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Re: to DPL candidates: getting new people to Debian

On 2013-03-10 18:34, Timo Juhani Lindfors wrote:
I'd like to have each DPL candidate briefly discuss the challenges of
getting new people to Debian.

I certainly don't think I have all the answers myself, but this is an area I am very keen to see more discussion of, so I must apologise in advance for giving another long answer.


Four things that I think might help:
- Fun
- Clearer paths in
- More active recruitment
- Better use of local networks, where possible.


On the one hand, we are an exceptionally open project to new people -- they just need to turn up and start doing work. Any of a web browser, a mail client or an IRC client is enough to start making useful contributions to Debian. Adding a new package to the distribution requires some technical learning, but we don't require any formal processes, and if the package is widely useful it will be easy to find someone to sponsor it.

On the other hand, it can be difficult for people to find somewhere good to start. Often they will be pointed at lists of bugs that everyone else already gave up on fixing, or at lists of packages that other people weren't motivated to continue maintaining. Our "just start working" approach can leave many people more confused or intimidated than if we forced them to go through a mysterious and complex process and make it through technical interviews before they could touch anything! And many potential contributors just never get round to starting, or get pulled in by other projects first.

Suggested responses

- Fun. In my platform I make some suggestions about how we might improve general project transparency, communication and openness, which I think would have a particularly beneficial effect for new contributors. I also think that encouraging people to take roles they find fun, and to rotate away into other roles before they stop having fun, would not only make things more fun for those people by avoiding a burn-out phase, but would indirectly make things more fun for others, including for new members by making it more likely that those they interact with still share their level of enthusiasm, and perhaps even remember how it is to be new and make mistakes!

- Clearer paths in. This is especially important for people who don't have any personal contact with existing contributors. We do have some good information for people getting started, and good suggestions of areas to help on, but we could do with volunteers to curate this information in a single, advertised place on an ongoing basis. Potential new contributors could also do with some "neutral" people to ask about tasks, and to get suggestions from in response to explaining their current skills and experience. I would like to point to http://www.debian.org/women/mentoring as a great initiative that sets an example for this kind of approach can work.

- More active recruitment. One problem with "just start working" is that people often put off starting until tomorrow. If we want new contributors, we should more actively reach out to them. This could be as simple as replying to someone who submits a patch to a bug and encouraging them to get more deeply involved. One idea I would like to try is asking for volunteers to take interns for a set period. I don't suggest that people go into this assuming that the intern will help them get a lot more work done, although in some cases that will certainly happen. Even where the intern is merely "shadowing" the volunteer's work and watching how it is done, they will finish with a much better understanding of how Debian works, and be in a much better position to assess how they can make best make a contribution to the project. (As a side note, existing contributors might also want to participate in such a scheme to learn about different areas of the project.)

- Better use of local networks. It's much easier for us to recruit new volunteers where there is some existing personal contact, though we will never be able to reach all possible contributors this way, and it creates the risk of only recruiting contributors who are like our existing ones. At the moment local connections are a good source of Debian contributors in a few locations where there is a critical mass and local Debian activities. I would like us to encourage more local meetings of Debian contributors, whether for drinks or technical activities, and to compile a list of regional contacts -- people often ask for local contacts for Debian in a region already, and we don't have a good way to answer them. Even if there is only an occasional new face at a regular local meeting, it can let us gain contributors who otherwise would never have arrived. [1]


[1] In case anyone reading wants practical ideas for how to hold this kind of meeting, I can recommend

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