People Behind Debian: Francesca Ciceri, Member of the Debian Press & Publicity Teams

Francesca Ciceri, photo by Andrew McMillan, CC-BY-SA 2.0

I met Francesca in Debconf 11 in Banja Luka. If I recall correctly, it’s Enrico Zini who introduced me to her, because she was the “madamezou” (her IRC nickname) who started to get involved in the publicity team. Since then — and despite having a bachelor thesis to complete — she got way more involved and even gained official responsibilities in the project.

Before starting with the interview, I wanted to mention that Francesca is drafting a diversity statement for Debian… I was expecting the discussions to go nowhere but she listened to all objections and managed to improve the text and build a consensus around it. Thank you for this and keep up the good work, Francesca!

Raphaël: Who are you?

Francesca: My name is Francesca, I’m 30 and I studied Social Sciences. Currently I live in Italy but I’m planning to go abroad (not a lot of jobs here for geeky social scientists). Apart for Debian and FLOSS world in general, I have unrestrained passions for chocolate; zombie movies; sci-fi; zombie books; {knitting|sewing|crafting} and DIY in general; zombie videogames; bicycles; pulling apart objects to look inside them; splatter B movies, David Foster Wallace’s books, playing trumpet, and… did I already mentioned zombies?

Days are too short for all this stuff, but I try to do my best.

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Francesca: Some years ago I was stuck in bed for — literally — some months, due to a grave series of migraine attacks. I wasn’t able to do anything: no social life, no books or television. So, I decided to turn on the laptop and do something constructive with it: I was already a Debian user and it seemed quite logical to me to try to give back to the community. I am not a coder and I’ve not studied Computer Science, so my first step was to join an Italian Debian on-line community (Debianizzati) and help with tutorials, users support, wiki management. In a couple of months I learnt many things: helping other users with their problems forces you to do lots of research!

My first contributions to the Debian project were mostly translations of the main website. Translators are the perfect typos spotters: they work so precisely on the text to be translated that they finish to do a great QA job. This is how I’ve started to contribute to the Debian website: with very simple things, fixing typos or wrong links or misplaced wml tags. I still remember my first commit to the website: the idea was to undercase some tags, but it ended up that I misplaced some of them and — in addition — I fixed them only in the English page and not on the translations as well. When after a couple of minutes, Kåre Thor Olsen — a long time contributor of the team and now webmaster — reverted my commit, I felt so stupid and full of shame. But, to my great surprise, no one treated me like an idiot for that error: Gerfried Fuchs, one of the guru of the team, replies me in a really helpful and polite way explaining what I did wrong and how to do things correctly. I think this episode was a turning point in my Debian life: there’s this idea that Debian Developers are just a bunch of arrogant assholes and maybe it was true in the past, but for my experience they are not. Well, at least the ones I met and work with ;).

“To my great surprise, no one treated me like an idiot for that error.”

Since then, I joined the WWW team and helped them apply the shiny new design provided by Kalle Söderman. A lot of work was done during the week immediately before the release of the new website. Oh that was a week! We worked night and day to have the new design ready for February 6th, and it was fantastic when we finally published it, simultaneously with the release of Squeeze.

At the same time, I started to contribute more actively to the Debian Publicity team, not only translating news but also writing them. It can sound scary for a non native English speaker to write something from scratch in English, but you have to keep in mind that your text will be reviewed by native speakers before being published. And we have some fantastic reviewers in the English localisation team: particularly Justin B Rye, who is tireless in his effort and — more recently — Moray Allan.

I think I’m particularly lucky to work with all these people: there’s a special mood in both Publicity and WWW team, which makes you feel happy to do things and at the same time pushes you to do more just because it’s fun to work with them sharing jokes, ideas, rants, patches and hugs.

Raphaël: I believe that you have been trough the new member process very quickly. You’re now a Non-Uploading Debian Developer. How was the experience and what does this mean to you?

Francesca: Becoming a Debian Developer was not so obvious for me, because I didn’t need to be a DD for the work I do in Debian. For instance, I don’t maintain packages, so I had no reasons to want to become a DD in order to have uploading rights. For a while I didn’t really feel the necessity of being a DD.

