People behind Debian: Stefano Zacchiroli, Debian Project Leader

picture by Tiago Bortoletto Vaz, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


It’s been one year since the first People behind Debian interview. For this special occasion, I wanted a special guest… and I’m happy that our Debian Project Leader (DPL)—Stefano Zacchiroli—accepted my invitation.

He has a difficult role in the community, but he’s doing a really great job of it. He’s a great mediator in difficult situations, but he’s also opinionated and can push a discussion towards a conclusion.

Read on to learn how he became a Debian developer and later DPL, what he’s excited about in the next Debian release, and much more.

Raphael: Who are you?

Stefano: I’m Stefano Zacchiroli, but I prefer to be called Zack, both on the Internet and in real life. I’m 32, Italian, emigrated to France about 4 years ago. I live in Paris, and I find it to be one of the most gorgeous and exciting cities in the world.

As my day job I’m a Computer Science researcher and teacher at University Paris Diderot and IRILL. In my copious free time™ I contribute to Debian, and I’m firmly convinced that doing so is an effective way to help the cause of Free Software. Besides, I find it to be a lot of fun!

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Stefano: Flash back to 1999, when I was a 2nd year student in Computer Science at the University of Bologna. Back then in Italy it was uncommon for young geeks to get exposed to Free Software: Internet was way less pervasive than today and most computer magazines didn’t pay much attention to GNU/Linux. Luckily for me, the professor in charge of the student lab was a Free Software enthusiast and all students machines there were running Debian. Not only that, but there was also a student program that allowed volunteers to become sysadmins after having shown their skills and convinced the director they were trustworthy. Becoming one of those volunteer Debian admins quickly became one of my top objectives for the year, and that is were I’ve learned using Debian.

The year after that, I got in touch with a research group that was to become the happy bunch of hackers with whom I would have done both my master and PhD theses. They were designing a new proof assistant. Most of the development was in OCaml and happened on Debian. OCaml was available in Debian, but many of the libraries we needed were not. So I approached the Debian OCaml Team offering to help. Before I realize what was going on I was (co-)maintainer of tens of OCaml-related packages. At some point I got told “I think you should apply as a Debian Developer”. So I did and in a couple of months I went through the New Member (NM) process, that was back then in its infancy. I still remember my happiness while reading the “account created” mail, the day after my 22nd birthday.

I know the NM process went through some bad publicity in the past, but I’m happy to see that nowadays the process can be as swift as it has been for me 10 years ago.

Raphael: It’s your second year as Debian Project Leader (DPL). Are you feeling more productive in the role? Do you fear to burn out?

Stefano: I’m feeling way more productive, no doubts.

The task of the Debian Project Leader is not necessarily difficult, but it is a complex and scarcely documented one. It is also profoundly different from any other task that Debian people usually work on, so that experience doesn’t help much in getting started. Before becoming effective as DPL one needs to get to know many people and mechanisms he is not familiar with. More importantly, one needs to set up a personal work-flow that allows to keep up with day-to-day DPL tasks (which are aplenty) as well as with urgencies (that tend to pop-up in the leader@debian.org INBOX at the least convenient time). Finally, one also needs to do proper “traffic shaping” and always retain enough “motivation bandwidth” to keep the Project informed about what is going on in DPL-land.

Finding the right balance among all these ingredients can take some time. Once one is past it, everything goes way more smoothly.

The above is why I’m constantly encouraging people interested in running for DPL in the future to reach out to me and work on some tasks of the current DPL’s TODO list. I swear it is not just a cheap attempt at slavery!. It is rather an attempt at DPL mentoring that could be beneficial: both to give future candidates more awareness of the task, and to reduce the potential downtime when handing over from one DPL to the next.

Regarding burn out, I don’t feel prone to its risk these days. If I look back, I can say that my contributions as DPL have been pretty constant in volume over time; my enthusiasm for the task, if anything, is on the rise. The effectiveness of my contributions as DPL are, on the other hand, not mine to judge.

Raphael: If you had to single out two achievements where you were involved as DPL, what would they be?

Stefano: I’d go for the following two, in no particular order:

  • Dialogue with derivatives. When I became DPL ~1.5 years ago the situation on that front was pretty dire. In the specific case of Ubuntu, by far the most successful and customized of all Debian derivatives, I remember being scared of raising the topic of collaboration with them on mailing lists. More generally, we had no specific initiatives to foster technical collaboration with and among derivatives. A huge potential of (forwarded) contributions to Debian was being wasted.

