Ten years in Debian
Back in the mid-'90s, when I was a keen user of Acorn's proprietary operating system, I was introduced to Debian by my high-school friend Chris Rutter. I had accounts on a series of servers he ran, first using the RiscBSD port of NetBSD to ARM, then switching over to Debian, where he helped with the ARM port. I can't remember for sure the various dates, but certainly by the time I went to university in 1998 I knew enough to be recruited as a sysadmin by the college computing society, even if I still had a lot to learn.
For a number of years I then remained a happy Debian user, on servers I helped administrate and on personal machines, without feeling a need to join the project. I never went through what now seems to be a normal phase of trying out different distributions, since Debian gave me what I wanted – unless you count the spectator sport of watching Matthew Garrett fight to install unusual operating systems on whatever strange hardware he had picked up recently. As a programmer, I began to appreciate the value of free software in making it much easier to find out how things work and to fix them when they are broken, so started to prefer Debian for ideological reasons too. Watching the Acorn operating system I'd previously used die off also encouraged me against spending more time learning details of proprietary systems.
At the end of 2001 I got a Compaq iPAQ – the early models were closely based on a DEC research project, and could be reflashed to run Linux. I'd worked on a few small free software projects before in university, but this was my first entry to the wider free software community. I soon became involved in the GPE project, which was writing a GTK-based set of applications for these limited-resource devices (e.g. 32 MB RAM, 16 MB permanent storage for the base OS, X, applications and user data).
It's from GPE that I finally ended up making packages for Debian. Although Debian wouldn't fit on the kind of devices that we were targetting with GPE, some people were using Debian derivatives there, and other people wanted to use GPE applications on systems which were comparatively more powerful but which still wouldn't run a full Gnome or KDE desktop. I adopted a Debian package or two from Philip Blundell, then packaged another set from scratch myself. And in the summer of 2003 I met up with GPE and Debian people at LinuxTag in Germany, then attended my first DebConf in Norway, and got absorbed into the Debian community from my previous status of happening to know a few Debian people.
This post is long enough, so I'll keep discussion of the NM process or of what I've done in Debian since 2003 for another time, but I'll mention one thought in closing. When I first got interested in contributing to Debian, even though I had known a few people working on Debian for years already, finding my way into this large, distributed project with high standards of quality seemed intimidating. Once I started maintaining packages, and once I met more Debian people, I perhaps still felt intimidated by the high standards, but I found that Debian was a very welcoming project to join. If you're reading this on Planet but still feel an outsider to Debian, I encourage you to go ahead and jump in deeper, and I hope that you'll find you enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed working in Debian over the last ten years.