May 8, 2015

New Debian Project Leader Talks Open Source Careers, PPAs, and More

Neil McGovern was elected as Debian Project Leader in April.Neil McGovern was elected as Debian Project Leader in April. The project is going through some major changes such as a switch to systemd. We reached out to McGovern to understand his roles and plans for one of the most revered open source projects. Can you tell us about yourself? Who you are, where do you live, and what do you do?

Neil McGovern: I live in Cambridge and I'm the Engineering Manager for Collabora Limited, a free software consultancy. In my spare time, I'm also the Debian Project Leader. :)

When did you come to know about Linux and Open Source?

McGovern: My first exposure to free software was from a friend at secondary school (high school in the U.S.) who started selling DVDs of Linux distributions. He initially introduced me to the concept. Before that, I'd mostly used Mac OS, in the olden days before OS X came along.

When did you start contributing to free software, and what was the driving force?

McGovern: When I went to University to study Computer Science, I joined University of Sheffield IT Committee. At the time, there weren’t any facilities offered for students to host web pages. This was originally running Mandrake. In my second year, I moved in with a housemate, who was a Debian developer, and I started packaging a client for Livejournal called Drivel.

Why did you choose to be associated with Debian and not any other free software project?

McGovern: I think Debian has a couple of unique attributes. Firstly, it's a true community distribution - we're run by thousands of volunteers. This makes it easy to get involved, and help contribute. The second is our social contract. Our five promises ensure that we will continue to remain open to our users.

Are you associated with any other projects? Can you tell us about those projects?

McGovern: A couple that are relevant: I'm a member of the NOC of the OFTC who host an IRC network that a number of free software projects use. Additionally, I was a board member of the Open Rights Group who campaign for digital rights in the UK.

What’s the lifestyle of an open source developer? Is he or she like a vigilante who has a day job and moonlights as a developer who writes software for social good? Or can free software development provide for a family?

McGovern: It's a bit of a mix. In my day job, I'm responsible for a wide range of free software engineers - so it's certainly possible to earn a living from your hobby. If you're interested in this, then my best suggestion is to get involved with a project. Not only will you be able to create world-changing software, but there's a good chance that someone will come along with a job offer. :)

Can you tell us about the role and responsibility of the Debian Project Leader?

McGovern: The Debian Project Leader (DPL) is the official representative of the Debian Project. They have two main functions, one internal and one external. In the external function, the project leader represents the Debian Project to others. This involves giving talks and presentations about Debian, as well as building good relationships with other organizations and companies.

Internally, the project leader manages the project and defines its vision. They should talk to other Debian developers, especially to the delegates, to see how they can assist their work. A main task of the project leader therefore involves coordination and communication. Additionally, the DPL controls the donations that Debian has received.

That said, a lot of the role is actually as a figurehead. As a volunteer organisation, I can't tell people what to do. I simply try and guide the project along.

How does the organization behind Debian work?

McGovern: Each year, Debian elects a new project leader (or the same one if they stand again!). Any Debian project member may vote on the candidates, and the successful candidate serves as DPL for a year. To ensure separation of powers, the DPL can delegate areas of responsibility to other people in the project. For example, deciding what is allowed in the archive, or who becomes a project member. Those delegates make decisions on their own, but obviously are accountable to the project as a whole.

It seems quite complicated, but it's a governance model that has served us well over the years and keeps a volunteer project working together.

You proposed the implementation of Personal Package Archives (PPA) for Debian. Do you think PPAs will improve the experience for Debian users looking for rock-solid, stable systems?

McGovern: I believe so, yes. The main aim of PPAs is to improve the workflow of Debian members, so they can easily create alternate versions of software which work with the main Debian system, and integrate them into the archive.

There are hundreds of PPAs for Ubuntu, will they work with Debian?

McGovern: I think that's unlikely. Although Debian has a good relationship with Ubuntu, and other downstream distributions, we have a different focus. Keeping all the main libraries in sync would create a lot of effort to allow this to happen, and it's not something we really have the time to do while developing our own distribution.

How easy or difficult will it be for developers who have Ubuntu PPAs to port them for Debian?
McGovern: I don't think it would be particularly hard, but they're really two different things. Essentially, the work is in creating Debian compliant packages, and a lot of the preliminary work will have been done in creating Ubuntu packages anyway.

Canonical is planning to move away from .deb packages and implementing their own Snappy/Click. What do you think about it? How does it affect Debian? Will it be more work for developers to create .deb packages and Snappy packages? Will either of the two distros suffer in the long term?

McGovern: The Snappy concept from Canonical seems to be geared towards cloud and IoT developments, rather than the traditional desktop or server offering. I think it offers some advantage for Canonical, but I'm a little concerned about the splitting off of development time and effort. It seems that they'll eventually move a lot of the application side over to Snappy, and I don't think that will help compatibility with the rest of the free software ecosystem.

What role do you see Debian playing in modern times when Docker and cloud are becoming popular in the enterprise segment?

McGovern: The key issue is trust - when Debian distributes a package, you know that it's met various quality and stability standards. There's a risk in moving to an entire container based model that people will simply download random applications from the internet. If a security problem is found in a shared library in Debian, we can fix it once. If that library is embedded in hundreds of different 'apps', then they'll all need fixing independently. This would certainly be a challenge to overcome. Mind you, in our latest release we had over 45,000 binary packages, so I don't think that there's a lack of choice of software in Debian!

Swapnil: What is the funding model of Debian? How does the project support itself? Are there any corporate sponsors of Debian?

McGovern: As a volunteer organisation, we're funded by voluntary donations. This ranges from individuals or companies who wish to offer hosting or hardware to the project through our partner programme. Additionally, we seek sponsors for our annual conference, DebConf which will be held in Heidelberg, Germany. However, important to note that the project is an independent one. We don't have a controlling company that sets the direction of the project.

Swapnil: Can you tell us about how women are involved in the Debian community?

McGovern: Software engineering and free software has a problem with the lack of female representation in the industry. However, we have a Debian Women sub-project which aims to help increase this, and has been running since 2004. This group has conferences, runs mentorship programmes and seeks to encourage more women to get involved with Debian. They're a great lot, so if you're interested in getting involved, I would strongly encourage you to get in touch!

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