4 months and 10 days without any new Debian developer. Is Debian dying?

Update (2008/04/18): 19 Debian Developers accounts were created today! See this post for details.
It has now been more than 4 months since the last Debian developer account was created. 18 contributors have been through all steps, and are simply waiting for this simple administrative task to be done.

We are sending a terrible message to potential contributors. We have strong requirements on the technical level of our developers. During the new maintainer process, we ask them to answer about 80 questions about Debian. We ask them to do grunt work. We review their reports twice (New Maintainers’ Front Desk, then Debian Account Manager). But even after we are totally satisfied about what they did, even after they became more qualified than many of our current DDs, we ask them to wait for months, so that the only person allowed to create accounts can finally do his “job”.

It discourages the contributors currently in the NM process. I’ve seen several signs of frustration, or even depression. Some of them reduce their involvement in Debian, so we lose them before they even became Debian developers. Some of them consider resigning from the NM process. We should all feel guilty about that.

But it also discourages people from joining Debian. Instead, they go to other more welcoming projects, which is totally understandable. Debian isn’t the only distribution with developers from the community those days. There’s Gentoo, Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE. Some of those have nice programs for new contributors, like “school” sessions. Sure, Debian is the “biggest” distribution without a company behind it. But is independance worth all the trouble?

Of course, we have Debian Maintainers. DM is great for people who want to work on their packages. But, when we are trying to release lenny, we need more: people who are going to go through RC bugs, submitting patches. Who are going to do QA work. In short: people who care more about the whole distribution.

Can we afford not recruiting anybody? Can we run Debian with the current manpower? I don’t think so. There are more than 550 RC bugs in lenny, many packages are currently blocked from migrating to lenny because they are RC-buggy, and many packages are orphaned or neglected. There are also a lot of bugs which haven’t been filed yet (I asked for help with running piuparts, which would probably result in 100-200 new RC bugs, but nobody had time to help). Most of the work that needs to be done is not rocket science. We could use a lot more manpower. Currently, the same small set of developers is doing most of the grunt work. They will get tired too.

So, what can we do, as simple developers? There’s no magic solution, but we can try a few things.

  1. It seems that some people disagree that there’s a problem. Let’s prove them wrong: we could start a blog meme with “I, too, agree that the Debian accounts and keyring situation is severely hurting Debian, and that a solution needs to be found RSN.” It’s not going to solve the problem by itself, but it will at least show that we consider it very important. Pressure could help.
  2. We could start discussing solutions together. Our newly elected DPL said that he would talk with the problematic teams to determine how the situation could be improved. Unfortunately, this has been tried in the past (and failed). It might work this time, of course, but we could prepare a backup plan. So let’s find one or two good plans, and vote on them. (I liked the idea of giving accounts creation/management to DSA. After all, it’s only an sysadmin task once the report has been approved by FD and DAM.)
  3. We could push forward Josip Rodin’s proposal about infrastructure teams. It might not solve the DAM problem immediately, but would probably help avoid similar problems in the future.
  4. Notes:
    1. Maybe the 18 waiting accounts will be created today or tomorrow. Even if that happens, it won’t solve anything. Waiting 4 months for a simple administrative task is not acceptable, and we need to fix that problem anyway.
    2. Account creation is not the only problem. Some people have been unable to upload packages or to vote for the DPL election, because their PGP key expired, and nobody updated it even if they have been asking for more than 4 months.

49 thoughts on “4 months and 10 days without any new Debian developer. Is Debian dying?

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  2. I do agree with you. I love debian, have been using it for ages, report bugs dutifully, agree with the debian philosophy, have developer skills and would like to become a DD to give back some love to debian. However, the process is convoluted. No all of us are college kids with lots of spare time on our hands.
    A clear path to DD, well documented and with some kind of one to one mentoring by an acting DD would be deeply appreciated and would attract many more people.
    At least I know it would make me take the plunge, in a heartbeat.
    So, if you know a DD willing to adopt a new applicant from start to finish, not afraid of some hand holding, count me in.

  3. I agree strongly with this reasoning. For 8 years now I’ve been using Debian as my primary operating system, I am a professional developer with experience in several programming languages, I am capable of rolling my own debs, I’ve reported bugs and helped to fix them, I’ve done translation efforts for other small projects (transmission-gtk).
    I would like to become a DD and help out the community, but its mostly the long and overly complex procedure to be followed that keeps many people (like me) at bay…

  4. I strongly agree with Jan and nglnx above – I’m a capable system administrator and programmer, and I’ve been using Debian for around 8 years (4 of which were in a commercial setting). I regularly create my own packages, and I try to report bugs as often as I can (and sometimes help to fix them).

