Home People People How Debian has grown: Stefano Zacchiroli speaks
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Despite the fact that it has a reputation for being a major site of flame-fests, and also has a steep learning curve, the Linux kernel project still has no difficulty in attracting new contributors. How is Debian going on this front and have you contributed in any way towards making it easier for new people to join?

Are you implying that Debian has a reputation for being "a major site of flame-fests"? :-) Far from it! (Really. "A major site of nitpicking"? Sure. But of flame-fests? Not nearly as 5-10 years ago or more, we graduated away from it.)

We are doing pretty well in terms of new developers. We got an average net increase of about 30 new Debian Developers (DDs) per year for the past two years. That is after discounting the turnover of people who leave (which is an entirely normal phenomenon in a project that is nearing its 20th birthday). And we have twice as much new Debian Maintainers (DMs) per year. Debian Maintainers are contributors who are not (yet) interested in becoming full DDs, but rather in maintaining specific Debian packages. Experience tells that most of them eventually decide to make the jump and become full DDs.

The DM role is not a recent innovation, but it got used a lot more recently and it has made way easier for people to join Debian.

Similarly, the process to join Debian has in recent years got based more on "track records" than Q&A. That is, we insist a lot on contributing to Debian *first* (with bug reports, patches, sponsored uploads, etc). Then, when applicants have a proven track record of good contributions, the membership process gets very expedited and boils down essentially to a few mail exchanges to ensure we're on the same page regarding Debian principles and objectives.

Debian seems (to me at least) to be something like the Free Software Foundation - responsible for a lot of the good aspects of FOSS but very rarely acknowledged. Over the last two years, I haven't seen any major moves towards garnering more media coverage for the project. Do you have any plans on this front? Or do you think it is unnecessary to solicit coverage? (This is a point I raised in 2010, during my first interview with you).

Well, our press/media activities have increased substantially during the period you mention. For instance, our press releases have doubled compared to past years. During the same period our periodic newsletter, Debian Project News, has been resurrected after a few years of inactivity. (By the way, all this has been possible thanks to the work of the Debian press and publicity teams, that are wonderful environments for those who have writing skills to contribute to Debian.)

But you are right in saying that one rarely sees Debian mentioned in major media (newspapers, consumer shows, etc.), whereas corporate-backed distributions are starting to show up there. My feeling is that to get there you need the typical network of press contacts that commercial entities are better at maintaining, given their incomes depend on it, than volunteer entities.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.