    Today things look much better, as I’ve documented in recent talks at DebConf11 and UDS-P. The amount of forwarded patches we receive from downstream is at its maximum and many people who apply to become Debian Developers come from derivatives. Conflict situations still exist, for good reasons that we still have to either fix or figure out entirely. But I’m positive we’re on the right track.

    “The amount of forwarded patches we receive from downstream is at its maximum”

    This is by far not an achievement of mine alone. In particular, many of the activity of the Derivatives Front Desk have been organized by other enthusiastic volunteers. But I’ve done my part, especially in breaking the ice and in proposing a vision of Free Software distribution where all distros play a role and are welcome to join the game, as long as they give back and give credit to their respective upstreams.

  • Process membership. I’m proud of having promoted the general resolution (GR) that has clarified (and advertised to the world) that Debian welcomes all kind of contributions, and that they all equally matter to become proper members of the Project. I notice only now while writing this that the GR title, traditionally chosen by the secretary, was “Debian Project Members”. That choice harmonically closes the circle with the recent renaming of the NM process to “New Member” process.

    Today, we have several project members (AKA “Debian Developers”) that are active citizen of Debian with voting rights, even though they take care of tasks other than packaging. Anyone can become a Debian citizen, as long as they are ready to abide by Debian’s values, have a track record of verifiable contributions to Debian, and are committed to keep them coming in the future.

    “We have several project members that […] take care of tasks other than packaging.”

    Once gain, this is by far not an achievement of mine alone, very little project-wide achievements are. DAM has helped a lot and support from the project as a whole has been immense.

OK, let me cheat and add a third one… I’m also proud of having been able to report to the Project my whereabouts as DPL, thoroughly and periodically, since the very beginning is first term. People annoyed by my reporting logorrhea now have all my sympathies.

Raphael: Among the possible new features of Debian Wheezy, which one gets you excited most?

Stefano: It’s multi-arch, no doubt. Even though it is not a directly user visible change, it’s a very far reaching one. It is also one of those changes that make me feel that moment of truth of coders, when you realize you are finally doing the right thing and ditching piles of ugly hacks.

“It’s multi-arch […] you realize you are finally doing the right thing and ditching piles of ugly hacks.”

Raphael: If you were not DPL and could spend all your time on Debian, what project would you do?

Stefano: I would sit down and do software development for Debian.

It’s impressive how many important and beneficial changes for Debian could be delivered by specific software improvements in various parts of our infrastructure. We tend to attract many packagers, but not so many people willing to maintain Debian infrastructure softwares like dak, britney, debbugs, the PTS, etc. Their maintenance burden then falls on the shoulders of the respective teams which are generally very busy with other important tasks.

As a project, we seem to be more appealing to packagers than to software developers. That is a pity given the amount of exciting coding tasks that are everywhere in Debian. Part of the reason we are not appealing to developers is that we are not particularly good at collecting coding tasks in a place where interested developers could easily pick them up. It also takes quite a bit of inside knowledge to spot infrastructure bugs and understand how to fix them.

I long for some spare hacking time to check if I’m still good enough of a coder to hunt down longstanding bugs in our infrastructure, which have ended up being my pet peeves.

I’d also love to dive again into RCBW. It’s less committing than package maintenance, more diverse and challenging, and also an immensely useful activity to get Debian releases done.

Raphael: Martin Michlmayr is worried that there is so few paid opportunities around Debian. Do you agree with his sentiment, and if yes do you have ideas on how to improve this situation?

Stefano: The idealistic me wishes Debian to be a community made only of volunteers that devote their free time to the Project. Oh, and that me also wishes Debian to be competitive with similar projects, no matter how many full-time employees others have! That is coherent with a view of society where everyone has a day job, but also engages in volunteering activities ensuring that public interest is pursued by people motivated by interests other than profit.

But I do realize that for Free Software to succeed companies, employees, and salaries should all have a role. I admire projects that strike a good balance between volunteer and paid work. The Linux kernel is emblematic in that respect: many developers are paid by companies that have a commercial or strategic interest in Linux. Nevertheless volunteers contributions are aplenty and the Linux community gives a convincing impression that choices are driven by the community itself (or by its benevolent dictator) without money-driven impositions.

“I do realize that for Free Software to succeed companies, employees, and salaries should all have a role.”

Such an ecosystem does not exist around Debian. We do have a partner program that allows for it to happen, but we have very few partners with an interest in doing distribution development work. Like Martin, I’m worried by this state of affairs, because it de facto means we lag behind in terms of available people power. In a community of volunteers, that might frustrate people and that is not good.

