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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