DebConf 10: Last day and retrospective
DebConf continued until Saturday, but Friday the 6th was my last day as I left New York that evening. I’m a bit late in getting this summary written up.
Marga took a bold look at the challenges facing Debian today. She says that Debian is perceived to be less innovative, out of date, difficult to use, and shrinking as a community. She called out Ubuntu as the “elephant in the room”, which is “‘taking away’ from Debian.” She insists that she is not opposed to Ubuntu, but that nonetheless Ubuntu is to some extent displacing Debian as a focal point for newcomers (both users and contributors).
Marga points out that Debian’s work is still meaningful, because many users still prefer Debian, and it is perceived to be of higher quality, as well as being the essential basis for derivatives like Ubuntu.
She conducted a survey (about 40 respondents) to ask what Debian’s problems are, and grouped them into categories like “motivation” and “communication” (tied for the #1 spot), “visibility” (#3, meaning public awareness and perception of Debian) and so on. She went on to make some suggestions about how to address these problems.
On the topic of communication, she proposed changing Debian culture by:
- Spreading positive messages, celebrating success
- Thanking contributors for their work
- Avoiding escalation by staying away from email and IRC when angry
- Treating every contributor with respect, “no matter how wrong they are”
This stimulated a lot of discussion, and most of the remaining time was taken up by comments from the audience. The video has been published, and offers a lot of insight into how Debian developers perceive each other and the project. She also made suggestions for the problems of visibility and motivation. These are crucial issues for Debian devotees to be considering, and I applaud Marga for her fortitude in drawing attention to them. This session was one of the highlights of this DebConf, and catalyzed a lot of discussion of vital issues in Debian.
Following her talk, there was a further discussion in the hallway which included many of the people who commented during the session, mostly about how to deal with problematic behavior in Debian. Although I agreed with much of what was said, I found it a bit painful to watch, because (ironically) this discussion displayed several of the characteristic “people problems” that Debian seems to have:
- Many people had opinions, and although they agreed on many things, agreement was rarely expressed openly. Sometimes it helps a lot to simply say “I agree with you” and leave it at that. Lending support, rather than adding a new voice, helps to build consensus.
- People waited for their turn to talk rather than listening to the person speaking, so the discussion didn’t build momentum toward a conclusion.
- The conversation got louder and more dense over time, making it difficult to enter. It wasn’t argumentative; it was simply loud and fast-paced. This drowned out people who weren’t as vocal or willful.
- Even where agreement was apparent, there was often no clear action agreed. No one had responsibility for changing the situation.
These same patterns are easily observed on Debian mailing lists for the past 10+ years. I exhibited them myself when I was active on these lists. This kind of cultural norm, once established, is difficult to intentionally change. It requires a fairly radical approach, which will inevitably mean coping with loss. In the case of a community, this can mean losing volunteer contributors cannot let go of this norm, and that is an emotionally difficult experience. However, it is nonetheless necessary to move forward, and I think that Debian as a community is capable of moving beyond it.
Given my history with both Debian and Ubuntu, I couldn’t help but take a comparative view of some of this. These problems are not new to Debian, and indeed they inspired many of the key decisions we made when founding the Ubuntu project in 2004. We particularly wanted to foster a culture which was supportive, encouraging and welcoming to potential contributors, something Debian has struggled with. Ubuntu has been, quite deliberately, an experiment in finding solutions to problems such as these. We’ve learned a lot from this experiment, and I’ve always hoped that this would help to find solutions for Debian as well.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Debian has benefited from these Ubuntu experiments as much as we might have hoped. A common example of this is the Ubuntu Code of Conduct. The idea of a project code of conduct predates Ubuntu, of course, but we did help to popularize it within the free software community, and this is now a common (and successful) practice used by many free software projects. The idea of behavioral standards for Debian has been raised in various forms for years now, but never seems to get traction. Hearing people talk about it at DebConf, it sometimes seemed almost as if the idea was dismissed out of hand because it was too closely associated with Ubuntu.
I learned from Marga’s talk that Enrico Zini drafted a set of Debian Community Guidelines over four years ago in 2006. It is perhaps a bit longand structured, but is basically excellent. Enrico has done a great job of compiling best practices for participating in an open community project. However, his document seems to be purely informational, without any official standing in the Debian project, and Debian community leaders have hesitated to make it something more.
Perhaps Ubuntu leaders (myself included) could have done more to nurture these ideas in Debian. At least in my experience, though, I found that my affiliation with Ubuntu almost immediately labeled me an “outsider” in Debian, even when I was still active as a developer, and this made it very difficult to make such proposals. Perhaps this is because Debian is proud of its independence, and does not want to be unduly influenced by external forces. Perhaps the initial “growing pains” of the Debian/Ubuntu relationship got in the way. Nonetheless, I think that Debian could be stronger by learning from Ubuntu, just as Ubuntu has learned so much from Debian.
I enjoyed this DebConf very much. This was the first DebConf to be hosted in the US, and there were many familiar faces that I hadn’t seen in some time. Columbia University offered an excellent location, and the presentation content was thought-provoking. There seemed to be a positive attitude toward Ubuntu, which was very good to see. Although there is always more work to do, it feels like we’re making progress in improving cooperation between Debian and Ubuntu.
I was a bit sad to leave, but was fortunate enough to meet up with Debian folk during my subsequent stay in the Boston area as well. It felt good to reconnect with this circle of friends again, and I hope to see you again soon.
Looking forward to next year’s DebConf in Bosnia…