Luckily, some people started to pester me about it, asking me to apply for the NM process. I remember Martin Zobel-Helas doing this for an entire week every single day, and Gerfried Fuchs doing it as well. Suddenly, I realized that people I worked with felt that I deserved the DD status and that I simply had thought I didn’t. As a non coder and a woman, there probably was a bit of impostor syndrome involved. Having people encouraging me, gave me more confidence and the desire to finally become a DD. And so I did.

The process for non uploading DD is identical to the one to become an uploading DD, with one exception: in the second part of the process (named Tasks and Skills) instead of questions about how to create and maintain packages, there are questions about the non packaging work you usually do in Debian.

The general resolution which created the possibility to become a non uploading DD gave us a chance to recognize the great effort of Debian contributors who work in various area (translations, documentation, artworks, etc.) that were not always considered as important as packaging efforts. And this is great because if you are a regular contributor, if you love Debian and you are committed to the project, there are no reasons to not be an official member of it.

With regards to this, I like the metaphor used by Meike Reichle in her recent talk about the Debian Women Project (video recording here):

a Debian Developer status is a lot like a citizenship in a country that you’re living in. If you live in a country and you don’t have citizenship, you can find a job, buy a house, have a family […] but if this country – at any point in time – decides to go into a direction that you don’t like, there’s nothing you can do about it. You are not in the position to make any change or to make any effect on that country: you just live there, but there’s no way that you can excercise influence on the people who run this country.

Raphaël: You recently joined the Debian Press Team. What does it involve and how are you managing this new responsibility?

Francesca: The Press Team is basically the armed wing of the Publicity Team: it handles announcements that need to be kept private until the release, moderate the debian-announce and debian-news mailing list and maintain contacts with press people from outside the project.

The “real” job, so, is done within the Publicity Team. The most important part of our work is to write announcements and the newsletter: while the newsletter is published bi-weekly, the announcements need to be write in a shorter timeframe. Localization is really important in spreading Debian word, so we work closely with translators: both announcements and DPN are usually translated in four or five different languages.

The publicity work could be stressful, as we have strict deadlines, we need to take quick decisions and often do last-minute changes. Personally, I like it: I work better under pressure. But I know that is sometimes difficult for contributors to accept that we can’t debate endlessly on details, we have just to go on and do our best in a given timeframe.

“The publicity work could be stressful, as we have strict deadlines, […]. Personally, I like it.”

Raphael: You’re one of the main editor behind the Debian Project News. What’s the role and scope of this newsletter?

Francesca: Debian Project News is our beloved newsletter, direct successor of the Debian Weekly News founded by Joey Hess in 1999 and later kept alive by Martin Schulze. In 2007, Debian Weekly News was discontinued but in 2008 the project was revived by Alexander Reichle Schmehl. The idea behind DPN is to provide our users an overview of what is happening inside and outside the project.

As the core team of editors is formed by three people, the main problem is to be able to collect enough news from various sources: in this sense we are always glad when someone points us to interesting blogposts, mails and articles.

DPN is also a good chance for non coders to contribute to Debian: propose news, write paragraphs and review the draft before the publication are quite easy tasks but very useful. English native speakers can do a proofread (as no one of the main editors is a native speaker) while others can always translate DPN in their native language. People who want to help us can take a look at our wiki page.

“DPN is also a good chance for non coders to contribute to Debian.”

Just yesterday I realized that since January we don’t miss or delay an issue: so I’d like to thank the fantastic team of editors, reviewers and translators who made it possible.

The team is now working on another way of spreading Debian’s message: a long-time project is finally becoming real. Stay tuned, surprise arriving!

Raphael: You’re trying to organize IRC training sessions but that doesn’t seem to take off in Debian, while it’s quite common in the Ubuntu community. How do you explain that?

Francesca: I’m not sure about it: both Debian users and contributors seemed to appreciate this initiative in the past. I was quite surprised by the amount of Debian members present during the various sessions and by the amount of interesting questions asked by the users. So the only reason I can think about is that I need to put more enthusiasm in convincing the teams to do it: they need more encouragement (or to be pestered more!).