    I’d like to become a DD and become more involved in the software which I use every day, but the sheer lack of clear information on the DD process, coupled with the fact that I regularly see blog posts from new DD’s saying things like ‘Finally, after X years, I’m an official DD” is very disappointing.

    The barriers to entry are far too high, and like many other people I’m considering moving my support elsewhere, where I can contribute without all unnecessary the bureaucracy.

  5. I concur

    If nothing changes next year I will stand for DPL on the policy of ‘fixing keyring / account delays’.

    Its gone on for too long, and most of the other problems in Debian are less important.

  6. Me too sadly agrees. (Probably not with every word, but most of them.)

    To Steve, comment #7, I like to point out that fixing ‘fixing keyring / account delays’ has been on the agenda of at least the last three dpl campaigns.

    I think this needs to be solved much earlier than 2009. Creating those accounts *now* would be one important step, as it would be needed to “really begin” with step two, whatever that will be.

  7. @ Steve Kemp:
    more importantly, most of the other problems in Debian will be easier to solve with the help of extra hands/minds…

  8. I completely agree that the duration of the process is something that needs changing.

    I do, however, not think that the process is overly complex – it’s quite a simple process, from a “end-user” perspective. (I don’t say it’d be perfect even if it were predictably fast, just that I never found it overly complex or convoluted.)

  9. It is true that Debian did not have any new developers for 4 months and 10 days.

    It is however untrue that this implies that people are waiting for “months” just to have their account created.

    If you look at the current list of people waiting for account creation, there are 18 of them. One of them got DAM approval in 2007, there might be a problem whith his application. Another one got DAM approval in February, after the last round of account creations.

    6 of the remaing 16 people got DAM approval a bit over a month ago, and the rest (10 out of 18 in total) got DAM approval a week ago.

    I agree that it’s no necessary to wait a month for an account if everything else has presumably already happened, but claiming “is Debian dying” because of this is boulevard journalism at best. Keyring maintenance needs to be improved, but witch-hunting with bogus statistics will not improve things.


  10. @Michael Banck:

    howcome in recent months I’ve seen several people posting on planet.debian.net that they’ve finally reached complete DD status, after going through a complex process which lasted 1 year or longer? (Miriam Ruiz comes to mind).

  11. @Michael Banck: I agree that the account creation step is not the only problem, and that there has been big delays at the DAM approval step too.

    However, given that the account creation is not happening, I would be totally frustrated if I were at the place of the ones working on DAM approval. It’s a pity that G is not approving people faster, because it would help show if the only problem is at the account creation stage. But it’s really hard to blame him for not approving reports, since accounts are not being created.

  12. @Jan: Because the whole process takes ages. Most of the people waiting for account creation now started the process in 2004-2006. Blaming the person finally creating the accounts for not doing so every week is simply misleading if the whole process takes years.


  13. @Michael Banck: the fact that there are other issues doesn’t mask this precise issue. Furthermore, I believe several DDs became AM to improve the begining of the process, but can’t do no more on the account creation.

    Now, there is somehow something that I never read. It is the plain reason why there are not more people in charge of this. I don’t like to put a blame on anyone, but rather prefer understanding the pros and cons.

  14. Re: Past DPLs. I think the difference is I’d suggest being DPL *specifically* to do that, and nothing else.

  15. Michael: I don’t know the time I’ve been waiting both for DAM approval and now for the account creation. I don’t really mind, as I can do lots of stuff in Debian without an account anyway. My main concern about this situation is that we’ve been lacking sponsors in the Games Team for a long time and some of us having our accounts created soon could improve that situation a lot.

    My personal feeling about the NM process is that it’s not really that hard, but it has a lot of long time gaps in which all you are doing is waiting. The only way to cope with it without burning yourself out is just by not thinking about it and not making plans or having illusions, because mostly everyone I’ve seen going through NM lately have reached DD already burn out. Some of the most common causes of burnout are:
    # Hard work with no clear goals. You work hard and hard, but no matter how long you keep at it, you cannot see any progress. But how could you see that you have got closer if you don’t know your destination?
    # Powerlessness to change something important to you. Something that you are very much emotionally attached to, but that is at the same time beyond your control.
    # Forcing yourself to make the impossible happen. For example, solving problems without having the necessary resources.

    There are some more causes, but all three of them I’ve cited are fulfilled with the current NM process. Of course the fact that we can be DM attenuates them a bit.

