10 Years of Debian

I’m not sure of the exact date – if my memory serves me correctly, it was sometime during the summer of 1997 – I was given an account on Debian’s server (located, at the time, in Beaverton, Oregon). I didn’t go on to upload my first package until October of that year, as I had landed my first programming job at the same time, at CKS Partners. The “new maintainer process” in those days consisted of Klee Dienes calling me up and checking that I was a real person, had a pgp key, and wasn’t completely clueless.

It was a very different project in many ways than it is today – much smaller, much more informal, and of course much less well known in the world at large. Some elements were in place, though – my recollection is that the “flame friendly” atmosphere, while perhaps not quite as accentuated as it at times appears today, was firmly in place even back then.

In ’98, ’99’, and 2000, the Linux world was an exciting place to be. I still recall reading about the database companies deciding to release their products on Linux, reading The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and going to one of the first big commercial Linux conferences, in San Jose, in early 1999. Debian was well poised to take advantage of Linux’s growth, too. Under Bruce Perens’ leadership, several key elements of Debian had been put in place, like the social contract and free software guidelines. Fortuitously, Jason Gunthorpe was working on apt in that time period as well, which was another key element in Debian’s success.

One of the things I’ve always admired about Debian in the open source world is that it is in some ways a “stepping stone” project, meaning that it’s a good way for people to start getting involved with free software, to get their toes wet “giving something back”, without already being an expert hacker. It’s easier to maintain a package of code, if you’re willing to put in the time and attention to details, than to, say, write a new kernel module, or some other piece of critical C code. I’ve seen a number of people take this route – they get started with Debian, and as they go, learn more about the packages they work with, and perhaps even get involved with them “upstream”, as they acquire skills and knowledge. By no means is everyone in Debian in that situation, though – there are some really first rate hackers, who tend to be the small core of people that really make Debian zing along.

Indeed, being an autodidact in the world of computers, outside of one very forgettable term of C++ at Lane Community College, has given me an immense appreciation for the enormous opportunities open source affords in terms of learning – and especially hands-on learning. How many other fields let you work from anywhere in the world with an internet connection, with anyone else who is interested in the same subject, at whatever time you want, with tools that you can download entirely for free? It’s really an intoxicating sensation realizing that you can do anything you want if you are willing to put the time in to learn how. The learning opportunities are one of the many things I’m grateful to Debian for.

These days, I’m really not involved much with Debian anymore. I mostly run Ubuntu, which I think has perhaps improved on some of the social aspects of Debian (although Mark’s zillions of dollars certainly play a large role, too). In terms of free software, I don’t have as much time, and dedicate more of it to my own projects like Hecl. I still love the idea of open source software, but I’m also older and wiser (or more cynical?), and must face the reality that without scarcity, you have nothing to trade with others for things like food. Due to my lack of activity, perhaps I should resign, but … I really don’t want to, and who knows, maybe I’ll have more time, and an “itch to scratch” at some point in the future.

Who knows what the next ten years hold for Debian?

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