To improve over the status quo the first step is to federate together small and medium companies that have a strategic interest in Debian and listen to their needs. I’m already in touch with representatives of such companies that, in many cases, already employ Debian Developers to do some distribution work in Debian. We will be soon sending out a call to reach out to more such companies, but since we are discussing this, why waiting? If some of our readers here are representative of such companies, I encourage them to get in touch with me about this.

Raphael: You know that the fundraising campaign for the Debian Administrator’s Handbook is on good track but the liberation of the book is not yet assured. What do you think of this project?

Stefano: I’m happy about the project, to the point that I’ve accepted writing a testimonial for it :-) . I’m sad about the scarce availability of up to date and high quality (DFSG-)Free books about Debian and I welcome any initiative that might help closing that gap.

“I’m sad about the scarce availability of up to date and high quality (DFSG-)Free books about Debian.”

Free Culture is a great offspring of Free Software and I’m convinced we need to stand up against double standards in the two camps. Letting aside software-specific licensing details, the basic freedoms to be defended are the same. They are those freedoms that ensure that a reader is in full control of his book, pretty much as they ensure that a computer user is in full control of the software that runs on it. I’m therefore proud that Debian has long resolved that the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) apply not only to software but also to books and other pieces of documentation.

But the status quo implies that not only we have very few up to date, high quality books about Debian. It also implies that, at present, we have no such book that we can distribute in the Debian archive, showing off the Free Software (and Free Culture!) values we stand for.
Crowdfunding is considered to be a good mate for Free Culture, where the services model that applies to Free Software is more difficult to exploit. I so wish any luck to yours and Roland’s initiative.

A different matter is whether Debian, as a project, should endorse the initiative and actively campaign for it. As you know, I think it should not. While we do advertise general project donations, we don’t do mission-specific fundraising campaign for Debian itself. Coherently with that, I don’t think we should relay crowdfunding campaigns for 3rd parties, even when the result would be beneficial to Debian.

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

Stefano: There are two classes of people that I particularly admire in Debian:

  • Those with an uncanny ability to guide discussions towards constructive conclusions. We are lucky to have many in Debian and I admire all of them. Having to single out one I’d name Russ Allbery, in honor of whom I hereby propose the periodic “Russ Allbery’s Distinguished Flametamer Award”.
  • People stepping up for responsibility roles, especially when the responsibility put them in tough spots. Release teams, ftp-masters, DSA, DAM, as well as past and present members of teams with similarly “hot” seats have all my admiration.

Thank you to Zack for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did.

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People behind Debian: Martin Michlmayr, former Debian Project Leader

Martin Michlmayr is a Debian developer since 2000 and I share quite a few things with him, starting with his age and involvement in the quality assurance team. He managed to be elected Debian Project Leader in 2003 and 2004.

He’s no longer as active as he used to be but his input is always very valuable and he continues to do very interesting things in particular concerning the support of NAS devices. Read on for the details.

Raphael: Who are you?

Martin: I’m Martin Michlmayr. I’m 32, originally from Austria, and currently living in the UK.

I’ve contributed to various free software projects over the years but Debian is without doubt the one I’m most passionate about. I joined Debian in 2000 when I was a student. I worked on Debian more or less full time for a few years while I was pretending to study. Later I started a PhD to do research about quality and management aspects of volunteer free software projects. I investigated the release process in several free software projects, in particular looking at time-based releases. After finishing my PhD in 2007, I joined Hewlett-Packard. I’m part of HP’s Open Source Program Office and work on various free software and open source activities, both internally and within the community.

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Martin: I first used Debian in the days of 0.93R6, some time around the end of 1995. The 0.93R6 release was still based on a.out but I needed an ELF-based system for some application, so I moved to Slackware. I then quickly moved to Red Hat Linux where I stayed for several years. I rediscovered Debian in 2000 and quickly decided to join the project. I cannot recall how I rediscovered Debian but when I did, it was clear to me that Debian was the ideal project for me: I could identify with its philosophy, I liked the volunteer nature of the project, and I found the size and diversity of Debian interesting since a large project offers a lot of different challenges and opportunities.

I remember how many new things there were to learn and back then the documentation and other resources for new contributors were nowhere as good as they are today. My application manager, Julian Gilbey, was a great help… he was incredibly friendly and passionate about Debian. I also remember meeting up with Peter Palfrader (weasel) for key signing when we were both in the New Maintainer queue. I was incredibly lucky with my New Maintainer process and soon became an official Debian Developer. Because there was a shortage of application managers, my first major contribution in Debian was to become an application manager myself and help other people join the project.

