On the New Maintainer process

So, I decided to raise the topic of our New Maintainer process again. To summarize it, our process is the following:

  • Applicant applies, and get advocated by an existing DD. (Takes a few days at most)
  • An Application Manager is assigned to the applicant. Due to the shortage of people willing to help as Application Managers, it often takes several months to get an AM assigned.
  • The Application Manager asks more than 50 questions to the applicant. The questions cover legal stuff, and more technical stuff about packaging and Debian procedures. For the curious, the templates that almost all Application Managers follow are available in the nm SVN repository (see nm_pp*.txt and nm_ts*.txt). Answering all the questions often takes several months, because after each set of questions, the applicant might have to wait for his AM to find the time to review his answers.
  • After all the questions have been properly answered, the AM writes a report (about 1 hour of boring work), that is sent to the NM Front Desk.
  • A member of the NM Front Desk reads the report, and ask additional questions or pass the report to the Debian Account Managers. This step used to take a very long time, but the situation has improved with the addition of new FD members.
  • A member of the DAM read the report, and decides to allow the applicant to become a DD, or reject the applicant. This step still takes several months.

This process has two flaws:

  • It doesn’t help to produce an OS: Debian is not about educating people, it is about producing an operating system. The process of asking questions doesn’t produce anything useful for Debian.
  • It is long and boring, even for good candidates. Many people drop out of the process simply because they get too frustrated of waiting for their AM, FD or DAM. A DD once told me that when people get out of NM and become DD, most of their Debian life has already passed. This is quite true.

So, I proposed to change the process, to something a lot simpler:
When someone wants to become a DD, he seeks advocates amongst the current DDs. Each advocate writes a recommendation email stating under which conditions he worked with the applicant, and why he thinks the applicant should be made DD.
After a sufficient number of advocates have been found (5, for example), the applicant goes through a shorter NM process, only answering 5 or 10 questions, chosen amongst the 50+ from the templates.
Everything is then forwarded to DAM, who takes the final decision.

This proposal received strong opposition. Apparently, people feel that all (or most of) the questions are really necessary, and that relying on the judgement of random other DDs would lower the quality of Debian. Other people consider that it is not a problem if the NM process is taking more than a year for most applicants (even for very good applicants).

I personnally think that we should judge applicants on the skills that will matter when they will be DDs: social skills, technical skills (based on real work, not on their ability to understand documentation), and the consequence of both, the ability to ask for help when there’s something they don’t know. The current NM process mostly measures their ability to use google to search through existing documentation. My proposal didn’t make the process easier, it only made it shorter and less boring: finding 5 advocates is going to be very difficult, because the applicant will have to convince 5 different DDs to say: “I think that X is ready to be a DD now.”

Also, Debian is not the only project trying to recruit new developers, and we are clearly one of the less appealing currently. By not being more open to new contributors (by more open, I mean: shorter and less boring process, not process requiring less skills), we shoot ourselves in the foot. In the end, we reduce the relevance of Debian.

It is quite clear based on the discussion that we won’t get rid of the 50+ questions anytime soon. However, the suggestion to merge FD and DAM (one way or another) emerged from the discussion, which might help with the bottleneck at the end of the process. That would already be a good thing.

Finally, the discussions about the NM process are always interesting, because lots of people have lots of things to say about it, despite never having been an AM. So, to help reading the discussion, here is the full list of Application Managers who had at least one NM that became a DD over the last two years (yes, there are only 41 DDs in that case):

Andreas Barth Mohammed Adnène Trojette Ana Beatriz Guerrero López Anibal Monsalve Salazar
Alexander Sack Bas Zoetekouw Ben Hutchings Bernhard R. Link
Bruno Barrera Bernd Zeimetz Don Armstrong Enrico Zini
Felipe Augusto van de Wiel Alexander Wirt Francois Marier Gunnar Wolf
Marc Brockschmidt Simon Huggins Joerg Jaspert Kari Pahula
Cyril Brulebois Kurt Roeckx Lucas Nussbaum Luk Claes
Pierre Habouzit Martin Wuertele Martin Meredith Michael Koch
Christoph Berg Jonathan McDowell Paul Wise Riku Voipio
Santiago Ruano Rincón Patrick Schoenfeld Reinhard Tartler Martin Michlmayr
Thijs Kinkhorst Thomas Viehmann Steffen Joeris Wouter Verhelst
Martin Zobel-Helas

10 thoughts on “On the New Maintainer process

  1. I’ve recently started to take the various questions as a checklist to make sure that new developers have had a glance of most of the many bits of Debian. I encourage people to reduce the amount of wasted time by welcoming replies with URLs or cut&paste. I don’t followup a good answer with further questions, only with additional information if I think it is useful. I also tend to point people to where the questions are, in case they want to have a look at what to expect or if I’m slow and they’d like to start looking into future things.

