Martin Michlmayr
Martin Michlmayr

I'm a member of Debian, and I work for HP as an Open Source Community Expert. The opinions expressed here are mine.

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The role of the DPL... and of you

Since Joey Hess posted a short conversation we had on IRC today about the role of the DPL, I thought it's a good time to express some of my thoughts. Basically, I think that most people have a bad understanding of which tasks are really involved in being DPL (e.g. much more purely administrative crap that nobody else wants to do) and that they're quite naive about what the DPL can achieve, at least in the current climate.

Let's just look at the current discussions on the -vote list. It's this time of the year when everyone pretends that its Christmas, expresses their feelings of what's wrong with Debian and where Santa Claus^W^Wthe candidates reassure them that everything will be fine. "Will you fix NM? Fix or replace ftp-master? etc." "Oh, sure I will, all of that (and more)." Honestly, would you elect someone if they told you they won't or can't? The strange thing is that the same questions get asked every year, and yet people don't get the hint and look for other solutions.

I'm not overly happy with any of the candidates this year, and I was seriously considering running again, not next year but possibly later. However, this Christmas wankfest reminded me again why that may not be such a good idea after all. I remember how much time I spent answering questions on -vote myself, and while I'm all for transparency, many of the questions were just a waste of time. This year, the questions were relatively sane in the beginning but now it's just a waste of time — most questions are posed in a way that it's clear what kind of answer people want to hear. I spent hours and hours answering questions, but at some point I thought "cannot we just stop talking for hours about what I'd do if elected and actually start doing all that stuff?". That would have been so much more productive.

Instead of asking the DPL what they'll do to solve All The Problems In Debian, why don't you ask yourself what you can do to improve the situation? There's a bottleneck with the DAM, you say. Right, the chances that you'll be added as DAM are relatively small. But have you ever considered helping the DAM and to make their life easier? How about signing up as an Application Manager and producing such good reports that it'll be a piece of cake for the DAM to approve people based on your reports? Right, it won't fix the bottleneck, but it will make the situation so much better. Instead of bitching about the security team, why don't you prepare a package, write the text for the DSA and get everything ready in a way that a DSA member can simply take your work, recompile the package and issue the advisory?

Now I'm sure some people will say that they've tried that and failed. Yes, not every upload for DSA will be accepted as it is, but how hard have you tried? And people always complain about the cabal and how hard it is to join teams. And while I agree that this is partly true, there are so many counter examples too. Look at me as an example. In 2.5 years, I became the most productive Application Manager, joined (and took over) the NM Front Desk, became a "senior" Quality Assurance member, and got elected as project leader. Am I special? No, in no way — I just put in a lot of effort. Look at Jeroen van Wolffelaar, who joined at the end of 2004, and who is involved in QA (especially MIA) and lintian, is the co-author of the new packages.d.o code and an ftp assistant. Andi Barth (who got an account in January 2004) has done important QA work (bts2ldap), is a maintainer of the developers reference and a release manager. So it's not possible to join a team, you say? Maybe you're just not trying hard enough (and the right way!). (Hint: "make me a DAM/ftp-master/whatever" doesn't work as well as "how can I make your job easier?").

What I'm trying to say is that people should stop believing that the DPL will fix everything and that they should actually help out themselves. If we all work together and put effort into the areas that need work we might actually achieve something. People have been asking for a strong leader and this urge got stronger over the last few years. But, face it, we currently don't have a culture which accepts a strong leader. Joey Hess mentioned that he wants to see a DPL who pushes technical changes. I did that too, to some degree (mostly in private since that works much better than on a mailing list where a big flamewar is guaranteed). For example, I kindly asked Joey to lower the priority of the non-free question so it would not get asked in a default installation. And he did — because Joey is a reasonable guy. (He also told me that me making this request made it easier for him to justify.) However, unfortunately, not everyone is like Joey. And what are you going to do if a maintainer refuses to listen, as many do? I mean, seriously, what can you do?

Some are increasingly talking about the good old times of Bruce Perens who would tell people what to do and make decisions. The urge for a strong leader increased over the last years. I think that's partly a reason why Branden got elected last year — people expected him to completely shake things up. I haven't talked to him and I wasn't part of the leadership team, so I don't really know what happened, but from what (little) I've heard, it seems that he tried, quickly realized just how rigid some of the structures are and gave up.

You have to see things in a historical perspective (and I can only recommend that people who have access to the debian-private archives take the time to read through them). There's a reason we have had "weak" leaders since Bruce. While now a large number of people think that Bruce was the best thing since sliced bread, lots of people were really pissed off back then with him commanding people around. And what was the result? A constitution that would ensure that no leader would ever have such power again. And that's what we're currently stuck with.

I think that one of the biggest problems Debian is currently facing is the inability to make decisions. There are so many endless, completely futile (and repetitive) discussions going on. We need someone who comes in, tells people to shut up and makes a decision on behalf of the project. A decision people will follow, even if they personally disagree with it. But seriously, do you think our culture would currently accept such a leader? I can tell you from experience that even people who have been asking for a "strong" leader won't actually follow a leader who tells them to take a certain course of action.

We really need to fix this problem, and the problem is in our culture. And since our culture is defined by who we are, you should start with yourself first. Start by asking yourself a few questions. Do you think before posting something to our lists, and ask yourself twice whether it really adds value to the discussion? If there's an area that is problematic, will you try to help out? If asked to do something you're not particularly interested in but which is good for the project will you do it? And most importantly, will you contribute to make our culture something that is fun?

The project leader is important, but don't wait for them to fix all of our problems. If there's a problem, try to figure out a way how you can solve it!

Thu, 09 Mar 2006; 04:46 — debianpermanent link