Someone on the United Kingdom Ubuntu mailing list pointed out this excellent interview with Mark Shuttleworth on the show “Open Season”. I hadn’t listened to the show before but it was very well done. One thing that didn’t get quite answered was a point about how Ubuntu manages to ensure that every package is reliable despite the high proportion of volunteers who have commit access. The show’s hosts seemed totally blown away by the fact that around 50% of people working directly on Ubuntu’s core packages are volunteers not employed by Canonical.
It’s worth explaining just a little further how Canonical and volunteers fit into the Ubuntu ecosystem. Although the show’s hosts were kind of looking at the Ubuntu project as “Canonical’s project”, that’s only true to an extent. Although Canonical provides the majority of resources that drive the Ubuntu project and keep it healthy (so, the engine of the project), the Ubuntu project’s governance processes (the design of the project) are independent and community based. This allows volunteers to work alongside Canonical employees with equality.
So how does that work? Each person contributing to Ubuntu packages goes through a rigorous process in order to get access to the core packages. The first step is to contribute to the Masters of the Universe team (“MOTU”), who take care of the “universe” component in Ubuntu, when the non-core packages are kept. This is a hugely important team in the Ubuntu community, and is almost exclusively volunteer based. When the team is satisfied that the quality of a person’s contribution is consistently good, commit access to the “universe” component is granted (and a person joins the ubuntu-motu team – currently 76 members). The strength of the processes and the individuals involved is so good that the MOTU team (through the MOTU Council) now takes that decision on its own. So this process is basically handled exclusively by volunteers. To gain access to the core packages, in the “main” component, a further period of contribution is required, during which existing Ubuntu developers can assess the quality of the work being put in. If appropriate, the Technical Board (which is again a community body, although it is currently made up of 3/4 Canonical employees) will take the decision of whether to grant commit access to the main component (and a person joins the ubuntu-core-dev team – currently 46 members).
Each Canonical employee goes through the same process that a volunteer contributor goes through.
This process (and the others which make up the Ubuntu community) is what makes Ubuntu a special project, and is in part the secret of its success.