Meet the first South African elected to lead Debian Linux

Earlier this year, the developers of Debian elected Jonathan Carter, a South African based in Cape Town, as the Debian Project Lead.

Debian is a Linux distribution that is an important component in the free software and open-source ecosystems.

Aside from being used as an operating system on servers and desktop computers, Debian is used as the foundation of several other popular Linux distributions, including Ubuntu which was founded by Mark Shuttleworth.

Debian was also a pioneer in providing users with central software repositories, releasing its Advanced Packaging Tool in 1999.

Programming languages and software development frameworks adopted the concept, and you can find package management systems in Python, Ruby, Node.js, and Rust.

The idea of software repositories also evolved into the app stores we have on smartphones, Windows, and MacOS today.

The Debian Project was founded by Ian Murdock in 1993, who served as project lead for three years.

Carter, who has been serving as Debian Project Lead since April 2020, is the first South African elected to the post.

He works part-time for the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences where he does system administration work on the institutional network that it uses in its centres across Africa. The rest of the time he volunteers to the Debian Project.

MyBroadband recently had the opportunity to interview Carter. Our questions and his full answers are reproduced below.

Headshot of Jonathan Carter
Jonathan Carter – Debian Project Lead 2020

What does being the Debian Project Leader involve?

The Debian Project Leader (or DPL for short) is the topmost official representative of the Debian project.

Externally, I represent the project in the real world. This involves giving talks and presentations about Debian, attending trade shows, building relationships with other organisations, setting up contracts and handling legal matters. Due to the COVID-19 situation travel has of course been very limited, but we get by with online events for now.

Internally, I have even more work. Listening to problems from project members take up a lot of time but is invaluable, especially in identifying project-wide and often systemic problems within the project.

I also assign delegations to teams, these delegations get special powers within the project to act on behalf of the project. I also approve budgets and expenses and work with our treasurer team on our finances.

Is it a full-time, paid position? Or do you still have to maintain a day job while volunteering as project lead?

It’s a volunteer position. During the 2019 campaign period one of the persons running for DPL made the case that it should be a paid position. This year, another person made an argument that we should set up a foundation that has paid staff.

It’s a complicated topic, we’re a software project that has over a 1,000 active contributors and I don’t think there are many projects that do what we do on this scale, for absolutely free, using only volunteers.

In general, I don’t think we’re specifically against paying someone for work, but we’re also immensely proud of what we achieve without having to do so.

At the same time, we don’t want to get in a situation where someone feels that their work is more important than someone else’s in the project because they get paid for it. In other Linux distribution projects where some contributors get paid and some don’t, the volunteers nearly always get shoved to the side.

In Debian, our organisational structure is very, very flat and we’re basically all equals. We like keeping it that way!

I’m employed, I work at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences where we use Debian very widely (servers, desktops, student laptops, staff machines, etc.) and they’ve been very supportive of my work in Debian.

Many Debian Developers end up working at a company that uses Debian and end up getting paid for at least part of their work that way, and we encourage that, since it’s great for everyone involved and doesn’t compromise our equal standing with each other within the project.

What should we expect from Debian during your year as project lead?

Community building is at the core of my goals for the next year.

This year we’ll have our first ever online edition of our annual developers conference, we’ve had 20 of these in person since 2000. We’ll be hosting a session there to start bootstrapping a new delegation that will work as a central contact point to assist Debian local teams around the world.

We have many of these groups around the world, they are groups of Debian users or developers that organise local events such as bug squashing parties, release parties or local conferences. We’d like to make it easier for people to start more of these groups around the world and for us to send them goodies like t-shirts, stickers, pamphlets, and posters.

This local team delegation would also check in and track the health of local teams and check that we still have the right contact details for them, track team changes and so on.

In Debian we’re already diverse in many ways, but for the most part we’re white men, as you probably see often in international software projects. One of the hopes of better local teams support is that we’ll not only grow the project, but also bring in a larger diversity of people in to the project.

Over the last few years I’ve seen increasingly more women at DebConf, many of them being introduced to the project through local events. So this is going to be a priority for me over the next two months or so.

Later on I’d also like to work on better onboarding. Debian can sometimes be a really difficult project to get involved with. It’s almost like starting a new job. We use so many different systems and have many processes within the project. Of course, this is necessary for any project of this size.

What makes it a bit harder than joining a company is that there’s no manager that will tell you what to do or how to get going, so it can be overwhelming for some people. I think a good guide that contains some checklists and howtos for new contributors could go a long way in making the project more accessible for new contributors.

In my platform for this year’s election, I also listed that I want to work on improving our on-line collaboration. Back then I had no idea that we’d have lock-downs this long or severe, so this ended up being a lot more necessary than originally anticipated.

We’ve already made some good progress on this front through the Debian Social project, which hosts upstream projects providing video conferencing, video hosting, microblogging, photo sharing and more.

Most of our services there are still in beta but it’s already coming together nicely.

You have a CV stretching back to the Shuttleworth Foundation, Impi Linux and, more recently, Praekelt, and Ubuntu. What’s a memorable story from your past experiences?

Well since you mention Shuttleworth Foundation, I remember back in 2004, a few months before the first Ubuntu release, Mark Shuttleworth brought a bunch of Debian Developers over to the foundation’s offices where they sprinted for a week.

My manager and I had talked about Debian quite a bit and I previously expressed that I’d like to get involved one day. So he kept nudging me to go talk to them and introduce myself but I was still very green in the Linux world and felt so intimidated by them that I couldn’t even bring myself to say hello to them.

At that point I would never have imagined that I’d be a Debian Developer for the next decade or even the Debian Project leader in the decade after. It’s been a wild ride so far and interesting seeing how things unfold and evolve!

What drew you into the Debian project?

I like how honest and sincere Debian is about serving its users. It’s become a joke about Silicon Valley companies who each claim that they change the world for the better, although in the real world they change the world to maximise their profits while leaving a trail of destruction.

Debian has a public contract with it’s users called the “Debian Social Contract” where we make some promises to the public that we take very seriously.

In any project where you release a full, integrated operating system, you’re going to collectively have to make millions of decisions for your users. I like that we’re in a position to make choices that’s best for the user, where many other projects have to do things like prioritise a direction that maximise profit instead.

Sometimes we differ on what’s actually best for our users, and have large and sometimes even draining discussions to figure it out, but on the whole it’s because we care and we want to do the right thing, which makes it completely worth it.

Now read: Linux laptops alive in South Africa

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Meet the first South African elected to lead Debian Linux