    In my opinion in the NM process the most important skill needed for becoming a DD right now is being patient and able to wait indefinitely without having any knowledge about when or how it will happen. That is the skill Debian is demanding us NMs above all and the one that is really acting as a filter. That skill is right now the most essential and critical one, far above whatever technical or social skills you might think about.

  16. @Michael Banck:
    I never meant to imply that the account creation is the sole defect in the process. I do however object to the complexity and length of the whole process of becoming a DD.

    @Miriam Ruiz:
    you are correct that a lot of patience is required, but it is quite a sad fact when “indefinate patience” is higher on the wishlist of a prospective DD than social or technical skills!
    There are many people around who would be a valuable asset to the Debian project, but are discouraged by the fact that to become an accepted DD they need to go through a process which might end up taking anywhere between 1 and 5 years to finish…
    For most of us, this isn’t something we are willing to wait for.
    A couple of weeks? Of course, normal.
    Multiple months? Still agreeable.
    A year or more? Sorry thats just folly.

  17. I think this is an area where Debian could learn a lot from the other major community-build distribution, that is Gentoo. In Gentoo, there are recruiters who handle the new developer for the whole process, who asses the tests, who talks to the mentor (any new dev needs to be mentored by an experienced dev) and who has the required access to create the accounts in the last step. So the whole process can be done in a matter of weeks, not months or years.

    But I think the real problem is that DDs don’t really want to solve the problem, they like being an elitist club and they think it somehow makes them better than everyone else. Debian’s problems are entirely social and political. Thats why Fedora and Ubuntu thrive so much.

  18. The keyring issue has been a problem for years. The only solution I have been able to think of is to ask Mark Shuttleworth to give Debian’s keyring maintainer some amount of time off working for Ubuntu/Canonical to finish off transferring full maintainership of the DD keyring to the person who it is being transferred to. I haven’t done anything about this because I don’t have the required social connections, but I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years.

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  20. This is not a new problem at all. If I recall correctly, I started using Debian and being involved with the Debian mailing lists in 2000, and it was a problem even then. I don’t know if the same person (J. Troup) is still responsible for developer account creation, but even if not, it doesn’t sound like much has changed.

  21. Tom: I don’t think this has nothing to do with Ubuntu. Not in this case. In fact, Debian’s NM process working better will also improve and help Ubuntu, as they’re a Debian derivative and they inherit all our work, so I cannot see how that would be an advantage for us in comparison to them. Instead of comparing Google search queries, it might be more significant to compare new developer applications, work developed by every distribution or something that would really mean something in this respect. Ubuntu’s commercial success is not Debian’s failure, and in fact there are other reasons involved far more important than the problems with the NM process for that success (such as marketing policies, restriction of the customers market, commercial network and so on).

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  23. Thanks for this.

    People often ask why I use Fedora for servers and not Debian. I try to explain to them that Debian appears to outsiders to be the worst combination of the process bureaucracy from the governments of Germany, China and India. In an industry that is moving faster and faster, Debian appears to be grinding to a halt under the weight of their process.

    I think part of the problem is that people have a hard time admitting they like the security and heirarchy involved in a process-deep environment, this prevents them from seeing the shortcomings of this organizational structure. It also, as you detail here, creates a very high barrier to go from being an outsider to a group member – and again, as with frats, people feel that the higher barriers and “costs” related to obtaining group membership convey a higher value to those who finally obtain membership.

  24. Isn’t it strange that the biggest community distro (or the “biggest distribution without a company behind it” as the author puts it) seems to have the highest level of bureaucracy for developer admission?

    I used to run Debian all over the place and now all I have left is a couple of servers chugging along. I will probably migrate those next time I see a reason for changing them. I used to follow up on Planet Debian but I quit subscribing to that some time ago as well. The level of noise is simply too high and the only thing all of that got me was disbelief in the future of Debian instead of giving me reassurance that issues that needed to be dealt with were being worked on in a responsible and adult manner.

    I also consider myself to be quite good at Debian but the very few times I needed help I ended up getting stuck with individuals with 733t answers that were meant to put me down instead of helping me out.

    Everybody seems to have an idea of what is wrong with Debian (or at least what should be improved) but for the many years I have been a Debian user, I can’t remember a single big change that the project went through. I personally think that strong leadership (to take, and stick by the unpopular changes that need to be made) is needed but many say that the lack of true leadership is what defines Debian. But if that is the case then I think it is safe to say that it isn’t working.

