Many of you reading this are probably already aware, long-time maintainer of glibc Roland McGrath has recently retired from maintaining that project. Inspired by his words, I wanted to say a few things about why I no longer contribute to KDE; a project I “retired” from some time ago now.
Recently two very good friends of mine, both long-term KDE contributors, inquired if I was going to be attending this year’s Akademy (the annual KDE conference). Neither were particularly surprised when I said I wasn’t.
I was surprised that they asked.
Getting Into KDE
My first experiences of KDE were many moons ago; sometime in the very early 00s I guess. I had installed Linux on an old machine and was not particularly enjoying the desktop experience.
There wasn’t a desktop.
I cannot remember which distro this was. It had come off some magazine’s cover CD. There was X. And the tiling window manager which allowed me to fill my screen with x-term. This, for a long time, was just how I got stuff done. Emacs, Mutt, Lynx and some weird terminal-based MP3 player were my jam.
Some time later I was reading another magazine (Linux Format?) and it had a review of a recent beta of KDE 2. The sources were included on the cover CD. KDE looked kinda nice. Less boxy and purple than the only other *nix desktop I had seen, CDE. Until I finished my undergraduate degree KDE was my go-to desktop.
For a while I had reverted to using a tiling window manager and a screenful of x-term. This was just a convenient way for me to get through my PhD and my day job.
During my PhD I was studying Free Software community productivity metrics. I was also working on research into software quality funded by the European Commission. KDE eV (the governance body1 for KDE) was also taking part in that project. At this time KDE was almost ready to release KDE 4. It was an exciting time to get involved.
So I installed whatever the Debian stable KDE desktop (3.1021933933923932) of the time and really enjoyed the experience. Having rediscovered my love for KDE and having met some of the active community, I dived in deeper.
KDE became high on my list of projects to study during my PhD. The community was going through major changes: not only was KDE 4 on its way in, but KDE SVN was on its way out.
Gitting Ready For Change
Around 2006 I discovered Ade de Groot’s tool for visualising contributions to SVN; it was part of the English Breakfast Network3. His version of this tool utilised Python’s SVN bindings to read the repo data. Git instinct told me this tool would work faster if it parsed SVN logs rather than read the repo data through a library. I turned out to be right and this was a formative moment in my career.
I created a generic SVN log parser for use by this visualisation tool and used the same parser for other purposes; mostly other visualisations and data plotting. The ultimate aim was to expose to the KDE community what we could learn about social interactions within the community from, arguably, its most important communication tool: the version control system.
KDE SVN was4 truly enormous. It was pretty much the largest SVN repo in the wild. One very large central repo which represented the entire body of KDE code/artefacts. Around this time the strains of using such a repo with such a huge (and growing) community were prompting discussion about distributed VCS.
These were remarkably mature and structured discussions. Git was, by no means, a foregone conclusion. Other distributed VCS were given headroom and this was the first (and, basically, last) time I played with Mercurial and Bazaar. The discussions were, for the most part, very technical. I raised my voice to talk about the potential social impacts of switching from SVN to distributed VCS. Any distributed VCS.
Joining KDE eV
I spoke at Akademy and other KDE events (including the KDE 4 launch at the Googleplex) about the research I was doing; either my PhD or the EC-funded stuff. I blogged. I dented5. My work was positively received and gearheads would actively reach out to me for more-detailed analysis of their corner of KDE.
I was encouraged to join KDE eV and I did. Given that I had made precisely 0 code contributions6 to KDE this, to me, felt like an achievement.
Since day one of my involvement, KDE eV had somewhat of an identity crisis. It was really not 100% clear what it did… but anyone who had been involved with KDE for more than 6 months was highly encouraged to join. Before long it had become bloated; lots of members contributing almost nothing and the few people wanting to do something not getting enough support to do it.
KDE has switched to Git and the social changes were a-happenin’. The KDE project was starting to lose its social cohesion. Post KDE 4.0-release blues, the switch to GIT and a lack of care from KDE eV all contributed here. Other things, too. No one thing started the KDE community’s cohesion degradation. But we felt it. We even went though a rebranding… KDE was not a desktop project, it had become a suite of projects and the desktop was just one of them.
KDE had evolved and I had not.
One of the metrics I worked on during my PhD was a simple use of graph theory to measure how well-connected a community is. The contribution I made here was intriguing: as project get bigger they become less cohesive, but through careful community management, luck and clever structure, KDE avoided this.
The last time I properly attended Akademy (the KDE community conference) was back in 2014. I’d been frustrated for some time with my inability to drive home the message that the switch to GIT had o be managed properly. I’d been frustrated that nobody seemed to have noticed that my warnings were coming true.
So I gave a talk that year.
Deep down, I knew this was my last public outing on behalf of KDE. It was. After my talk a lot of people came up to discuss the mic I had just dropped. But as the days and weeks passed after the event, the message disappeared. And so did I.
So Why Are You Telling Us This Now?
This year’s KDE conference starts tomorrow. Two of my all-time best buddy KDE community members reached out to see if I was turning up.
They knew I wasn’t.
While we briefly reminisced by email, one of them pointed out that my talk from 2014 had recently come up in conversation on a KDE mailing list. That, 3 years later, the talk was being used as part of a great discussion about change in the project.
I’m really not sure what my emotion about that was. But, I did not feel compelled to join the discussion. I did not feel a need to remind people about what I was trying to achieve all that time ago. Nope. Instead, I went and pushed some changes to a core plan I had been working on for Habitat, the new home for my free time.
To all my friends in KDE:
Enjoy Akademy. Enjoy the opportunity to do some navel gazing. Enjoy the food, the drinks, the sun. Hack. Break shit and put it back together again. Remind yourselves of why KDE is special. Remind yourselves of why it is important. Very important.
I thank you all for the time we spent together.
We were all part of the solution.
Countdown to flamewar… 3… 2… 1… I know many will object to me calling KDE eV a “governance body” but, no matter how you cut it, that is what it is. At least it should be, imo. ↩
There were approximately this number of KDE 3 releases. ↩
Is the EBN still a thing? ↩
Is identi.ca still a thing? ↩
This makes me a true C++ h4xX0r, right? ↩