Last year, I invited you all to walk the plank with me, to follow me on a road, a road that even I was unsure where it led. I had a vision, I had ideas, but I had little to show for a plan. Even worse, some of my ideas, some of the things I've thought I knew, turned out to be wrong this past year. While my original plan was to pursue the goals I set out in my previous platform, I did none of that, and before I get to the meat of the platform, I owe you an explanation why: After walking the plank last year, I spent some time swimming to the shore, determined that no matter what, I will get things done. But how shall I do that? And when, with whom? Those questions needed an answer, therefore I took on a coat of an ordinary hacker, and started a journey to find the answers.
That is how the past year's been spent: looking and learning. I was - and still am - following every major Debian list, I'm on IRC, absorbing all the information that fits into my tiny mind. I see now, that there's a lot more to be done than I thought last year, that some of the assumptions I made then, were wrong. And having spent a long time learning, it is my hope, that I did learn, and that this time, the plans I came up with will serve the same goal I had last year, better.
That goal is as simple as growing Debian from a community of mostly technical folk to something much bigger, a community of enthusiastic, bright-eyed people who all want to do their part of making the world a better place. Big words, big task.
One of the most fundamental problems with the project is that it is old, and hasn't grown up yet. We're still very focused on technical merit - don't get me wrong, that is important too, but there's much more we can do than that! We have tremendous amounts of talent, but pretty much every team is suffering from lack of people, and we seem to be slow and ineffective in recruiting new contributors (either from within the project, or outside of it), and even worse at keeping them motivated. This is not new, I worried about it last year, and I'm not the only one to see things this way, respectable members of the project expressed their pessimism publicly too.
This is our biggest issue. We can be excellent at the technical level, but not being able to keep people motivated, failing to find new contributors is hurting us more and more, and it is my firm belief that without quick improvement in these areas, it won't be just me virtually walking the plank.
On the flip side, we have every tool in our possession to steer ourselves into a better, brighter direction. We have excellent hackers, we have people who are terrific at communication, we have people who inspire others (just see the pattern on the dpl-game!), we have everything we need. Read on then, dear reader, and see my plan!
Dancing on a tightrope
To tread on a path we have not taken so consciously before, we need to have a vision to strive for. A vision for the project as a whole, and a vision for ourselves, to see where we'd like to be a few years from now.
As Stefano put it so well in his platform last year, Debian is a very unique member of the larger Free Software ecosystem - go and read his description, it can hardly be written better. This is the same vision I share, where Debian grows up to be much more than hundreds of talented people putting together a distribution. I want to see Debian becoming more than that, something that attracts not only the technical geniuses, but those who wield the power of speech and inspiration too, for these traits rarely go together.
I envision a project, where people recognise each other's strengths, and make use of these strengths; where we can - and will - turn to each other, and work closely together, to achieve such good balance of skills of all kinds, as we already achieved in creating and maintaining the distribution itself.
But alas, a vision is useless without a plan. That is a mistake I made last year, one that I will not repeat again. The approaches I choose may seem strange, or weird at first, but rest assured, they were carefully considered, and most of them tried out in a smaller setting.
What I've seen and experienced over the past year (and thinking back, far more than that - I just didn't know where to put the experience at that time) is that written communication is rarely the best medium to reach out to people. In this age we live in, written text reaches those who were already curious, it rarely reaches those who're still waiting for enlightenment. And even if it does, more often than not, there is no direct channel between the writer and the reader, which hurts not only the latency of the communication, but the quality too. Not to mention, that - however sad it may sound - the recipient is often too shy to engage.
What does help, is face to face time. Events, where we can reach out to people, and receive immediate feedback, where we can notice the shy ones, and help them. Where we can immediately adapt to expectations.
For this reason, I feel it necessary to encourage and help local teams in every possible way, to organise hackfests, code retreats, and all kinds of events that they feel will attract the bright-eyed youth (be them 20 or 80, it's the spirit that counts) we so direly need. These events need not be technical at all: a session about Debian publicity, about representing the project in press or on conferences is just as useful (if not more). Along with hackfests, we could - and should - have events focused on improving communication, for that is just as important.
With strong focus placed on non-technical matters, I believe we can step on a path of rapid progress: my experience shows that techies and non-techies can inspire one another very well, much more than two techies would. With a focus on areas we are lacking in, we are indirectly improving those we are already good at.
Inspiration & motivation
But finding new contributors, be them technically-sawwy or not is only part of the task, and the easier one too. It is much harder to keep people interested and motivated over a long period of time, than to find them once.
On one hand, I would like to rely on those members of our community, who we all hold in high esteem (including, but not limited to those mentioned during the dpl-game). They know what keeps them going, they know what drives them away, we need to learn from that. I'd like to hear them speak more often, on conferences, if possible, as they are, I believe, a much more credible source than any elected official, at least in some situations.
I'd also like to hear everyone's voice, from old members to the newest ones, I'd like to read - and if so need be, conduct - interviews with people who recently became Debian Developers, to hear about their experience, to learn what they think is good or bad, because a fresh view is just as important as a decade long experience.
