Bubulle's weblog

05 11 2011

Sat, 05 Nov 2011

People behind Debian: Raphaël Hertzog, dpkg maintainer, book author

It's about time that Raphaël is interviewed in the "People behind Debian" series he initiated on his blog.

Indeed, when he interviews people, Raphaël asks about other people they could suggest for next interviews. So, during mine, I suggested him to be a next "victim". As he couldn't interview himself, I volunteered for this.

As you'll see below, Raphaël (who's a friend of mine as I'm a friend of his) likes to speak and that shows in the length of his answers… :-) but you always know more about Debian when reading his blog posts, books, mails, etc. I personnally think that he is among the best promoters of the project for years and it was a pleasure for me to conduct this interview.

My questions are in bold, the rest is by Raphaël.

Who are you?

Hi, Raphaël Hertzog, I'm a 32 years old French Debian developer who is married and who has a 2-year old son. I'm running my own company (Freexian) since 2005, I started it 3 years after the end of my computer science studies. I'm also a very proud author of the Cahier de l'Admin Debian, a French book about Debian.

You often wrote about your attempts to make your living partly, if not completely, out of your Debian work. Can you describe the way you're trying to do this?

My first try has been with Freexian. I always advertised this company as being specialized in Debian GNU/Linux. While Freexian is successful enough to provide me a decent income, I'm not really satisfied with the result because very few of my contracts are about improving Debian. I use Debian daily for the benefit of my customers, writing new customer specific (embedded) software, deploying a service on Debian servers, etc. But except for the occasional bugfix, all this work does not improve Debian (the only exception has been the dpkg multiarch implementation work sponsored by Linaro).

The positive side is that I don't need to fill my entire schedule to earn enough money to live. So I'm regularly taking some days off work to be able to contribute to Debian. This is a freedom that I enjoy...

My French book has also been a bestseller and —depending on the years— the royalties represented between 1 and 2 months of supplementary time that I can spend on Debian (that is between 2000 and 4000 EUR of income).

Now since last year, I decided to actively work towards my goal of making a living out of my Debian work. I want to build on what has been most successful for me up to now, that is my book. My strategy has been to build an audience around my blog: with a direct contact with my readers I have the opportunity to sell e-books, and without any intermediary taking the biggest part of the price, I don't need a very large audience to be successful.

I have also been experiencing micro-donations with Flattr, people who are enjoying my articles on my blog can use it to give a few cents for each article they find useful. With a large enough userbase, this could fund free documentation and would avoid the need for commercial e-books but we're not there currently and I don't know if it will ever reach the critical mass.

Last but not least, I'm soliciting donations for my Debian work on the sidebar of my blog, and I have the chance to a have a few (regular) donators.

You're a proud father since last year. How do you manage your commitment to the project with your family life?

There are few things that I put above Debian in my life, but my family certainly is. I try to handle most of my Debian duties during work hours so that I can spend time with my family on evenings and during week-ends but in truth I never really disconnect from Debian. It happens quite often that I say to my wife “I'll come in a few minutes, let me finish this” and then I end up responding to a Debian mail, or an IRC query and take 30 minutes instead of the 5 expected ones. I try hard to avoid this but it's difficult. Luckily for me, my wife is very supportive of my Debian involvement and knows me well...

By the way my wife is using Debian on her computer, and my son has already played with DoudouLinux (a Debian derivative!).

Have you already been accused of self-promotion in your writings? If that would ever happen, what would you answer to that?

Yes, more than once. I am proud of what I do for Debian, I enjoy sharing the result of my work. Because of this, some people believe that I'm selfish and egocentric. And this has somewhat increased since I have been soliciting donations: for me it's important to be transparent towards donators so that they see what I really do for Debian. But some people have the feeling that I'm getting undeserved attention and that I bring everything towards my own person. On the other side, as an author, I'm a public figure who is definitely seeking some attention...

I don't have any miraculous answer, we are a large and diverse community, it's next to impossible to please everybody. I listen to all the concerns that people bring forward, I take them into account as much as possible, in particular when I believe they are reasonable/well justified, or when they come from people that I highly respect. But sometimes I have to plainly ignore them too... in particular when they are trying to impose their own political view on a topic that's not directly related to the only value that we all share: the social contract.

Contributing to Debian is a challenge, we all have to make efforts to put aside our differences and to concentrate on the work that brings us closer to the best free software operating system ever built.

You recently launched a campaign to free out the soon-to-be-published "Debian Administrator Handbook", an English version of your well-known book about Debian in French. Can you tell us more about this project?

My French book has been very successful at helping people to get started with Debian, and like I already explained, it was also effective to fund a part of my Debian work. So I wanted to make it available world-wide by publishing an English translation of it. I tried to find an English-speaking editor willing to take on the challenge but I found none interested.

