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The long, hard road to becoming a significant Linux contributor

For those hoping to contribute to the Linux kernel in their spare time, Linus Torvalds has a terse response: "Think again."

For those outside the open-source world, it often comes as a surprise to find out that it's extraordinarily difficult to become a significant contributor to the Linux kernel or other open-source projects. The reason? Unlike a company where all you need is an employee badge to start contributing to its code, in serious open-source projects you need to demonstrate years of competent coding to even get an invitation to the party.

Linux Torvalds, founder of Linux, walks through the process in a recent interview:

It's definitely not easy to become a 'big contributor.' For one thing, the kernel is quite complex and big, and it inevitably simply takes time to learn all the rules -- not just for the code, but for how the whole development environment works. Similarly, for a new developer, it will take time before people start recognizing the name and start trusting the developer to do the right things....

The worst thing anybody can do is to study the kernel alone and try to learn things in private, and then, however many months later, present all the established kernel developers with a big patch that just comes out of the blue. That's just going to be frustrating for everybody.

And just in case would-be contributors were hoping for an warm, encouraging environment....

The kernel is about pretty harsh technical issues, and mistakes are really frowned upon. In an OS kernel, there are simply more security and stability requirements, and the bar is really higher in some respects. That will inevitably also reflect in the response to patches.

Reading between the lines, this means: "Prepare to get flamed for stupid mistakes."

While it may not help your ego, the Linux development process does result in exceptional code with a minimum of security flaws and design errors. We all benefit from this, even if the process largely locks out the casual developer who thinks her company affiliation will guarantee her a place at the development table. It won't. Not even close.

So, anyone can hack the Linux kernel. There is no litmus test based on race, creed, or company. The only litmus test is diligence and competence.

Those turn out to be pretty significant barriers.