Friday, 06 March 2020 10:42

Debian leader Hartman says one year at the helm will do for now

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Sam Hartman: "As DPL I've had an opportunity to see more of the big picture of Debian and I've been impressed at the dedication and quality that all our contributors bring to the project." Sam Hartman: "As DPL I've had an opportunity to see more of the big picture of Debian and I've been impressed at the dedication and quality that all our contributors bring to the project." Supplied

Debian project leader Sam Hartman has decided not to run for the post again this year, putting his decision down to the fact that the mix of problems facing the community GNU/L:Linux project for the next year don't play to his strengths as much as those of the current year did. However, he did not rule out putting his hand up for the post again sometime in the future.

When Hartman was elected leader in April last year, he told iTWire in an interview that one of his priorities was to improve the process of decision-making.

And he says that during his tenure as leader, that problem has been tackled, at least to some extent. "I think we've made good progress figuring out how to make decisions," he told iTWire.

"Unfortunately, some of the decisions have had no easy answers. Feelings build up, and just because we've decided doesn't magically make that go away. We need to remind ourselves that we are still a community and find a way to process these feelings. That's something I am very interested in working on, but it's not something I can work on alone."

Hartman, who has been a maintainer of the Kerberos software for Debian for many years, said that one of the keys to the success of the project was delegation. "We let individual maintainers have significant autonomy working on their own parts of Debian," he said. "Similarly, we put together teams to divide the work of Debian.

"We don't have great mechanisms to resolve things when these systems aren't working as well as they could. Perhaps someone has burned out or no longer has enough energy. Perhaps there is some disagreement. The mechanisms we have to approach situations like that tend to be confrontational and to build up strong feelings. They also can be ineffective at times."

Asked about what he thought he had been able to accomplish as DPL, Hartman said his main focus had been on helping the project develop tools to make decisions.

"Debian has been criticised for endless discussions that never come to a conclusion," he explained. "I showed multiple ways we could have discussions, listen to everyone and make decisions. Traditionally the DPL has been hands off. I think it's important for the DPL not to favour specific technical approaches. But the DPL is often in a position to have a good idea about what items are important to work on.

"And so I worked to facilitate discussions without driving a specific technical agenda. I used skills I learned in the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) and in doing consensus work in small start-up companies.

"In the past the DPL has also been fairly hands-off for decisions made by project-wide votes (general resolutions). I showed that a DPL could help facilitate that process too, and help come to conclusions even when consensus is impossible.

He listed the things he had achieved:

"In terms of specific things accomplished:

  • "Help Debian standardise on more consistent ways of doing packaging. That way we can better share effort by using a more uniform approach; and
  • "Led the project through a vote to decide how we're approaching systemd and init systems, bringing the project much closer to resolution on questions that have been open for many years."

Debian has more than a thousand developers from around the globe and given that everyone has an opinion — sometimes more than one — discussions can often get pretty rowdy.

As to things he had set out to do and not been able to complete, Hartman said he had hoped to bring more of a process for resolving conflict and de-escalating strong feelings in the project.

"Sometimes I was able to de-escalate things myself as DPL, but I didn't manage to create a cultural change or to build up a community of people working on that de-escalation. I was hoping to build up a team of people that could help us resolve conflict, and I didn't succeed in doing that."

Looking to the future, Hartman said there were many technical projects going on inside Debian. "But for me, the biggest joy is that I see us working on firming up our community," he said. "We're starting to understand areas where Debian, as a community, is hard on its members and on newcomers.

"We're seeing the importance of improving and continuing to do so. So, as we go forward, I think Debian will be an easier community to be part of."

He said leading the project had been "an amazing experience: sometimes joyful, sometimes humbling. As DPL I've had an opportunity to see more of the big picture of Debian and I've been impressed at the dedication and quality that all our contributors bring to the project.

"If the time is right in the future, I'm very open to doing this again."

Debian is the only free software project that has an elected leader. The project puts out what is arguably the best GNU/Linux distribution which caters to the widest range of architectures and has served as the base for many other distributions, including the most popular one, Ubuntu.


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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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