When I read the news about Canonical’s decision to change the way Ubuntu Developer Summit (original announcement here) I was totally astonished. I expected this change will cause a lot of buzz within the community, especially given the fact that all recent Canonical decisions are considered very controversial. This surprises me heavily, as I can spot a big number of problems that this decision may cause, as well as problems with the way this decision itself was handled. Jono Bacon’s article explaining the decision did not satisfy me either. It explains the general reasoning behind this idea, but it does not clarify everything.
UDS is a part of long-term Ubuntu tradition. Every six months the developers from all over the world would meet in order to plan development for the upcoming release, brainstorm ideas, discuss problems and collaborate in many ways to ensure that next Ubuntu is going to rock. But the event is not (was not?) just about planning. It was a chance for the community to actually meet, to get to know each other, to tighten the bonds within community. I believe this is crucial for being deeply engaged within the community, and for ensuring the relations within community, as well as it’s structure and organisation are well and sound (and isn’t it important to have friends within the community?). We all know that a big number of Canonical employees are working remotely, and I feel that this may be one of the key facts which contributed to the decision of converting UDS into an online meeting. Apparently some folks at Canonical realized that people do not need to meet in order to be productive. Moreover, a very important part of UDS was outside the sessions – people would discuss brilliant ideas during the dinner, some would seek for aid for their team by looking for interested folks, others would flash their mobile device with the help of experienced ones, and finally, some people would teach each other a lot. It is clear that none of these will happen in case of an online UDS.
From what I understood, the idea is to make UDS available to everyone, so that all contributors, regardless of where they live in and how far are they willing to travel, could participate to the sessions. I can, however, see some significant inconsistency here. The first fact is the choice of Google Hangouts for sessions. I agree this is a great handy tool for video conferences, and I use it myself a lot, but it cannot be assumed that everyone is perfectly fine with G+ policy; there indeed are people who do their best to avoid any Google products. We are told that IRC sessions will be provided for these who can’t join videos, but that doesn’t do much sense, because it does not differ at all from remote participation in summits which were real meetings (people who were unable to travel to UDS could use IRC to contact with session participants, the IRC log was displayed live in the room so that everyone could interact with the discussion even if they were miles away – I have participated this way during UDS-Q, and the experience was actually quite satisfying, even though I couldn’t see the faces of people I was speaking with).
I also have to express my doubts about session organisation. While some UDS sessions were indeed held by less than 10 people, many other would grab interest of more (e.g the ones from Community track), resulting in more than 50 developers in the room + at least 20 on the IRC, with at least 30-40 of them participating actively in the discussion. Now, if the point is to let everyone participate, then it means we aim for even more participants. Now please imagine 80-100 people in a single G+ hangout. Even a number like 30 seems bizarre! Either this will end as a huge mess, or only some people will be voiced (which, again, breaks the idea of opening UDS to everyone).
I have also concerns about the way it is said to be organised. The event is going to be two-days long, and it will take place between 4pm to 10pm UTC. Obviously, that means that a big part of the word will be sleeping then, and the other be at work etc. And that, once more, is aganist the principle of opening UDS to everyone. I don’t see any reason why this can’t be a 24h event, with sessions spread more or less evenly, so that those living in Australia can participate too. I also believe that some teams might want to schedule meetings on times that suit their people best, why limit them to few hours, if this is going to be an online event?
The length of the event is also interesting. Two days. Two days of few-hour long discussion. Compare that to traditional 5-day long UDS with sessions from 9am to 6pm. Add the fact that online UDS will take place two times more frequently, and the conclusion is that we’ll need to be 10 times more efficient to discuss all that is needed. Will this be enough time? Luckily, event length can be fine-tuned if needed. Some speculate this may be related to Ubuntu switching to rolling release model.
One of the main problems with how was decision handled is that it was 1) a surprise 2) immediately effective. I opened up Planet Ubuntu on Wednesday and learned that the UDS is next week. A lot of time to prepare discussion topic, isn’t it? At the time of writing this, there is not a single blueprint registered for this UDS. I might go on explaining why this was a terrible idea to announce it this late, but I believe you get the idea. Please also note that Canonical has never notified before about such idea. Until the announcement, everything seemed that the next UDS will take place as usually – this time in Oakland, and I expect there may be people who have already reserved their time. I feel that such crucial decisions need to come with some kind of transitional period.
With all respect to Canonical and their right to manage the money they own (UDS is a really expensive event, every time I try to imagine the amount of money that had to be involved in Copenhagen, my mind suffers stack overflows), I am very skeptical about this decision, both because of the reasons I explained, and because of some that I’d rather not share publicly. Time will tell how it will affect planning, development and community. I hope the lack of such meetings won’t have a major impact.
And please keep in mind that regardless of what changes are done to the way we organize our work, Ubuntu community will always make sure your favorite OS is the best possible! :-)