    In my last months of NMing, I have done my best to reply to each message within 2 or 3 days. Most applicant were done within a couple of weeks, those who are not is because they are just terribly busy with non-debian things.

    If I don’t waste the time of the NMs, I also don’t waste my time, which allows me bring more good people into Debian in the same time.

    My point here is that if a change of procedure is controversial, we can start thinking about a change of attitudes: it already helps quite a bit, then we can see where it leads.

  2. I agree that the process must be easier. If you’ve done great work, you won’t need so many things to get upload rights, because your work in visible by everyone. Imagine the great people out there from Ubuntu, that Debian could get to improve it.

  3. @Enrico: while I consider that such changes are a very good thing, they are only patches for a process that I consider fundamentally deficient.

    If you start accepting replies that are only “Policy 5.10″, for example, maybe the next step is to remove all those questions because, after all, if the applicant said he read all the doc, and we trust him, there’s no need to ask those questions (and we could spend time improving the docs, instead).

  4. @Lucas: I disagree. I talk of practice, you reply with theory: this kind of hair splitting is exactly what I think kills the common sense that would be the start of any useful improvement.

  5. @Enrico: I’m not replying with theory.

    We can pursue changes that improve the current process marginally, like you do. Or consider that more radical changes are needed, like I do. However, I appreciate the fact that small improvements are being implemented in the current process, because I realize that making dramatic changes to the process is likely to be impossible.

    For example, I see the optimization of merging FD+DAM as a good thing, even if it’s still about marginally improving the current process.

  6. Lucas, I feel you’re essentially right on this. What you describe is the start of a modern practical vocational qualification system, while NM is currently an academic-style research society award. Debian is (should be?) a production project more than a research project, so that doesn’t seem ideal.

    So I will review the discussion with interest once I get time. My support will count for essentially nothing with the current NM process designers, though, based on past times when I’ve suggested reform. I felt there wasn’t an understanding of the basic model. Have the people changed? Do we have people who have worked in awarding vocational qualifications involved now?

    Enrico’s first reply seems to blame NM applicants for the slowness, which I believe isn’t entirely fair, but I have neither hard data about whether my beliefs are true or not, nor resources to collect that data just now. Anyone know a grant I could get to do that work?

  7. I think your “summary” of the thread is quite biased, but this is your personal blog with yout thoughts and POVs, so it is expected.

    You have forgot a step that implies more job in the process. When a NM applies, after the advocating email, FD mails (currently this is manual) to the NMs asking what they do in Debian.
    This step is something that myon started doing (IIRC) and it is a good idea to help in the AM asignation: active contributors get an AM quicker. But this step in IMHO punishes in some way to very active contributors, they can spent hours telling what they do :)

  8. What you suggest here is how it essentially works in Ubuntu. A person who wants to become MOTU (Masters of the universe) team member, applies to MOTU Council and requests feedbacks from another MOTUs he has worked with. When these MOTUs provide their feedback, the council makes a decision.
    The feedback a candidate gets is mainly covers his/her understanding of Ubuntu release processes, social skills, responsible behavior, understanding of standard packaging practices, responsiveness when something goes wrong and ability to work in teams.

    The process has worked well so far.

  9. I think that the point you make about education is one of the keys of the problem. If the NM process is not to educate future developers, then there asking 50 questions for which the applicant is supposed to already know the answer is a big expenditure of energy for little benefit. And answering by cut-and-paste is simply turning the whole exercise into electronic bureaucracy. The purpose of long lists of questions is usually to rank the people who pass the test. Since we do not need ranking, we should try alternatives like the advocating system you proposed.

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