Leadership and gossip in Debian

On a daily basis now, people ask me questions that remind me about the leadership problems in Debian. When I visit a free software event or another free software community, it comes up frequently.

It is a horrible situation. When people remind me about the emails sent by Chris Lamb in September 2018, there is nothing positive to say. It puts me in a position where there is no response other than asking them to question Lamb's credibility. This inevitably rubs off on Debian as a community.

When people realize that this issue relates to my private life and has nothing to do with my competence as a Debian Developer, they quickly apologize for intruding. On those occasions when I've explained the situation to people in any detail, the colour of their face has visibly changed, demonstrating an acute combination of sadness and anger at the way certain people in the Debian community, including the former leader, have behaved.

People have asked me why I didn't try to speak to Lamb. In fact, I tried. He lives in London, I visit there almost every month. I wrote to him numerous times and he always refused. Stonewalling.

Between September and December 2018, I also wrote to a number of other members of the project to try and set up a meeting. They either didn't respond or declined. Yet I kept hearing more and more reports of Lamb's gossipmongering.

In another blog, I revealed that one of the challenges my family faced was the death of my father. People simply can't understand why Lamb and his sidekicks would be undermining another Debian Developer, involved in the community for more than 20 years, at such a difficult time.

It is not easy to reduce a subject like that to a blog post. No cat picture can come close to explaining it. I don't intend to write more, nor can I, without violating the privacy of other people. Yet one of Lamb's missed opportunities as a leader is that he expected everything to be reduced to email or IRC. So he never actually knew any of this.

Earlier this year, somebody suggested taking a month off from Debian. It really misses the point. I never chose to have my private life and my professional life interconnected in this way. It was imposed on me by somebody who had the title of leader in an organization of 1,000 Developers but had dedicated more time to some people than others.

That brings me to another point: is everybody who has a public profile in the free software community going to be subject to similar attacks and criticism at a time of personal tragedy? Having mentored in GSoC and Outreachy for many years, I've frequently observed the challenges people go through making their first commit on a public repository or their first post to a mailing list. Many of them would never have done so if they saw what my family has been put through by rogue elements of the Debian community. The whole model of free, open source software development is predicated on working in a public and transparent manner. When people discover that collaborating publicly has such horrible side-effects for their family life, many may decline to work this way.

Ultimately, as the leader created a state of hostility through inappropriate gossip, the only real solution is for the current leader of the project to publicly denounce the gossip and put the issue to rest for once and for all.