Analysis / Research

Aging Linux Kernel Developers Seek Fresh Talent

7 Feb 2017 1:00am, by

Over the past few years, there has been a concern within the Linux kernel community about the aging population of existing kernel developers. With the Linux kernel being under development for more than 25 years, many of the established leaders in the project are in their 40s and 50s, roughly the same age as Linux creator Linus Torvalds himself (who is 47). At the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit in 2010, James Bottomley was quoted as saying, “There are more gray beards. The graying of the Linux kernel is going to continue until people start dying.”

One of the ways to address this concern is to continue to bring in new developers, which the kernel has been doing at a rate of 200-300 new developers per release or over 2,000 new developers over the 15 months of data analyzed in the latest Linux Foundation kernel development report, issued last August. The 2016 report covers development through the 4.7 release, issued in July 201 with an emphasis on releases 3.19 to 4.7.

Companies Bring in New Developers

In our recent blog post about corporate participation in the Linux kernel, we talked about how many contributions come from companies. With kernel developers in high demand and short supply, The Linux Foundation says that “companies working in this area have realized that one of the best ways to find new kernel development talent is to develop it in-house.” The Foundation speculates that this could be one of the reasons that there are fewer volunteer contributors (see our previous blog post on this topic for details) in the Linux kernel.

The 2016 report highlights the top 10 companies that are responsible for bringing in the most new kernel developers during the period of the report:

  • Intel: 205
  • Google: 54
  • IBM: 48
  • Huawei Technologies: 44
  • Samsung: 40
  • NXP Semiconductors: 39
  • AMD: 38
  • Mellanox: 36
  • MediaTek: 33
  • Red Hat: 26

Some of these aren’t particularly surprising. Intel, Google, IBM, Samsung, and Red Hat are top contributors to the kernel. With so many in-house kernel developers, these companies would have the existing expertise to teach others the skills required to do Linux kernel development, which would allow them to hire people without prior experience in the kernel or take existing employees and turn them into new kernel developers.

However, there are a few surprises. Fabless semiconductor company MediaTek has added more new contributors than Red Hat, which is the second largest contributor to the kernel in the 2016 report. During the period this report covers, Huawei made only 937 changes or 0.8 percent of the total, but its added 44 new developers. Huawei first made the top list in 2015 report, so they are less established in the kernel than some of the other companies, and with kernel developers in short supply, it wouldn’t be surprising if they decided to grow much of their expertise in-house, which might explain why they have so many new developers.

Outreachy Interns

Another popular route into Linux kernel development is the Software Freedom Conservancy’s Outreachy program, which brought in 17 new developers during the period analyzed in the 2016 kernel report, and they made over 1,500 changes (1.4 percent of the total). Outreachy is an internship program focused providing internships to people from groups that are underrepresented in free and open source software. A variety of open source projects, including the Linux kernel, participate in this program.

While these internships are not just for students and are not age-specific, they do tend to bring younger developers into the kernel community. One of the keys to the success of Outreachy is that it focuses on providing a supportive environment to help these interns be successful, which is particularly important given that the Linux kernel community has a reputation for being difficult to work with.

Like other aspects of the kernel development work, Outreachy also depends on corporate sponsorship. During the most recent round of internships, companies were paying anywhere from $6,500 (the cost of one intern) to $52,000 each. Each intern receives a $5,500 stipend plus a $500 travel allowance that can be used to attend conferences where they can network with their mentors and other participants.

In addition to bringing in much-needed new blood into the kernel, the Outreachy interns make a significant number of contributions. During LinuxCon Berlin in October 2016, Outreachy volunteer Julia Lawall pointed out that if you compare Outreachy to other organizations, it was the 9th largest contributor for Linux 4.4 and the 6th largest for Linux 4.6. She also highlighted some accomplishments of recent Outreachy interns for the Linux kernel:

LinuxCon Kids Day

While the Outreachy program is only for people over the age of 18, The Linux Foundation has started working to get a younger audience interested in Linux. At LinuxCon North America in 2016, the organization held a Kids Day open to school-age children, in partnership with MakerKids and Kids on Computers. The morning included a session titled, “Leap into Linux: Learn How to Do Your First Operating System Install” with an afternoon of robotics fun using Arduino. While this doesn’t guarantee that any of these children will grow up to become Linux kernel developers, it can’t hurt to get them started with the technology as early as possible.

Some new kernel developers do go the more traditional route, starting off as volunteers, but as we mentioned, many of these volunteers eventually get hired by companies to do this work. The kernel report mentions that many new contributors will submit a fix for a particular issue and never be seen again, but others will stick around to make additional contributions and become active members of the kernel community. Having new developers on board and ready to replace developers who are moving on to new projects or retiring is critical for the success of any long-running project, open source or otherwise.

Disclaimer: Dawn Foster worked at Intel from 2000 through 2006 and 2010 through 2012, and currently owns stock in Intel.

Red Hat is a sponsor of The New Stack.

Featured image via Pexels.


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