Sunday, 12 July 2020 17:06

Celebrating individual achievements will bring Debian more visibility, says new DPL

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Jonathan Carter: "In terms of being a coherent and single project, the place where that matters for us is our shared commitment to the Debian Social Contract and the Debian Free Software Guidelines." Jonathan Carter: "In terms of being a coherent and single project, the place where that matters for us is our shared commitment to the Debian Social Contract and the Debian Free Software Guidelines." Supplied

New Debian GNU/Linux project leader Jonathan Carter is seeking to celebrate individual achievements as part of his effort to better publicise the project, one of the main goals he advanced as the reason for running for the post this year.

Carter won the election for leader in April. He has been occupied with a number of issues thereafter and hence his interview with iTWire — a regular feature for this site every year — was delayed a bit.

The first leader from South Africa, Carter, who is also known as highvoltage, said in his nomination email that he was contesting for the post because he felt Debian was worth protecting and it was worth working to make it an enjoyable and productive environment.

At 38, he is around the same age as many others who have stepped up to the plate in years past.

iTWire: One of the points in your platform for the election was that you wanted to "bring better visibility to good work that's being done." By that I take it you mean the Debian project needs to blow its own trumpet a little more. What ideas do you have in mind for this?

Jonathan Carter: Recently, I took some time to read some old threads on debian-private and debian-devel. Even since the early days of the project, it's been a general complaint from our project members that we don't do enough to market Debian.

In preparation for my "Bits from the DPL" talk I'm working on for DebConf20, I watched all the previous DPL talks, and the issue comes up there every year too.

Our marketing is a real issue because many people out there have really odd misconceptions about Debian, and I think we have a collective responsibility to better explain to the general public what we're about and why Debian is important.

On the positive side, our Web team had a sprint last year and a session at DebConf, and are working on improving the aesthetics of our website. Our press team is also doing a great job of scheduling communications via our platforms and publishing it via third party channels like social media sites.

In terms of bringing visibility to good work that's being done, I think it's important that we celebrate individual achievements within Debian better. It happens often that an individual will spend many hours for weeks or even longer to land a feature, new package or bug fix in to Debian. And then? They typically would not even get a "thank you" or "good job" from anyone. Now, many of us in Debian don't do the work for the glory or for the recognition, but it can still be rather anti-climatic and disappointing when you deliver a major piece of work to the project and then feeling like no one cares. This can demotivate a contributor for a while and it has a negative effect on our reputation too, since our work becomes invisible to people on the outside.

Over the last year, a few of us have been working on a project called Debian Social. It's still very new and in beta; for now we have a PeerTube instance (video sharing), Pleroma (microblogging), Pixelfed (photo sharing) and Jitsi (video calling).

One of the ideas for Debian Social is that Debian Developers share the things that they've been working on using these platforms. For example, if you developed a new installer feature, you could make a quick demo of it and post it to PeerTube. If you got Debian running on some weird and alien device, you could post a picture to Pixelfed. Overall we'll introduce some standard set of hashtags that we could use, some that the press team could pick up on and run a feature with the people who have posted their work. This can help bring attention to good work being done in Debian for both the people inside the project as well as the general public and might help developers feel more appreciated for their contributions.

Given the number of developers in the project, and the fact that everyone has at least one opinion on any subject that comes up for debate, how do you plan to channel these diverse views into a coherent single platform?

The diversity of our software is one of the things that makes Debian great. We have multiple desktop environments, web servers, databases, mail transport agents and many more type of software where you have more than one great choice available.

I don't think we need (or would want) to channel all our different views into a single platform. Debian is different things to different people, and some people have very unique use cases which are perfectly valid. As a project, we're completely fine with people using Debian in new and interesting ways, as long as there's someone willing to do the work to make that possible. In terms of being a coherent and single project, the place where that matters for us is our shared commitment to the Debian Social Contract and the Debian Free Software Guidelines.

