linus from 30 years ago, transposed to a general business context.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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Filed Under: distributed, linus torvalds, open source, pandemic, work from home


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  1. identicon
    bobob, 15 Oct 2020 @ 11:46am

    Remote working alone is not going to allow companies to recruit the best applicants. First companies need to do better at sorting applicants. As but one example, I've seen technical jobs in which one of the requirements listed is knowing how to use microsoft office. I have a PhD in physics, I've never used Office, but learning how to use some low level tool like that is a no brainer.

    In general, a lot of the software I've used required either reading the source code and/or reading some handwritten documentation that was a few pages, very sparse and the rest was trial and error. On the other hand, I once worked at a job as a systems programmer in a unix environment that I was not qualified for because the only programming language I knew was Fortran along with a half dozen scripting languages and i really don't like programming. I'm not sure why they ever thought I was a programmer, but I got the invite via a usenet forum for some reason.

    I literally bought K&R and wrote "Hello World," before starting work along with a few books on the Unix operating system and kept K&R at my desk to figure out how to do whatever I needed to do. I did managed to do just fine, even though I was a bit slower than my co-workers who were light years ahead of me. I'm sure there were a lot more people that were more qualified than I was they could have hired. I only left because I hated the job and I asked my boss if I needed to have a lobotomy and become a bean counter to get a raise and an office with a door.

    The moral of the story is that unless the application process itself changes, no one will get the best applicants for the job. The idea that working remotely will do anything at all to get the most qualified applicants is dumb. All that will do is allow companies to hire people who tick the right boxes in resume that's scanned for key words based on a job ad that includes some requirements (like MS Office) that any idiot could meet just by starting Office and spending a few days using it.

    I just started my own business to avoid that shit after not getting jobs I could easily do, but didn't tick the right boxes for some of the mickey mouse skills listed in the ad. Having access to a larger pool of applicants doen't change anything if the sorting process doesn't select on the right things. Also, my ex gf worked at home one or two days/week, but she was basically subject to being surveiled to ensure she was "working," via keyboard, audio and video. That's worse than going into work.


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