Wednesday, 04 October 2006
I've been doing Debian for 10 years, as of this month. I reckon that's a good excuse for some ponderings...
For a long time in college in Cambridge, I was a Slackware user and supporter. It was my first distribution, installed in May 1994. I sent patches to Pat for bugs that I'd found, and I helped several of my friends in college maintain their machines running Slackware too. But after a couple of years of that, I grew tired of spending more time maintaining the OS on my machine than actually using it; I had even gone through the trials of the transition to ELF by hand. Some friendly pushing by my friend Jon Rabone (at the time also a DD) was finally enough, and one weekend in October 1996 we sat down together and started to install Debian on my PC.
That first installation was a nightmare! It was a major struggle, and more than one time that weekend I threatened to go back to the comfortable security of Slackware. The installer was awful, and needed lots of hand-holding. Eventually, however, we got there. hammer.chu.cam.ac.uk became a Debian machine, and most of it worked. By the end of that Sunday, I was convinced to stay with it.
Next, I decided that I wanted to contribute. The NM process in 1996 was quite simple - I mailed Bruce Perens with my PGP public key and asked him for an account. The package I wanted to maintain was mikmod. At the time I was one of the upstream developers, and I wanted to make sure it worked well in Debian. Unfortunately, I had already been beaten to it - Joey Hess had already packaged it in the few days since I first started work. Some things never change... :-) I mailed Joey and took over the package, then I started looking for other things to help with. I had long been annoyed that my Slackware patches had never met with any response, so Debian seemed ideal for me - a place where I could make a difference directly.
Over the following years, I took on, worked on and passed on lots of packages. At one point, I was maintaining lots of audio programs. At another I worked on lots of archiving and compression programs. Then I moved onto the debian-cd team. Debian was excellent fun: I got to use a great, stable operating system and I got to work on it and help make it better!
It hasn't all been plain sailing - there have been plenty of times when I've become disillusioned with things. There have been times when I've spent an entire night or weekend hacking on things and felt unhappy that either I hadn't made any progress or (even worse) my effort wasn't appreciated. There have been times when I've gone without sleep to get a package fixed or a CD build done, because I felt it mattered.
To offset that, there have been great moments: going along to Linux Expos and meeting users of my packages who wanted to say thanks and buy me beer; travelling around the world, meeting up with DDs and chewing the fat; playing Mao in the middle of the night at Debconf; most especially the feeling of achievement when my^Wour work is done and we manage to finish a release.
Oh, and that first installation? It's still around, almost ten years later. It has moved onto different hardware more times than I can remember, but I've continued upgrading it regularly ever since. It was once my only computer, but now it's one of many. hammer became sledge, then jack. It's now the machine that holds my Debian mirror and serves files to the rest of my home network. That's what I call upgradeability! It's a story that I tell people at Expos, and every year it gets more impressive... :-)