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Tue, 10 Aug 2010

"Debian for Shy People": What's next

What do you do when you have a technical question that you're embarrassed to ask?

The first Sunday of Debconf, I led a birds of a feather (BoF) session called Debian for Shy People. The conference team scheduled it on "Debian Day," a pre-conference day that was open to the public and still had plenty of Debian Developers in attendance. I just uploaded the slides to the "Penta" page for the talk.

I led it because of my own experience. In 2004 or so, I saw Debian as the cool kids' club, that awesome project that I wished I could be a part of. By 2006, I managed to get over myself, read the New Maintainer's Guide, and find a way to get involved. As of mid 2009, I am a full-blown Debian Developer. I have real ultimate power. But I sometimes do still feel hesitation akin to "Imposter Syndrome".

(A bunch of people at Debconf didn't really believe I'm "shy," since I asked a lot of questions at the conference. At core, I don't naturally believe that the things I say are worth hearing, but I patch over this hesitation. Sometimes I speak too much, and then I feel ashamed of burdening everyone. But anyway, this is about Debconf not, me -- so moving on....)

In the past year of being a Developer, one thing I've seen is that other contributors ask me privately for help. Rather than blast the public lists like debian-mentors, they email or IRC private-message me, or SMS me, or find me at a Linux Users Group event. I'm lucky to know these people, and they're lucky to have me as a safe person to ask questions of. Moreover, Debian is better because these people could move past their confusion to make a technical contribution.

I began the BoF session by talking about when someone asked me for help. Then I asked, "How many of you have someone you can ask embarrassing questions of?" Of the forty people crammed into Schapiro 414, two people' raised their hands. One person put it plainly, "I don't know anyone else who does Debian." It reminded me of a fact that Karen discovered when she was doing market research for us at OpenHatch: the vast majority of free software programmers know zero other people who do free software. I had seen the figure; we even used it in a talk to try and convince venture capitalists to fund OpenHatch last year. But I didn't really feel it until I heard it from a room full of Debian contributors.

I structured the BoF in two parts: First, I talked in front of some slides to set the tone properly, and then we enjoyed open discussion. As I was preparing thoes slides, Daniel Morais asked me, "What's the point of having the session? Why not just come up with some ideas, implement them, and not bother also talking about it at the conference?" I had considered this; I decided I wasn't self-confident enough to start implementing ideas without talking to people to make sure I wasn't the only one who saw a problem. But I discovered another benefit of giving the talk: people who want to make Debian more welcoming knew to reach out to me.

So here are some thoughts that came from our discussion (and later discussions during the conference):

I set up an Etherpad document on cjb's This is what we learned together:

One idea I had before the BoF was to create a discussion area that was safe for all questions, even if they seem silly. We talked for a while about what name that would take, if it were to become a new IRC channel. We reached something of a conclusion, but in the conference that followed Emmet Hickory offered to help make the debian-mentors IRC channel friendlyer. I think that's the best direction to take things, so the next step is for him and me to write up what we want and send a note to the debian-mentors email list explaining our vision.

In the Etherpad document, people discussed the idea of doing Debian discussion over XMPP (also known as Google Talk, also known as Jabber). We weren't sure how such a place would get critical mass; someone briefly mentioned the idea of an IRC/XMPP gateway. I actually think this discussion is along a very reeasonable path, namely discovering what discussion method(s) Debian contributors want to use. (That might explain why I'm now an admin on

We also briefly discussed the idea of an anonymous question-answering service. I realize now that I'm not going to be able to have time to run that, but I still think it'd be a really cool idea.

Biella would remind me that Debian is already successful at bringing in new contributors. I agree! As a free software project, we have an enormous number of participants. This is a really good thing, and we're clearly doing something right. The purpose of this talk was to figure out how to make contributing to Debian less stressful for those who participate.

Truly, a "Debian for Shy People" effort isn't about shy people. It's about the moments of self-doubt we all have in which we don't know what to do and are too embarrassed to ask. I think that if the project more friendly, we can find more participants, make better use of our current ones, and see improvements to our diversity.

Whew, that was long. What do you think of all this?

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