Debian is a large project with a long history and a rich culture, so new contributors should expect that it will take some time to become familiar with everything. Fortunately, there are many resources, such as documentation and the debian-mentors list, for new contributors. Another great way to become familiar with the way things are done in Debian is to subscribe to various Debian mailing lists and ideally to read some mailing list archives. It’s also a great idea to attend the Debian Conference or other conferences since meeting people in real life is a great way to integrate. I remember attending Debian Conference 1 in Bordeaux where I gave my first public talk.

Finally, new contributors should find an area where they can make a unique contribution. Most people in Debian maintain packages but there are so many other ways to contribute. For example, most of my contributions were not technical but were about coordination and other organizational activities.

Raphael: What’s your biggest achievement within Debian?

Martin: I’m particularly proud of a number of achievements:

  • New Maintainer: I helped a lot of people join Debian. It’s great to help someone join the project and then see how they contribute. Of course, some people join Debian and then quickly become inactive or retire… you never know in advance how it will work out. But I had the pleasure to help some truly outstanding contributors to join Debian.
  • Quality Assurance: I helped improve QA processes within Debian. In particular, I realized a few years ago that a lot of packages had maintainers who were inactive and that nobody did anything about it. I started to write to those maintainers to see what could be done. It’s hard because you don’t know the circumstance of someone… they may be inactive because of an illness or for other good reasons… so you have to be friendly, but yet persistent. Fortunately, most maintainers I contacted were truly inactive and so they couldn’t complain when I took their packages away.
  • DPL: I acted as the Debian Project Leader for two years. I’m particularly proud of this because Debian is a great project and it was an honour to represent it. I performed important organizational and coordination tasks. I also traveled to a lot of conferences and had the pleasure to meet many Debian Developers as well as users of Debian. It’s very motivating to meet users and to hear how they use Debian and how we can further improve it.
  • Debian on NAS: Debian is without the doubt the Linux distro with the best support for NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices. I was always impressed by what the OpenWRT folks have done to support wireless routers and wanted to do something similar for Debian. Unfortunately, wireless routers just don’t have enough storage for a full distro. But then NAS devices came along and they obviously have enough space since they are meant for storage.

Raphael: Speaking about NAS devices: what exactly are you doing on this topic and how can people help?

Martin: There are plenty of instructions on the Internet to install Linux distributions on NAS or various embedded devices by connecting a serial console and then typing in hundreds of commands. What I found is that such instructions significantly limit the user base because they are way too complicated for most users. There are just too many steps that can go wrong.

So instead, in Debian, we provide a solution that just works: usually, you download a firmware image for your NAS device from Debian and when you upgrade you get the Debian installer. You connect to the installer via SSH and perform a normal installation. The installer knows about the device and will prepare everything for you automatically… for example, it knows if the device has requirements for the partition layout and it will install the kernel where the device expects to find it; unfortunately, NAS devices are not like PCs, so the requirements are different for almost every device and therefore you need special code to support a new device. Finally, there are detailed installation guides and we provide help on our mailing lists.

There are a number of technical areas for improvement. The installation could be made even easier, and it would be nice to support new platforms and devices.

A bigger problem is that while we’ve implemented a great solution for NAS devices, we haven’t really extended this work to support other classes of devices. For example, tablets and mobile phones are getting incredibly popular and we don’t have a compelling solution for such devices, mostly because of the lack of an appropriate GUI.

Raphael: What are your plans for Debian Wheezy?

Martin: I’ve recently been asked by Stefano Zacchiroli, our current Debian Project Leader, to coordinate the care-taking of Debian finances. Debian, as a volunteer project, relies on donations and in-kind gifts (e.g. hardware) to maintain its infrastructure and to support various development efforts, such as funding sprints and other developer gatherings. Debian’s money and other assets are held by affiliate organizations around the world.

My responsibility will be to keep track of money and other assets (e.g. hardware and trademarks), work with the DPL to establish procedures related to the use of Debian’s assets, and make sure that the procedures are followed. Finally, we want to publish public statements so our donors know how we use their donations to further improve Debian. I just started working on this and this will be my main activity in Debian in the coming months.

Raphael: Speaking of money, I plan to run a fundraising to get the Debian book I wrote with Roland Mas translated (cf. http://debian-handbook.info). Is this something Debian should support?

Martin: First of all, I should make it clear that I don’t decide how Debian spends its money. This is up to the DPL to decide together with the project at a whole. I’ll just make sure that procedures are followed and expenses tracked and reported properly.