Not put off by a setback, Roland (my co-author) and I decided to negotiate with our French editor Eyrolles to recuperate the necessary rights to translate the book into English. Handling everything ourselves represents a lot of work, but it also means that we have the freedom required to decide of the license of the resulting book. We would love to see it under a license compatible with the Debian Free Software Guidelines.

But at the same time we firmly believe that we deserve a reasonable monetary compensation for the work on the book, so we conditioned its liberation to a predefined amount of money (25 K€) in what we call the "liberation fund". And since we wanted to be sure that we would have the required means to complete the translation, we used a crowfunding platform to seek support of people interested by the book. With such a platform you're only debited if the minimal requested amount is reached. Anyone can participate, pre-order the book and/or put some money in the liberation fund.

As of today, we already reached the minimal funding goal (15 K€) so the book translation will happen. But the liberation target has not yet been reached so we don't know yet if the book will be free from the start... you can follow the progress right on the fundraising page or on the website dedicated to the book.

PS: If you want to contribute to this project and also make a donation to Debian at the same time, you should check out this page.

You're one of the main developers of dpkg, a critical tool for Debian systems. Can you tell us more about the current development challenges it is facing? What will be the new dpkg features for wheezy?

The current challenges are not really technical. dpkg is a relatively mature piece of software and it will continue to work for the foreseeable future without needing much maintenance work.

The real challenge is trying to setup a healthy developement community around it so that we can keep tackling new interesting problems (there are many listed in the roadmap and in the 225 wishlist bugs).

There is a real problem of leadership and communication in the current team. We used to be three, and we're only two nowadays. Guillem is the legitimate leader since he's involved in dpkg's developement since early 2006 while I joined only in late 2007. But in the last 4 years, we did not manage to recruit anyone else on the team. Some persons tried to contribute significant new features (like Sean Finney with a rework of the way we handle configuration files) but they gave up frustrated after a while because we did not manage to review their work (and discuss the design) in any reasonable timeframe. Another famous case is Ian Jackson with his trigger work. His work got merged, but so late that in the mean time he blew up while trying to hijack the maintenance of dpkg.

For a long time I was concentrating my work on the Perl part of dpkg (aka dpkg-dev mainly), so I did not feel qualified to review and merge work related to the C part and I was just a worried observator of this situation. I tried to improve it by setting up some basic review infrastructure, it should have brought some lisibility to the status of each change left to be reviewed... but it has not been used and it changed nothing.

Over the years, I became much more interested in the C part. My first big contribution in C has been the rewrite of update-alternatives (from Perl to C). I made other small changes in between, but at the start of this year I had this great opportunity to work on the multiarch implementation (FYI, multiarch is the possibility to mix packages from several architectures on a single system). This really forced me to jump into the C codebase and learn a lot about how dpkg is implemented. Thanks to this I have been able to tackle other small projects (like the improved triggers).

This would be all great if my multiarch work was already merged, but it's not. It's a large work, I do not mind waiting a bit in particular since Guillem is a highly skilled C programmer. His sharp analysis of new designs are invaluable, when he reviews code he always finds something to improve. I learnt a lot just by reviewing the code he wrote over the years.

That said I have been waiting since April without almost no updates from him. With the release team asking us to hurry up, the situation is getting somewhat strained as I really want to see multiarch in Wheezy and I do not really want to short-circuit Guillem.

Hum, I may have drifted a bit from your original question... what great new features can people expect? Well multiarch is supposed to be the big new feature, apart from that there aren't many things that matter to the end users. But there are already quite a few changes that are of interest to package maintainers (like hardened build flags, source package improvements, improved triggers, …).

What's the biggest problem of Debian?

Manicheism and a tendency to quickly polarize the discussions. In reality, there are very few situations where everything is all good or all bad.

Ever since I have read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People I try hard to put into practice the habits of “interdependence”. Instead of having only my point of view in mind, I try to understand the motivations from the other party (“Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood”) in order to be able to put forward solutions acceptable to both parties (“Think Win-Win”).

I highly recommend this book to anyone. And I invite everybody to at least try to follow those simple advices.

Is there someone in Debian you admire for their contributions?

There are many and I can't give an exhaustive list... here are some that I would like to highlight (in no particular order):

Most of those people are working on improving Debian's infrastructure so that we can all be more effective and do an even better work. This kind of work is not always very visible but it's crucial to Debian's future.

Thank you to Raphaël for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did. And, anyway, it was fun to just play the game "the other way".

posted at: 22:10 | path: /bubulle/planet-debian | permanent link to this entry

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