October 10, 2000

Sir(e) Ian Murdock, fundamentally Debian

Author: JT Smith

By Julie Bresnick
NewsForge Columnist
Open Source people

Ian Murdock, father of Debian and founder and CEO
of Progeny Linux Systems, is
fundamentally fundamental, in every sense of the word. He is basically,
primarily, "the harmonic component of a complex wave that has the lowest
frequency and greatest amplitude." He even repeatedly serves as an "original
or generating source."He says he's pretty boring, but the truth is that the hero is never
really the most colorful character. Think of Sean Astin in The Goonies or
C. Thomas Howell in the Outsiders. They are often the most solid, the
possessors of vision, the most reliable, the calmest ones. The ones who can lead
everybody through the tough period. They're the ones the crazy characters
call when they find themselves in jail.

Unlike many of the programmers I've spoken with, Murdock says he never
took stuff apart to figure out how it worked. In fact, the last time he
momentarily forgot his inability to behave this way, he broke a lamp.
Instinctually, this trait makes me skeptical, but he remains confident of his
hacker status. I understand why when I look further into the culture of
Debian and find a systematic society laid out in such detail and intricacy
that only a true hacker could have written it. It is a software project
replete with its own Social
Contract
, Guidelines, a Constitution, and a Policy Manual. I
understand why he repeatedly uses the term "methodical" to describe himself.

Methodical, deliberate, systematic; every last detail covered, explained,
addressed, an attention to detail that only a hacker can possess and a
realization of the larger perspective only a CEO can boast.

"I am more like a leader of hackers. I don't have the single-mindedness
that a good hacker does that can sometimes lead him to get caught up in
trivialities. I can see a big picture pretty well and that probably puts
me in a good position to run a company."

But he's more than just a leader. The man is a habitual patriarch. He
says he opted out of the PhD route, which he had begun in Arizona, because
he didn't think it was fair to continue to eclipse his wife's goals with his
own. Simply naming one of his "babies" after her ("Debian" is a combination
of her first name, Deb, and his, Ian) was simply not enough to placate her
desires to be a mother. But it seems to me that for years Murdock has been
warming up for his defining role.

Over the last 10 years he has nursed a degree, fathered an operating
system, and nurtured the community that supports it, even as he continues to parent four
dogs, a company, and now, at last, a baby girl. And there is no doubt that
the last, affectionately named Regan, is the pinnacle, the culmination; it
seems every venture before was in unconscious preparation for fatherhood. I
am practically sobbing by the time he gets through with his last speechless
confession of the grandeur of that role.

He says they chose the name Regan because they liked the way it sounded. My suspicions that it was simply as close to "regal" as they could
acceptably get are confirmed when he tells me it means something like
"princess."

Make no mistake, this is a label of adoration, not mockery, for any
princess who shares the floor she squirms on with four large dogs (three
rescued from the pound and one Deb gently jostled from the jaws of death
after seeing it hit by a car in front of her), reigns not in a kingdom of
finery but affection. (One of them is the same breed as the dogs the Queen
of England owns.)

"We were afraid that she might be afraid of them but all she wants to do
is pull on their ears and they don't mind."

Dying to locate the dirt, the quirks, the insanity that makes for good
reading, I asked him if he had any rituals or strange habits to which he was
addicted, hoping, in the back of my mind, for some sort of confession.

"Well, every morning I get up and the first thing I do is change my
daughter's diaper ... but that's probably not what you mean."

I'll take a hundred shares of Progeny Linux! (No, it's not public yet.)

Had he ever changed a diaper before?

"No I hadn't. I was terrified, not of changing a diaper, but I had never
really held a baby before. I mean I had held my nephews when they were three
or four, but never a baby. And there's this little fragile thing, but I
learned quickly that they are remarkably resilient."

(I didn't want to press any further on that one.)

I asked him if he cried when he first held Regan. He said, "Oh yes."

"It's something you can't even ... you think you're going to know how you
feel but you don't and you try to explain to someone else how you feel and
you can't.

"I used to wonder what the meaning of life was until now."

His voice is so sincere, his mind so helpless, challenged by the emotions
of fatherhood.

Not surprisingly, his family is, "hands down," the achievement of which
he is most proud, but Debian runs a relatively close second.

"I am intensely proud of Debian. I did this thing that has impacted so
many people's lives. It is intensely gratifying. Not only are a lot of
people using it, but a lot of these guys that work on Debian do it because
it's fun, it's a volunteer project. This is part of the reason that we
started it in the first place. It's more than an operating system it's a
hobby."

Transitioning comfortably into humility, what impresses him most about
Debian is the community that's grown around it.

"It's critical mass. I was Debian and eventually it grew beyond that and
other people became involved and at some point, I'm not sure when, it took
upon a life of its own. Like a living organism it's got it's own survival
instinct."

Often hailed as the most successful open source project to date, he is
thrilled when he encounters young Turks that know more about Debian than he
does.

"One of the original ideas going in to Debian is that you should really
separate the thing from the founder. One of my proudest moments is when I
realized that Debian could go on without me and do well. It's grown quite a
bit since I left and it's a very different project than it was. And the fact
that there are things about Debian that I don't know I think is wonderful."

Effortlessly, a parenting parallel emerges.

"At some point it's time for the kids to go out into the world and make
their own impression."

Sure, like any good geek, CEO Murdock confesses he misses some of the
programming he used to do in his pre-Progeny days, but let's face it:
anything from here on out is icing on what is sure to be, in the end, one
gorgeous and delicious cake.

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