Having said that, in my opinion, it’s unlikely that Debian as a project will fund this effort. It would be inconsistent with the position of the project not to fund work directly (only some related expenses, such as travel costs to allow Debian teams to organize face-to-face meetings). Whether Debian should support the fundraising effort by helping to promote it is another question and that’s probably not as clear cut. It looks like a worthwhile effort, but on the other hand it would be unfair for authors of other Debian books for Debian to put its weight behind one… and there are many other efforts that are worth promoting… if you promote one, where do you stop? So while it sounds worthwhile, it’s probably better for Debian to stay out of it.

But somehow related to this, I sometimes worry about the fact that there are so few paid opportunities around Debian. If you contribute to the Linux kernel for a while, you have an excellent chance to get hired by someone and to work on the kernel full time. The kernel may be an extreme example but there are a lot of projects that have more paid opportunities than Debian, e.g. Mono, GNOME, OpenOffice/LibreOffice and KDE.

Obviously, there are some Debian Developers who can spend some time on Debian as part of their job. I know that some Canonical employees contribute to Debian, that support companies like credativ improve Debian as part of their work, and that system administrators fix bugs or package new software as they deploy Debian. But I think this is a minority of contributors and even they don’t work full time on Debian. Instead what I see is that a lot of people leave university, get a job and then no longer have time for Debian… or people start a family and no longer have time. I can take myself as an example since I don’t have nearly as much time as I did in the past when I was a student.

I guess there are different ways to deal with this problem… one would be to create more paid opportunities around Debian outside the project, another one might be to make it easier for new volunteers to join the project. I don’t have the answers to these questions… but it’s something I wonder about, and I also wonder whether pure volunteer projects can still keep up with projects with a lot of full time contributors.

Raphael: What motivates you to continue to contribute year after year?

Martin: Debian is a great project with a great mission, goals and people. I contribute to make Debian a better solution and to promote the free software philosophy. Finally, the community around Debian provides a lot of motivation. It’s amazing how much I’ve learned about other cultures because of my involvement in Debian and how many friends I’ve made over the years all around the world.

Raphael: Do you have wishes for Debian Wheezy?

Martin: Not really. I’m pretty happy with the way things are going at the moment. We have made a lot of organizational changes in the last few years from which the project has greatly benefited. I’m particularly pleased about the plans to adopt a time-based freeze.

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

Martin: There are many people I admire greatly. I’d like to mention Joey Hess because he’s a great example to follow. He doesn’t get involved in politics, is easy to work with and does great technical work. In fact, he has made not one but several contributions that have completely changed Debian (debconf, debhelper, and debian-installer). Furthermore, Debian has a lot of contributors who have done great work over the years but who are not very vocal about it. People like Colin Watson or Peter Palfrader. Debian has many unique contributors and the list of people I admire is much longer than the few people I just mentioned.


Thank you to Martin for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did. He raised some interesting questions.

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DPL election: low participation

This year I have not given any vote recommendation because all candidates would be (IMO) good DPL. The participation stats are a bit strange however: when I got the second call for vote I noticed 176 votes in the first week compared to 135 last year. So I thought “good, participation is on the rise”. But then I got reminded that we have shortened the voting period of the DPL election to two weeks. So the comparison doesn’t hold.

The vote close in two days and we have so far only 283 votes, and last year we got 482 in the end. So we’re likely to have much less participation this year… even if you add a percentage for the people who wish to vote but cannot for various reasons (which proves once more how important it is that the next DPL be determined to fix those recurring problems), you won’t get the same numbers.

So my question is: do we have lower participation because all candidates are good and people do not care who gets elected? or do we have so many DD that follow Debian only every 2.5 weeks?

And if you haven’t voted yet, it’s time to do it. :-)

This time of the year again

Yes, it’s DPL election time again. On the good side, we’ll spend less time this year than we used to thanks the constitution change. On the bad side, it seems that almost nobody is interested to run for DPL (even HE is not sure yet!).

I’ve been relatively satisfied by the work done by sam (although one can always do better) and it looks like many share this feeling… and when this is the case, we just expect the DPL to run again. But sam clearly said that he won’t run again. What a pity.

I also don’t plan to run this year[1] but I’m always interested in leadership issues and I’d gladly be part of a DPL team. Hopefully someone will provide such an alternative on the ballot this year.

Right now, I’m more in the mood of implementing some real changes (like the symbol based dependencies that I added to dpkg-shlibdeps) instead of trying to convince others to do them. When you associate this to some support of the leadership in place, it can give very good results.

Now back to real work, I still have to test and polish the dpkg-source rewrite which adds support of several brand new source package formats. Feel free to check out our progress in the sourcev3 git branch.

[1] Feel free to convince me otherwise by adding some comments here.