I, for myself, think that IRC training sessions are a great way to promote our work, to share our best practice, to talk about our project to a wider audience. And I’ll sure try to organize more of them. Help, suggestions, ideas are really welcome!

Raphael: If you could spend all your time on Debian, what would you work on?

Francesca: There is a project I’d like to give more love, but I always end up without the time to do it: the debian-community.org project. Back in 2007, Holger Levsen founded it with the aim of reducing the gap between Debian contributors and Debian users, giving all an opportunity to contribute, share ideas and more. The project was discontinued and I’d really like to revive it: in these years various things have changed, but I think that the core idea of having a node to connect existing local communities is still good and doable. In Debian we don’t have the wide and well articulated local infrastructure present in other distributions (Ubuntu, particularly, but also Fedora): even if I don’t like too centralized structures, I think that a better connection between the project and local groups of users and on-line communities would be a step forward for the project.

Being part of the Events Team, I’m aware of how much we need to improve our communication with local groups. An example is the events organization: sometimes, Publicity and Events teams even don’t know about regional Debian related events (like booth at conferences, workshops, talks, install parties, etc) and this is a shame because we could offer a lot of help in organizing and promoting local events.

What we lack is better communication. And debian-community.org project could give us exactly this. Could be a cluster of local groups, a platform for events organization and even a useful resource for newbies who want to find a local group near them. I started some effort in this sense, sending a proposal about it, working on a census of Debian local groups. Any help is appreciated!

I’m really curious to see how many Debian communities (from all around the world and the web) are out there, and I’d love to have members from these communities better connected with the Debian Project.

Raphael: What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

Probably the bikeshedding feticism of almost all of us. It’s the other side of the coin of Debian’s commitment to technical excellence and our perfectionism, but sometimes it leads just to endless discussions about details, and it is a blocker for various initiatives.

In Debian, you have to be really patient and — in a way — stubborn to push some changes. This is frustrating sometimes.

On the other hand, I really appreciate how people take some times to think to each proposals, give some feedback and discuss about it: the process could be annoying, indeed, but the result is often an improvement of the initial proposal.

Raphael: Is there someone in Debian that you admire for their contributions?

Most of my teammates are simply brilliant and adorable and hard-working. But I have to admit that I particularly admire David Prévot: beside being a webmaster he does a lot of things, from French translations to DPN editing. All his contributions have a great quality and he’s able to push you always further in doing things and doing them better. He is a good example of how I’d like to be as contributor: smart, tireless, friendly.


Thank you to Francesca for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading her answers as I did. Note that older interviews are indexed on wiki.debian.org/PeopleBehindDebian.

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Comments

  1. Thank you Raphaël, and thank you Francesca for this interesting interview and all your work.

    You write:
    Luckily, some people started to pester me about it, asking me to apply for the NM process. I remember Martin Zobel-Helas doing this for an entire week every single day, and Gerfried Fuchs doing it as well.

    This is funny and symptomatic of our approach to sourcing. For as long as I’ve seen, it’s prospects that have to “apply” to NM, and then get “advocated” before anything happens.
    When volunteers who already became official members realize there’s a lack of official members, their reaction is not necessarily recruitment research. As your case ironically exemplifies, those who are already members will push you to beg them to accept you as an official member…
    This is not specific to official membership, but also true for, I guess, membership in most teams I observe.
    NM had and still has probably even more pressing issues to address. But this one is perhaps not caused by lack of manpower (although it may *cause* lack of manpower) as much as a long-standing organizational mindset.

    You write:
    And this is great because if you are a regular contributor, if you love Debian and you are committed to the project, there are no reasons to not be an official member of it.

    While there may be no reason not to *be* an official member, be*coming* an official member takes time. Surely the process learns something to each prospect, but ignoring that, I’m wondering how optimal it is to become an official member if the lack of access isn’t blocking your contribution. How many man-hours did the process take you? Even better, do we have statistics on the time spent by prospects (and while we’re at it, AMs)?

    I hope you can keep contributing for a long time, and can make a few more errors, so you also get something in return ;-)

    Happy hacking – or marketing :-)

    • Francesca says:

      Hi Filipus,

      Filipus:
      “As your case ironically exemplifies, those who are already members will push you to beg them to accept you as an official member…”

      Well, not exactly. They invited me to join the project in a more official manner. :)

      Filipus:
      “How many man-hours did the process take you? Even better, do we have statistics on the time spent by prospects (and while we’re at it, AMs)?”

