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Never give up

Scott, the first thing I want to say in response to your post is that you are not alone. I did not know someone was attacked for wearing an Ubuntu shirt in Helsinki, but I did witness at least one "Fuck Ubuntu" incident, and it seemed that Ubuntu jokes and snaps at the new distro were very common. I find this utterly childish and stupid. I am sorry for everyone who was offended.

But please don't blame or condemn everyone in Debian or the whole project for the actions of some of its members or followers.

You've already linked to my thoughts on the Ubuntu-Debian situation, so I need not cover any of that anymore. I wouldn't want to either, because believe it or not, this article got me flamed by Ubuntu developers just way too many times, in personal mails as well as in forums. Instead, let's look at the now and then this time.

I've heard a few developers express their unhappiness with Debian in the past year, much in the same way that you did. Not always was it related to Ubuntu, but quite often it was. There are newcomers to Debian who shake their head in disbelief how anyone can work in a project such as Debian, and there are the veterans among us who seem to concede that Debian has slipped away from their ideals and it's just not fun anymore.

It's not hard for me to understand each of them. I've followed Debian for nearly a decade now and thus tracked how it changed over time. We are one of the largest free software projects, and size never comes without problems. So while the Debian project used to be an association of geeks enjoying their focus on technical excellence, the sheer growth of our project called for many other fields to be managed, and we did not always handle this increase in complexity very gracefully. After all, we are all just geeks who want to have fun, aren't we? As a result, several aspects of our project have been said to "stagnate", and parts (and parties) have diverged. As a volunteer developer, it's not always fun to run up against walls and find that your innovativeness is met with stubborness or simple silence. I say "not always" because I think it's really just a matter of perspective.

Over the years, Debian has seriously affected my life, the way I look at things, the way I interact with people, and the way I do stuff. I am eternally grateful for much of that. But the learning process has not stopped. What Debian needs is a stronger grasp of the big picture. In joining all the other developers who are already doing excellent work in that direction, what better learning opportunity could there be to approach large-scale project management, away from academia and the corporate world. For me, this is a very interesting perspective of a fascinating project, one that directly relates to my current research endeavour.

I was asked recently how we "control the anarchy", and the first thing I said was that "control" was not the right word. Debian is not about control, it's about the flow. If it's not going your way, you can swim against it, you can pull out, or you can try to find ways to change that flow, bottom-up rather than top-down. I think David's idea of a steering committee is an excellent one, and I'd be happy to dedicate time to such an effort. I wouldn't call it "steering" though, as that seems too active. Rather, I envision a group of people dedicated to keeping track of the big picture (obviously in close contact with the release team) to which developers can turn if they need advice.

In the last few years, I've often asked myself why the heck I don't just give up, instead of continuously running up against problems that seemed hopeless. Even now, I sometimes think that I should have just pulled the plug, but my answer has always been no, and it looks like it'll remain that way.

Why? Because we've come an incredibly long way, and that by itself provide for a lot of motivation. Mostly, however, I decided to hang in there because I tend to like challenges, even if at first I have no idea how to conquer them. When I then look at what some of the people are doing for the project, I come to realise that there are solutions, even if the road is a long one.

You (Scott) strike me as a very innovative person, and not only because the problems you and I are looking at tend to overlap to a large degree. I strongly respect you for your work, and Canonical certainly deserves a tip of the hat for providing you with the environment to do so. Sometimes, I even envy you a little, simply because I haven't been able to get down to coding solutions as much as I would have liked to and you've beaten me to the punch on things like HCT or upstart -- even though my work in that area has been mostly vapourware, so there was no real punch to which you've beaten me... I think you'll know what I mean.

Yet, scanning some of your older blog posts, I got the impression that you weren't always happy with the way you have to do things at Canonical. And still, you're enthusiasm for working on your projects is astounding; it wasn't hard to come to that conclusion just a week ago, even though we've only talked briefly in Cambridge.

Have you asked yourself why that is?

I'll go out on a limb and postulate it's because of your innovativeness, because of your urge to push technology further, to implement cool things, and to break free of the cruft that comes with 13 years of Debian and several decades of standards á la POSIX and SysV. Debian is too conservative for you, and all the cruft weighs heavy. Ubuntu, on the other handy, is "fluffy" and not afraid to forge ahead, and you've been an active part of it from day one. As much as I hate to see you "with them" rather than with us, I think you've found your place.

And so have I. I'm less about coding than I am about integration, and there's work to do. Debian is a massive project with an amazing track record of achievements to look at. And it has problems. Well, great! Let's attack them. Never give up.

Another reason why I've stayed with Debian is because there are people who think alike. Three years ago, I would have been able to give you a long bullet lists of hopeless problems in Debian. If you ask me today, I would have problems arguing their hopelessness, for I've seen plenty of developers taking it up with these problems, and in the meritocratic way. Our release team is doing a fantastic job and I've never felt so positive about the promise we made with the next release. People like Jörg, Zobel, Raphaël, the two Alex, Meike, Christoph, and the many others I'll leave out only in the interest of brevity (the list is longer and doesn't only span Germany and France) are doing great work, and that is truly motivating. And I ought to mention explicitly our leader, Anthony, who's been doing an excellent job so far. I hope he can keep it up.

Also, take a look at our IRC channels. I would have to be lying if I'd say nothing has changed. And the same applies to mailing lists. We still have a reputation to deal with, but if you stop listening to what people say and actually take a look, I think we've come a long way. I'd even say it's become more fun to work on Debian again! I think we owe a lot of that to Debian Women. I am definitely proud to be a member of this community (with which I mean Debian as a whole, not just Debian Women).

I think I could continue this blog post endlessly. Let's not. You (Scott) may not be a fellow DD any longer, but you remain a fellow D, and I hope we'll continue to let our cooperation prosper. Now if only you had told me that "getting upstart installable required changes to twelve different packages, including sysvinit itself" when you approached me with what sounded like a simple sponsorship request... I've started to have a go at the "herculian effort", step by step. Seems like an interesting experiment.

NP: Eels / Daisies of the Galaxy

(it's really hard to find a better band for a grey Sunday morning)

Update: Maybe our reputation isn't all that bad, or Slashdot posts suddenly became all useful. A lot of insightful and interesting points in the first batch of comments...