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Boardwatch: Linus Torvalds - Transmeta's Superstar

May 03, 2000, 01:15 (5 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Thom Stark)

By Thom Stark, Boardwatch

Netscape had Marc Andreessen - onetime People Magazine cover boy and co-developer of Mosaic, the browser that transformed the Internet. Transmeta has Linus Torvalds - progenitor and self-described "benevolent dictator" of Linux, the "Unix-like" operating system that bears his name, the current media darling.

So, how did Transmeta get so lucky?

In part, it has to do with homesickness on the part of H. Peter Anvin - a legendary Linux developer in his own right and an early Transmeta employee. In late 1996, eager to see his family, Anvin returned to his native Sweden on vacation. Since Torvalds is a member of Finland's Swedish-speaking minority - and since he and Anvin knew each other well as members of the core group of key Linux kernel developers - Anvin was asked to hop a shuttle from Sweden to Finland to convey an invitation to Torvalds to visit the secretive Transmeta in Silicon Valley.

As Torvalds tells it, "The first day ... when they were giving me a feel for what went on at Transmeta. I went back to the hotel that evening and I thought, "These people are CRAZY!" This was more than three years ago, when Transmeta had not a single chip. The simulations ran at GLACIAL speed. Still, The next day, I basically decided that, if I am to go to work for a company, I want to go to work for a company that does something fun - something interesting. And the first, initial reaction that, 'These people are crazy!' is a positive reaction in that sense."

So why choose a chip company, when every Linux start-up in the world was after him? Torvalds explains, "I've obviously gotten a lot of job offers from Linux companies, but I didn't want to polarize the Linux market. I'm really happy being an engineer at a company that is very interested in Linux, but is not seen as a Linux company. We're a chip company where Linux is seen as part of a much larger strategy - and that's something I find very comfortable. Besides, Transmeta has been able to give me opportunities that I wouldn't otherwise have had. It's also a very cool vehicle for doing debugging, when you control the whole chip!"

And Torvalds' skill as a debugger is legendary around Transmeta.

"He's a god," says Dave Taylor, a co-developer of the original Quake who gave up being CEO of his own company to work for Transmeta. "He can look at a Linux display and somehow predict, just from the way it misbehaves, exactly where, in 100,000 lines of code, the problem is. And, nine times out of 10, he's right."

"The thing is," Taylor adds, "he isn't alone. There are a lot of god-like programmers at Transmeta. Compared to them, I'm just an amateur!"

And, although the sushi-loving Torvalds has apparently become an avid pool player, Taylor is less complimentary about his abilities as a Quake player. "He sucks," Taylor says cheerfully. "And he always will, until he learns to use a mouse."

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