      I know that in the past the NM process was quite a long thing. Now – both for uploading and non-uploading applicants – things have changed: obviously it strongly depends on your responsiveness to email from your AM (so on your free time), but generally NM process doesn’t take more than a couple of months. For instance, it tooks me three months from the application to the creation of the account to become DD, but in these three months one was of total stop because of personal duties of the applicant manager.
      As you generally study things just when you have a mail to reply to (and is basically a matter of research on the subject of the question) we can say that of these two months I worked on my NM process just ~ seven days. So, in perfect conditions (aka: no real life constraints for you or your AM) you can become DD in a week or so.
      And in fact, if I remember correctly there are people who became DD in a couple of days, during DebConfs.
      You can find some general statistics about the NM process here: https://nm.debian.org/public/stats/ and http://molly.corsac.net/~corsac/debian/nm/

      Filipus:
      “hope you can keep contributing for a long time, and can make a few more errors, so you also get something in return ;-)

      Happy hacking – or marketing :-)

      Thank you :D

      • Hi Francesca,
        On the first point, I meant there is normally a difference between asking someone to join and encouraging someone to – as we say – apply for membership. Encouraging people to apply is great for advertising, but limited for recruitment research.

        On the second point, I’m aware that the process can spawn a long timeframe. This must be a problem for some, but personally, I’m in your case, not being a member doesn’t prevent me from contributing. What I am worried about is the apparent heavy weight of the process, the resources it uses. If I calculate that it would cost me 200 € and NM people 100 €, and if I obtain knowledge worth 50 € in the process, that amounts to a net cost of 250 € for the project, which is reasonable in some cases.

        How much time would the process require if it was uninterrupted work? The status and progress statistics are very useful but don’t really answer me. As a prospect, the last thing I want to do is to offer myself, gradually realize the process is inefficient and finally cancel it mid-way, wasting time from me and NM staff with almost no results. So I have to ask myself from the start whether applying is optimal. If I estimate the cost at 250 €, that’s one thing. If however the process costed 15 man-hours just for your part, prospects should ponder. Would continuing to contribute as an unofficial member really be a problem? Does the prospect really consider official membership as recognition? Does he really intend to use his political power? If I answered no to all of these, I could live without the @debian.org and buy a few 15 € t-shirts instead…

        Thank you again

    • Enrico Zini just reported on the NM process and provided his feeling of how much time AMs may be currently spending on each application:

      I begin to feel like a reasonable time estimate for processing an experienced
      applicant is in the order of 3 or 4 hours […]

      http://lists.debian.org/debian-devel-announce/2012/05/msg00007.html

  2. Great!
    It’s a pleasure to see a woman doing what you do Francesca and you have great ideas.
    I agree, our community needs to communicate better, debian-community.org is among things we need and it could be a start for many good things.

    Keep working and good luck!

  3. It was great to hear about your work, your acceptance as a DD and the effort you put forth to get the diversity statement. You managed to get consensus, that is quite a feat! I’m sure Debian will gain much from your contributions. Happy Hacking.

    • Francesca says:

      kevix:
      “[…] and the effort you put forth to get the diversity statement […]”

      I’m particularly proud of the diversity statement and of the process we went through to reach its final draft: I learnt a lot of things discussing about it and tbh I tried – in the discussion – to follow the example of Russ Allbery, who’s always constructive and polite even in the most flame-ish discussions. In mailing list discussions he is definitely a role model.
      From my point of view, the greatest result in the discussion is how we reach the consensus. This an attitude I’d really like to experiment again in future. :)

      Many thanks for your kind words,
      Francesca

  4. Hi Raphael and Francesca, congratulations for good job of both!

    I’ve translated this interview for Brazilian Portuguese wishing other people in Brazil and other countries from portuguese language can to know about other ways to help Debian project.

    here: http://blog.msantana.eng.br/pessoas-por-tras-do-debian-francesca-ciceri/

    Thanks you so much!