  25. OK, lets get something straightened up: Debian on the whole works really good, I don’t find the level of bureaucracy exaggerated or unneeded, and the fact that some other distributions are careless about things like licenses doesn’t make them right, even though they might be more agile. Debian Policy and Social Contract, strict as they are, are part of the guarantee of Debian’s quality.

    Debian is about doing things right. If those are not your priorities, well, there are other distros around to choose. This is about freedom, if you’re not happy with Debian, you choose something else.

    In my opinion Debian is not wrong. In fact I think it’s probably one of the most successful Free Software Projects. The fact that we keep often complaining about things is not because everything is bad, but because we’re too perfectionist. On the whole, I’m personally convinced that Debian ways are far above the average. I’m really proud of belonging to Debian and proud of the rest of the Developers and people that help to carry this project on.

    That said, Lucas is right in that the NM project should be improved. In fact, the problem is not really the time it takes but its impredictability. I guess it would be all right to set some time margins for each of the steps, and that would be an improvement. The NM process having flaws doesn’t mean it’s rubbish. It’s not really that bad, it works, but it can and should be improved a lot.

  26. Is it true that Canonical holds Debian keyring maintainer? (comment #22)
    The solution for this could be the first task of the new DPL.

    Also, “strong leadership” is being mistakenly used instead of “boss”: the one who FORCES his/her decisions over others.

    Debian needs true strong leadership, the one who has the rare skill to CONVINCE the peers to do what is needed to do despite being awkward, boring, lenghty, etc.

    Please, read
    Slashdot article about Debian social organization


  27. @Andre: The Debian developer who handles account creation is employed by Canonical, yes. But I sincerely don’t believe that Canonical is using this fact to “slow down” Debian in any way. There might be some rivalty between user communities. But Ubuntu developers and Ubuntu management generally have good relationships with Debian.

  28. Hi!
    After a brief reading of theses posts which were very intersting, I think that’s there also another problem. I don’t belvie that there just one problem behin the lack of involvement in Debian.
    My opinion is that there is some big changes happens. For example, the number of compagny whoses working on the Linux kernel have steadly growth in the past two years. And the new Linux’s users perfer to know that there’s a compagny behind his Operating system instead a community of developpers. I’m not claiming the death of debian, but I think there somes changes who decrease the number of adept in Debian.

    PS : I my English skills are very poor, but I tried to do my best.

  29. @David Cl

    There are also people like me who prefer that there not be a corporate backer, as this will inevitably skew development towards the backer’s business model. The number of companies becoming involved at various levels suggests to me that Linux and Open Source thinking are beginning to permeate the business world.

    Certainly we live in a time of changes, and many of those changes will be in the way we do things, and the way we structure what we do. I believe the Debian project is a part of these changes, and must not revert to the “Godfather” model.

    The problems with Debian need to be solved within the Debian context. As a user, not a developer, I see a lot that is right with the project, and I am sure it has a great future.

  30. Just a quick comment: I wouldn’t describe Debian as the “biggest distribution without a company behind it”, but more accurately as the “biggest distribution without a single company behind it”, because Debian is a community not only of developers, but also of different companies involved in its development.

  31. Well. I think it’s just right that Debian demands that DD’s are wery qualified. Sure lots of people might say”i’m capable developer” But I’m sure many of those just think they are. project like Debian is wery demanding. If you know how to write Hello World using several languages, it just is not enough.

  32. I’ll second the other comments about the process being intimidating. I’ve been using Debian for something like 12 years and have reported a fair number of bugs, some fairly important (e.g. making it impossible for a user to login to a system). The response has been decidedly mixed but I’m not going scapegoat the maintainers as they’re probably just as busy as I am.

    The problem is that in many cases you can find a bug which affects many people (all users of a specific feature, architecture, etc.) and has a patch (often upstream) available – it seems like there should be a way to recognize that this is fairly common and there should be a way to handle it which doesn’t require someone taking a package from the current maintainer. This seems like it would also be great practice for anyone who wants to get involved – maybe maintaining a patch review/QA site where someone looking to contribute without making a long-term commitment.

  33. @Ann E. Mouse: I realize you’re probably trolling but I feel the need to point out that despite the problems I’ve had with Debian our experiences have never been as deeply unprofessional as they were when we experimented with Red Hat and were orphaned without an upgrade path along with all of their other customers during the split which produced Fedora (SuSE had similar problems producing upgrades which rendered the system unbootable). By and large, the Debian culture has worked because it is fixable in a way random corporate fiat is not – that’s why we’re trying to fix it rather than abandon it.

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