On the other hand, we need to act on the issues discovered too. We already know that quite a lot of trouble stems from lack of time, overburden and eventually burn out. We know the solution to this: recruit more people, and utilise the resources we do have better. Part of that can be solved by expanding our numbers, but for the other part, we may need deeper changes. What those may be, I cannot tell yet, there simply wasn't enough time to dig deeper, and I'm likely not the best person to undertake the task, either. I am, however, confident that we'll discover the solution as we travel along.
The first step is gaining knowledge, without this, no further plans can be made.
I already touched the recruitment part earlier, at least the how of the approach. What I'd like to expand on is the why, in particular: why encourage recruiting non-packaging contributors, when we are building a distribution, and we're lacking packaging manpower too?
Let me answer those questions separately.
First of all, I still like to think - but perhaps I am wrong - that we have an unbelievable amount of packaging manpower, which we fail to use to its full extent. We can use more, we always will be able to. But it also helps if we manage to put our existing resources to better use.
And that is where non-packaging contributions come in. If we improve our skills in areas we're lacking in, that in turn, will improve the general quality of the project, which in turns improves morale, and a vibrant, well functioning, welcoming community attracts even more people, and keeps us motivated in the long run too.
Mouse on the tightrope
With all that out, you may be wondering who I may be, and why you have not seen my name over the mailing lists in recent years. I'm not a terribly vocal person anymore, not a hot-headed teen I used to be some ten years ago. Most who know me, know me by my online nick name, algernon, and in most cases, I prefer that in real life too, for silly reasons I'd rather not dive into (but the primary one being that people have a hard time correctly pronouncing my name, and I have a hard time recognising my name unless pronounced the way I learnt it). Nevertheless, my name is Gergely Nagy, and I'm a recovering hacker, who intends to become a bachelor of (hungarian) arts, by majoring in Hungarian grammar & literature sometime in the next three to five years.
Over the course of the past year, I also strived to observe and learn from exceptional leaders at my day job, because there, I have the advantage of meeting with them face to face, to interact with them on a daily basis. Fortunately for me, there are people among them from whom I learned a great deal about not only motivation, but about behind-the-scenes politics too - both a valuable lesson.
And while I still have a tremendous amount of things to learn, I like to believe that I can do that. I know I can learn technical things extremely quickly (my day job depends on that, I would be out of a job if I failed at that), I'm positive that I can do the same in other areas as well, at least as long as it doesn't involve extreme amounts of economics. That proved to be a major barrier in the past.
But back to the more important point: my organising, presentation and leading skills. I'm a co-organiser of the Budapest Clojure User Group meetups, I started to encourage GSoC participation at my day job last year (we participated thanks to OpenSuSE who gave us a slot), and I'm driving it this year, aiming to become a mentoring organisation of our own. I'm doing regular talks and presentations, participate in code retreats, meetups and other similar events where I can both practice and learn the art of interacting with people, and the fine art of organising events.
It is customary during Debian Project Leader elections to write a rebuttal of the other candidate's platform. However, this is very hard to do this year, as there are a lot of overlaps between platforms, goals and ideas this time around. It is hard to rebute another platform, without also rebuting one's own. So instead of trying to highlight where I disagree (there's very little of that, if at all), I'd like to point out where I found each platform lacking.
Mind you, these notes are primarily based off of the platforms, because I'm sadly still behind on my debian-vote@ reading list. Furthermore, due to the high level of similarity between platforms, I will not always single out one or the other, but mention what I found lacking, or troublesome in general instead. So unless stated otherwise, my thoughts below apply to both Moray's and Lucas' platforms.
The thing I miss most from both platforms is the curious lack of plans about non-packaging project members (something which I strongly emphasize in my own platform). Similarly, even though Moray does mention encouraging more local events, I find those few paragraphs a little bit lacking; and Lucas does not even mention local teams in his platform, even though they are a very, very important part of the wider Debian community, and a terrific tool in our asset. They can further our reach by long miles! Considering their importance, little's said about either local teams or local events, even when the candidate does explicitly recognise their importance.
On the other hand, Lucas writes about innovation within Debian (which I found lacking in Moray's platform) - but while he does bring up the topic, I sadly found that section of his platform vague, a mistake I made last year myself, and which I tried to avoid this time, by explicitly listing a few of my ideas on how I'd imagine inspiring & motivating people (which, in turn, would foster innovation within the project).
From what I see - and I may be wrong here, and I am obviously biased - both platforms are reasonably explicit when it comes to easier topics, things that we know to work, and which we'd all continue doing in the very same spirit as our predecessor. But when it comes to experimenting, to new ideas, I found both platforms too vague. There are exceptions, of course, Moray's intern idea for example is sufficiently well explained, as far as it is possible within the limits of a platform. I found no similar thing in Lucas' platform, however, most of the ideas he explained were technical things, and those are the areas where we're fairly good at, where we already have a reasonably chance of improving - and thus, an easier topic. I was surprised by Lucas' platform, because even though he lists the need for experimentation important, the lack of truly experimental ideas was lacking - I found more in Moray's platform.
All in all, I found the discussions on debian-vote@ much more useful so far, than the platforms, a lot of things were asked and answered there that the platforms did not touch.