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Tuesday, 28 April 2015 12:00

New Debian leader wants to improve communications Featured


The last two people to lead the Debian GNU/Linux project have had a pleasant task first up – presiding over a new release.

Back in 2013, Lucas Nussbaum was hardly a month old in the job when Wheezy was released. And this month, Neil McGovern took over on 17 April and saw version 8.0, otherwise known as Jessie, released eight days later.

It must be a nice feeling for that to happen but McGovern wasn't sitting back and warming his feet after that; he was busy drafting answers to this interview, an exchange that has become some kind of an iTWire tradition, a Q and A with a new DPL.

McGovern has been part of Debian for more than a decade and all the experience he has accumulated working in different areas of the project should stand him in good stead over the coming year. He appears to be somewhat cautious, but pragmatic, perhaps the right mix for the leader of a project which has more than 1000 developers and double that number of opinions.

iTWire: Congratulations on becoming the leader of what is arguably the biggest FOSS project in existence. Were there any moments when you had second thoughts about what you would be taking on if elected?

Neil McGovern: I think everyone has concerns, but mine was mostly a worry that I would be able to do a good enough job for the project. I know a few of the previous project leaders, and talked to a few of them before standing. It's quite a commitment, and I wanted to be sure that I didn't bite off more than I can chew.

Apart from all the time you have spent as a free software developer, you have also been involved in some political activity. Does the latter have any influence on your thinking when it comes to software?

I think it provides three primary advantages. Firstly, you quickly learn in politics that not everything is black and white. There's a trade-off to be had between your ideal position, and what is achievable in the short term. However, the second point is that you can see those small steps lead to bigger ones – and the progress towards that better future is something tangible.

Lastly, in my role I saw a number of issues with vendor lock-in and a massive amount of public money being spent on proprietary tools. I don't believe that this is the right thing to do, so am very pleased to be able to help lead a project which aims to stop this!

Why do you think your plans for Debian enabled you to win the election ahead of the other two candidates?

Primarily, my platform had a couple of points. The main one is around communications, and working closely with the various delegated positions in Debian. I think the length of my involvement in the project, and the wide variety of posts which I've held has given me a good insight into how the project works.

However, I'd like to thank both of the other candidates for running. The decision to take on the post is a big one, and it's great that we had good enthusiasm for the project as a whole.

Are there are any remnants of bad feeling from the whole systemd saga that will need to be cleared up in the year or so ahead?

The most important thing I've seen from the debate is that despite the intense feeling on both sides, we're able to come through the whole issue without fracturing as a project. This commitment to our social contract and ideals of the project hold us together much more than any single program, no matter how fundamental it may be. I believe that most people are simply bored of the repeated arguments over this issue, and are happy to simply move on and continue to make an excellent distribution.

Will there be any bad feelings? Well, humans have emotions, and I would be lying if I pretended that everyone in the project were the best of friends. However, none of that should get in the way of us actually working together.

Personally, I've seen the amount of work that's gone into systemd to try and ensure a good switchover can happen, and I think that in five years' time, people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

You have worked as part of the press team at Debian. Do you feel that the  project is getting the right kind/amount of publicity? Or do you think there  needs to be some kind of change? Would you like to see Debian become a more widely publicised project or would you prefer that it stayed as low-key as it has been?

I wouldn't say that Debian is a low-key project, but we certainly don't have advertising departments, or the ability to churn out press releases for everything we do. I've seen the general growth of press being reported about other distributions compared to us, but that's not due to them taking away some of ours – we should be worrying about how much pie there is out there, not what share of the slice we get.

What are your views on the diversity of the Debian project? Do you have any specific plans to encourage women and minorities to join? Or is technical ability going to be the sole criterion for taking new people on?

Diversity within the project is something that does concern me, not only within the project, but in the wider community as well. I'm particularly pleased that we have an outreach team now, who'll be helping address this. In concrete terms, I intend to fund at least four Outreachy slots per year, and would welcome any other ideas on how to increase this diversity.

Technical contributions are important, but shouldn't be the sole consideration. When people apply to become official project members, we also ask about our values. Debian now has over 43,000 packages to install. Even if every single one of those was handled in a technically excellent manner, the project wouldn't be able to succeed in the way it has.

On what do you plan to spend some of the money which Debian has? (You made specific mention of this in your election platform).

Debian has received many generous contributions from companies and individuals over the years, and apart from our annual conference, they've largely been unsolicited. It's great that people want to support the project in this way, and I believe we should use that money to better the project.

One of the best ways of getting progress in the project is to get people around a table, and talk to each other. Communication over the internet has its advantages, but working physically together allows a much better flow of ideas.

Apart from that, and the outreach program mentioned above, I'm looking to project members to ask for money when they think it may be of benefit to the project – we have money spare, so let's use it!

What is the best way for users of Debian to give something back to the project?

There's a whole range of tasks that people can help with. Simply using Debian and reporting bugs is very helpful, but there's many opportunities to help the project out. The most simple one would be that if you find something you like about the system, or something that has made your life a little easier, find the maintainer of the package, and send them a quick thank you email. Volunteers aren't thanked enough for the huge amount of hours that they put in.

And finally, do you think your plans for the project will require you to stand for a second term?

There's a saying that a week is a long time in politics – I'm not going to say what I'll be doing in a year's time. However, if I still feel I can add value to the project, and the project feels the same, I'll be standing again. If not, then it'll be time to let someone else lead Debian.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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