What is a Debian Developer?

When I started doing things with Debian in 1997, it was prompted by a visit from another Debian Developer. His generosity with his time, skill and advice have left an impression on me to this day about what it means to be a Debian Developer.

Virtual Moreland was just starting out with a $100,000 grant to get us moving. Some second-hand servers had been donated to run web sites and mail systems, thin clients to build a training lab. I had been using Slackware Linux for a number of years and anticipated using it for Virtual Moreland.

Fortunately, I was introduced to this Developer who pointed out the benefits of the Debian packaging system over Slackware. He brought the latest Debian archive to me on his hard disk so I could get a local mirror up and running more quickly. When I introduce people to Debian today, I hope I can be equally helpful to them.

That was before Debian had a constitution and before SPI, Inc, a US organisation which has excluded many Developers from the membership rolls, had seized a Debian trademark. It was before Debian was persuaded into accepting a Code of Conduct that doesn't have any safeguards for the community.

Today, after more than 20 years, Debian still means much the same thing for me: technical excellence. Giving back to the community. Following the principles laid out in the Debian Social Contract.

Yet being on the Debian keyring has become a poisoned chalice. After the events of 2018, it is clear that people are both added to the keyring and removed for reasons that are related to politics and control.

To put it another way, rogue elements of Debian want to flex their muscles and have the power of an employer, without paying us.

For most of us, our responsibility is to the employers and clients who do pay us, not to those who coerce us and periodically use Debian's otherwise enviable reputation to shame somebody and maintain control through fear. People who prioritize their family, their education or their health are no less Debian Developers than those who submit to control from these would-be masters.

In 2010, the Debian Developers passed a motion allowing non-Developers to be regarded as Developers. In other words, 285 members of the project who voted made a decision that being a Debian Developer was now about status rather than Developer competence. Approximately 600 people, the majority, did not vote at all.

This started us going down a slippery slope.

At the bottom of that slippery slope there is a very hard landing. Developers, with over 30 years experience between them, suddenly deleted under the radar. One of the newest non-developing Developers stands up at a conference to boast about rudely displacing people who were there from the beginning. Neo-Developers who behave like this have nothing in common with the Debian Developers I first met in 1997.

When this type of person decides to indulge herself shaming a volunteer at a time of grief, that is a step too far.

What about those who still feel comfortable with the original and more honest and logical definition of a Developer?

Personally, none of my employers has ever expected me to be on the Debian keyring. Some of them would see it as an unacceptable risk for any employee to be on the Debian keyring if it puts them at risk of coercion. Imagine if you are a manager and somebody outside the company spreads a rumour that one of your employees has been demoted by an external group like Debian, can you afford the damage to productivity and morale? Many other professional developers I speak to don't feel the time demanded by Debian's politics and bureaucracy justifies the benefits of participation. While other communities have grown, Debian reached approximately 1,000 members and has stayed at this level for many years.

I really don't care which Debian keyring I'm on and either should anybody else. As long as I follow the same principles and find creative ways to make my packages available to the world, I'm entirely consistent with the principles Debian was founded on. After all, Linus Torvalds didn't ask for permission to make Linux. Ian Murdock didn't ask for permission to make Debian. If you have done the same work creating packages, why do you need permission to call yourself by the same title, Debian Developer? For that matter, why shouldn't anybody create their own Debian keyring and distribute it to their friends and clients, as long as they are using it to sign packages created in accordance with the principles we all associate with Debian? In other words, is being a Developer about egos or about principles?

If even one person is happily using your packages, you might be a Debian Developer too. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.