Platform for Chris Lamb
Dear fellow DDs,
It has become a cliché to ask rhetorical questions about Debian's role in today's free software ecosystem. Is the project still relevant? Is it lacking focus? What does it stand for?
Debian will face increasing challenges in the years ahead. We could easily see ourselves relegated to the "glue" underlying the next generation of containerised systems or IoT devices — whilst a success of sorts, we would find it increasingly harder to attract and retain developers. This will compound our perennial problems of manpower but also fail to increase the philosophical, technical and social diversity within our existing membership.
We should always be asking ourselves the difficult questions such as why the Debian Wiki did not become the much-lauded Archlinux Wiki, why cloud providers such as DigitalOcean or AWS did (and do not) default to Debian, as well as how to sensibly integrate the multitude of new third-party package managers into our existing infrastructure.
Although the open source environment is not a zero-sum game, I cannot help feel a pang of regret whenever I hear initiatives — especially headline-grabbing ones — that are based on our derivatives rather than us. It is another cliché to point out that a lot of users and developers who might have used Debian directly in the past are now using these distributions; surely these ad-hoc or hobbyist types would prefer our bottom-up or "patches welcome" approach to decision making?
Despite this note of pessimism, Debian is working incredibly well. I do not intend to burden the reader with a list of successes or statistics here but our upcoming release will be our best yet and an achievement we should be truly proud of. We are also still uniquely placed to improve the free software ecosystem as a whole with a huge amount of potential for growth and innovation.
However, what I believe Debian suffers most from is a problem of communication and perception with respect to the outside world.
Our unflashy image — best encapsulated in our unengaging website — speaks to what P. G. Wodehouse might refer to as a lack of "snap and vim". My short experience in the startup community has taught me that polish and pizzazz are essential parts of any project, be they for-profit or not. We are doing ourselves, our users and potential future developers a disservice by neglecting (or deliberately avoiding) the most basic of marketing.
We also do a poor job accommodating users unfamiliar with Debian. Our support channels are replete with elementary queries such as enquiring which distribution is appropriate for their needs, or even how to perform a basic installation requiring non-free wireless drivers. Whilst these are isolated examples, our inability to make the solutions already clear illustrates that we lack sufficient empathy for newcomers or those without our context and orientation.
Lastly, outsiders who are potentially interested in contributing ask me how Debian works or are inquisitive about how things (particularly what should be worked on) are decided upon. The answer to this, of course, is the core charm and appeal of Debian for many of us but the other side of the coin is that we are easily perceived as an organisation that is difficult to grasp, with processes for contributors being negatively labelled as "hurdles" or "obstacles".
This list of woes is somewhat of a tragedy as the underlying reality is quite different: we are more relevant than ever given the increasing growth of our own userbase but also of our derivatives. Moreover, we have recently spearheaded a number of technical and socially-relevant initiatives such as Reproducible Builds. We should aim to reinforce our position, not solely from a technical perspective but also in terms of visibility and image; we do not want to become — or even perceived to be — just a high-quality package repository.
My vision for Debian
DPL platforms are often accused of including many vague promises to be "transparent", "increase participation", "promote non-packaging work" and so forth. Such overly-general promises are ultimately counterproductive; lacking a concrete metric of success or failure, they can easily lead to burnout and a lack of confidence in the role in general.
My approach will be different — whilst I will perform the usual rubber-stamping of delegations, funding proposals and quotidian ambassadorial duties, I intend to focus my efforts in four main areas. By concentrating my labour, I would endeavour to make a meaningful and lasting impact during my tenure.
First, I will organise more meetings. I have been privileged to attend many in-person Debian events including DebConfs, Bug Squashing Parties, hackathons, summits and sprints. These have not only been socially rewarding but incredibly productive for the project. More importantly, we criminally undervalue the longer-term halo effects of such meetups as they act as a social lubricant for subsequent online communications that can go awry. I would not only help encourage and assist in the organisation of new events, I would look to grow the number and diversity of people attending existing meetups wherever possible.
Secondly, I will improve our onboarding process for new users and developers. As suggested above, we are losing a large number of newcomers with a mixture of missing information in places and overly complex detail in others. I would experiment with practices such as usability testing to identify our biggest bottlenecks to, for example, a new user hearing about Debian and them trying it on their system.
Thirdly, I will create our own outreach initiative. The Outreachy project has been incredibly successful both in involving new developers under-represented in free software but also as a marketing coup for the GNOME project. Whilst a Debian-specific enterprise could not be as comprehensive, it would give us more flexibility in the manner of contributions as well as underline Debian's dedication to "universality" in all its forms with the public at large.
Lastly, I would actively remove any blockers to working efficiently in Debian. It has been said that Debian has a surfeit of funds; if your work could be improved or optimised with hardware or CPU power, I intend to change the culture so there is no hesitation in asking for it. If there are social/personality blockers, I would expedite finding creative solutions to these as well.
Who am I?
I'm a 31-year-old computer programmer from Cambridge, England. After working in the London startup scene for several years I become a freelancer and am relishing the challenges and opportunities this has offered me, especially in how I can leverage this to contribute more to free software.
I maintain a number of packages, but also have written a fair amount Debian-specific software such as AptFS, debian-bts-applet & travis.debian.net and I was also the original author of the #debian-devel-changes IRC bot and the Debian Timeline. Lastly, as part of my work on the Debian Long Term Support (LTS) project, I write a monthly report on what I have been working on within free software in general, the latest of which can be viewed on my blog. I am also the maintainer of a large amount of non-Debian software.
When I'm not coding, I am an avid reader, film-watcher, an Ironman, as well as a classical musician with a particular interest in early music.