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The Man Behind Linux: The Accidental Invention That Is Taking Hold of Wall Street

Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system tells WS&T in this exclusive interview that his idea started "by accident" - but it ultimately spawned the open source movement that changed the heart of computing.

For more on Linus Torvalds, see related article: The Top 10 innovators of the decade. . Linux is rapidly transforming your personal and professional lives. And open source technology is leaving a sturdy footprint on Wall Street. In a bid to shave time off transactions, increase efficiency and cut costs, NYSE Euronext, CME Group and the Tokyo Stock Exchange have all adopted open source technology. Wall Street & Technology spoke to the man behind the open source movement and creator of the Linux operating system, Linus Torvalds . He was profiled as part of WS&T's new Top 10 Innovators of the Decade series .

Melanie Rodier, WS&T: Why did you decide to develop Linux?

Linus Torvalds: It really wasn't some kind of big and thought-out decision, and so there really is not much of a "why" there. It was mostly an accidental combination of factors, and I didn't even really start out writing my own operating system at all! You have to realize that I've been around computers since fairly early on, and I was playing around - programming was (and still is) a hobby, so rather than have big goals in mind, my goals tended to be more along the lines "what can I write next, just to have something interesting to do". So Linux came about from me just trying to acquaint myself with my new machine, and exploring the low-level details of the hardware. It wasn't so much that I wanted to write an operating system, as simply the fact that an operating system ends up being the program that interacts directly with the hardware, so the things I did to explore the hardware all had some small part of an operating system in them. It actually took a few months of tinkering before it even really became clear to me that yes, that's what this project will be.

I think a lot of big projects actually start out as something of an accident. Show me somebody who claims that he designed a big thing from scratch, and I'll show you a liar. Nothing starts out as a big project, and if it's complicated enough, nobody really is smart enough to know where it will end up. Linux was just a bit more extreme of an example of that.

WS&T: What challenges did you face as your started out with your idea?

Torvalds: The initial challenges were really about me understanding the hardware, and then slightly later about finding documentation about standard operating system interfaces. Because once I realized that I was writing an operating system, I also realized that I didn't want to re-write all the programs that people run on top of the operating system, so I wanted Linux to look like other 'Unixes.' And at that point, that kind of documentation (the so-called POSIX standard) was actually hard to find and too expensive for me. As was not much later access to some hardware I wanted in order to better support my growing OS addiction. I was a "poor starving" student at the time, after all. That said, the solutions to those problems are some of my more pleasant memories from early Linux development.

WS&T: How did the Linux community develop?

Torvalds: Once Linux got off the ground and people started playing around with it, it wasn't long before some people - that I'd never physically met - started to help with resources. People ended up sending me the POSIX standards, but there was also a collection to pay for an upgrade to the machine I was using for development. It's really been a great community from the very start, and doing development in the open may have been a slightly odd way of doing it, but so much more rewarding for it.

WS&T: Do you have any regrets?

Torvalds: Not really. We've had some ups and downs and obviously not all of the decisions I've ever made always turned out right, but the technical decisions have all been fixable, and the big non-technical ones (like the choice of development method and licenses etc) have all been wonderful. I mean, how much better could things have turned out? Linux has been a roaring success, and it's still a ton of fun twenty years later. Not many people get to say that they've working on their hobby for twenty years, and it ended up not only being their work, but changing the world to some degree. Melanie Rodier has worked as a print and broadcast journalist for over 10 years, covering business and finance, general news, and film trade news. Prior to joining Wall Street & Technology in April 2007, Melanie lived in Paris, where she worked for the International Herald ... View Full Bio

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