Linux distributions, in general, are not talked about much any more, now that the operating system is used so much all over the tech landscape. But on the desktop, Linux is a failure at best. Do you agree? If not, do you have any plans to push the o-s as a desktop system?

I don't agree on either count. Linux distributions are a hot topic at the moment throughout the software landscape. In the last year, Microsoft released WSL2, the Windows Subsystem for Linux that allows you to very easily and transparently launch a Linux kernel in Windows and start up a wide variety of Linux distributions by just making a few clicks from the Windows Store. The combination of Windows and Linux have proven to be very attractive to some developers working on macOS who have typically enjoyed that system for its tight UNIX integration.

The above has not gone unnoticed by Apple. During their annual conference this year, they demoed their new ARM-based dev kits and how it supports virtualisation. Instead of demoing that it could run another virtualised macOS system, they showcased that it could run a virtualised Debian system, clearly demonstrating that they have a need to show that they can play along nicely with Linux too.

At the same time, both Dell and Lenovo have started offering Linux systems on an ever increasing portfolio of systems, both having staff who work with Linux distributions to improve Desktop support on their systems. Meanwhile, just last month showed another spike in desktop Linux usage with yet another all-time high. I'm not sure by which definition you'd consider Linux on the desktop a failure, but from what I can tell competition to support Linux is really hot right now and it's continuing to heat up.

Do you think it might be a good idea for Debian to hold a media conference once every three months to tell journalists at large what is going on instead of journalists having to come to the project instead?

It sounds like a good idea, our press team have been great at communicating happenings inside of Debian, but as I mentioned in the first question, I think we can be better at communicating our developer news to the media; perhaps a quarterly communique that summarises the last three months with some Q&A sessions could be great.

Coming from South Africa as you do, what differences do you see in the use of Linux in Africa and the rest of the world? How much of a movement is there in Africa (I mean the continent) to use a free operating system?

I usually find it difficult to relay to people from Europe and North America just how much more difficult it is for someone from Africa to contribute. Computers (both new and used) are significantly more expensive to procure. On top of that, access to broadband is also more scattered and significantly more expensive.

It also doesn't help that people tend to have a lot less leisure time and on average, also tend to have more family responsibilities (like helping to take care of an elderly relative, for example). Of course, human beings are great at overcoming adversity, and free software continues to grow throughout Africa. I was considering visiting some local PyCon events in Africa this year until COVID-19 happened. When it's safe to do so, I very much look forward to meeting more Africans who are interested in growing free software on the continent.

In Debian, we're also looking at forming a centralised local team support group. This would be a group that has a budget that can send things like T-shirts, flash disks, pamphlets and so on to local teams around the world. This might also help spark some excitement and interest in areas where Debian isn't very represented at the moment. If anyone is interested in joining this effort, there will be a session at DebConf20 Online.

One of the big bugbears that some people still have with Debian (and other FOSS projects) is the lack of women. Any ideas to attract women into the project or does it really not matter, as long as the devs being attracted to the project are capable, competent people?

It's certainly a problem in Debian. On a social level, we don't want to be a monoculture and we want to be diverse and be welcoming to all. Currently, women are severely under-represented in our community. I do think that it helps that we have more women in leadership roles within Debian at the moment. Since last month, for the first time, we have two women on our Technical Board, one of whom is the chair of the board. While it's just a small step in the right direction, I think it might go some good ways to help women feel more welcome in the project when they see other women in leadership roles.

Debian generally has issues getting funds for all the activities it plans. What are your ideas to improve on fund-raising?

Which issues are you referring to? So far, sponsors of the project have stepped up and contributed every single time we needed anything, and our finances are stable.

Anything else you would like to mention?

I briefly mentioned it before, but DebConf20 is happening online this year! Join us from 23 to 29 August if you'd like to learn more about Debian or even if want to get involved! More information is available here.


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Sam Varghese

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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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