Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Gentoo past, present, and future

(If you saw an empty post on planet/universe, my apologies. I
need to work on my pyblosxom workflow, it seems.)

The real power base of Gentoo is not infra, the Council, the trustees,
or devrel. It's the developers. We have the credit and the blame
for what Gentoo is, has been, and will become.

Before that, though, a quick comment about Seemant's recent posts about
poisonous individuals ( I
think Seemant makes a number of good points, but I have a different
interpretation of many of those events than Seemant has. I'll cover some of
them below, but let me address his comments about Kurt Lieber here. I think
Seemant is wrong in his assessment of Kurt. Oh, the facts are essentially
correct: Kurt was in charge of infra, he was one of the primary people pushing
to extract the reins from drobbins hands, and he strongly pushed for the
establishment of the Gentoo Foundation. He's also bright, and frequently sure
of himself even when he's wrong, and when he eventually does lose his temper
he can be just as inflammatory as some of the more infamous of our community.
I also have little doubt that Kurt believed that if he were in charge of
Gentoo, then things would be better. Nonetheless, I don't believe that Kurt
was subtly trying to become Gentoo's Svengali. What I did see was that Kurt
had a different mindset from many of the devs (myself included). Kurt viewed
things from an infra perspective and with big-business sensibilities: security
should be paramount, devs are a potential threat as well as an asset,
enterprise Gentoo should be a goal, etcetera. (Of course infra has a culture
of mistrust; that's their job. It's also why infra is lower on the
organizational chart than the Council.) It was hardly surprising that Kurt
would clash with Seemant and others (again, including myself) from time to
time, given those differences of opinion.

Okay, back to the real point of this post.

Once upon a time, Gentoo was drobbins' baby. It was his project, his guiding
philosophy, and his say as to who was a dev, and who wasn't. Becoming a
dev was mainly a matter of submitting ebuilds and patches until somebody
got tired of committing them to CVS on your behalf, and decided that it would
just be easier if you were a dev so that you could do it yourself. In
those days I knew the name of everybody in #gentoo (or was it #gentoo-dev,
I don't remember). Whether due to drobbins' ideology or sheer pragmatism,
during that period Gentoo established a defining tradition of our community:
we provide our devs with nearly unfettered access to make changes, and we
trust them not to do anything too stupid (or at least to fix things if they
do). The idea is that our talented devs with time and ability _should_ be
able to make sweeping changes when need be. As such, Gentoo is very much a
distribution founded on trust, and that tradition of trusting our devs
survives to this day.

It may have been a golden age, but it was hardly perfect. Drobbins had
vision, but he could also be capricious and dismissive when somebody disagreed
with him. He had to learn management skills on the job, and although he got
much, much better, he occasionally made mind-blowing mistakes. Early devrel
would often do a great job, but sometimes turn around and collectively blow up
at somebody, shattering any good will they had built up. Read through the
various bugs and mailing lists, and you'll see that the current mistrust that
Gentoo devs have for powerful groups is perfectly rational, even though it is
remarkably unhelpful. Learning to govern ourselves properly has been _hard_.

It's important to note, though, that we're not done yet. Right now
Gentoo is a barely-herded collection of projects. The elected Council
has some power, but neither they nor the devs who elected them have really
come to terms with how much they have. I would say that the current Council
is trusted not to do anything too awful, but not really trusted to actually do
much that is useful. They are working to change that, though, however slowly
they may be moving. Meanwhile, Gentoo is still growing (yes, we are
still gaining new devs far faster than we lose old ones), and we're
still putting out new releases and maintaining the tree, so there's
time to work on figuring things out.

So, what does the future hold for Gentoo? I've no idea, but I expect good
things. I predict that we won't return to the days of a single
strong leader, despite the number of folks who seem to think that
doing so would solve all of our problems. Those folks might be correct,
except for the niggling fact that leading Gentoo is a full-time job, with no
pay, and so we haven't seen a lot of people stepping up to the plate to do
that job. Sorry, Seemant, but we're going to have to learn to live
with an elected governance committee, I suspect. Will we turn into
Debian? Yes, and no. Gentoo is a rare beast--a community distribution.
Almost all of the work is done by volunteers, and those volunteers will
only work on what they want to work on. Not everybody will agree, so
lengthy discussions on -dev aren't going away. In those respects,
we're very much like Debian. Similarly, we do most of our work
out in the open, so all of our disagreements and spats are available for all
to see. Ideologically, though, we're still quite different. We're less
rules-bound, we tend to favor pragmatism over ideological purity, and
we favor flexibility and power over stability.

I do hope that we can overcome this current lack of courtesy on the
mailing lists, irc, etcetera. I have no good suggestions on how to
accomplish this goal, I'm afraid, but I can offer one bit of history.
Back in the day, I helped to write the infamous Gentoo etiquette guide.
My assumption was that it was a gentle guide-to-the-clueless on how to
behave without causing too much friction. I never expected that anybody
would actually try to enforce it, especially not without running it
by the rest of the community first. Any solution in Gentoo has to
have the support of the majority of devs, or it's worse than

If you've made it this far, I'm quite impressed!

A few minor thoughts:

  • Ciaranm suggested that the heated discussion between he and drobbins
    was an attempt by drobbins to grab power. I doubt it. He just
    believed that he understood the problem and knew precisely how
    to fix it. Impressive hubris, and he got smacked down pretty
    hard, but that's different from malice.

  • Most devs are working hard on their own areas, and ignoring all
    of this stuff. Thank goodness.

  • Darn, I miss danarmak. Feel free to return anytime, Dan!

1 comment:

  1. imported comments

    Posted by Francesco R. on Wed Mar 7 15:06:05 2007
    don't take it so bad, gentoo is a bit more than NULL

    Posted by Alex on Wed Mar 7 15:49:45 2007
    Personally I think it's the most clever non-commentary yet.

    Posted by Seemant Kulleen on Thu Mar 8 13:33:55 2007
    Hi Grant,

    I do concede the possibility that I casted too harsh a light on Kurt. As I said in a recent post, you're one of my rocks, and I really appreciate that you took the time to post this.


    Posted by Iggy on Sat Mar 10 14:08:47 2007
    Always a voice of reason. I'm glad there are still a few like you left in Gentoo.



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