being productive at conferences

I've been thinking a lot about why I got so little work done on debian-installer at DebConf4. Apparently I'm not the only one to feel a bit disappointed or frustrated with the amount of work done there.

I'm sure that part of the problem is the absolute mythos that's grown up about all the things that were accomplished at DebConf3 and the subsequent Oldenburg developer's meeting. We came into DebConf4 with high expectations and plans that a lot of work would be done, and this created a lot of stress, which for me made it hard to do useful things, including socialise and have meetings.

Maybe less was really accomplished at DebConf3 and Oldenburg than we remember in the rosy glow of retrospect; I actually remember some very frustrating times at DebConf3 trying to find a box that I could boot d-i on to test it, and I know I didn't really do that much there on solid d-i development, though I did a lot on getting involved and up to speed on the project again. But then again, I remember doing a ton of stuff at Oldenburg, including usb, some pcmcia, and working floppies. And othes did the powerpc port, and a lot of other stuff too. And we had a lot of meetings, that seemed rather productive.

Maybe we really accomplished more at DebConf4 than is first apparent. Some things like Steve's BIDI work are now bearing fruit, but were really started there. It's can't be denied that Marga and others did a huge lot of testing, and so we know exactly where we are for the arches that we had available to test. Having the d-i people available to diagnose problems, but not doing the actual testing worked very well (until our testers turned into expert d-i veterans, anyway ;-). And there were lots of little fixes. And I saw more real life d-i installs by the uninitiated than ever before, and learned important things about usability problems, that led to stuff like the tasksel rewrite.

I think that part of it is that the nature of working on d-i has changed a lot since the last DebConf; back then you could pick anything and do some very simple work to get it from not working at all to kinda working. Very satisfying. Now it's more a matter of working hard to find something that's broken, and then a trivial fix. Or a very hard fix for a small problem. Or just lots and lots of testing that turns up some small problems. Important work, but not as high profile as "I added USB boot support to the installer last night!" Maybe if we had been able to focus on something like porting d-i to a new arch at DebConf4, we would have felt we accomplished more; unfortunatly s390's are not very portable, and noone thought to try to line up amd64 equipment either. Besides, the amd64 port seems to be going pretty well on its own.

I do think that DebConf4's schedule contributed to the problem. There were talks and bofs every day, and even if one had the willpower to skip some of them, likely someone one needed to work with was hard to find because they were at a talk (or locked in the Warthogs' dungeon, in some cases). And it was hard to skip everything, so most days were broken up into several peices, with not enough long chunks of productive hacking time. I think DebConf4 was the best organised DebConf yet, and really very well done all around, but this scheduling is to my mind a mistake. I'm interested to know if people outside d-i also had this kind of problem; I noticed that there seemed to be no organised RC bug squishing at DebConf4 either, and I think the idea of having a DebCamp before the Conf was basically lost for this conference.

So for various reasons this was perhaps not the best conference that could be for d-i. I've still very glad I attended it. I wonder if the d-i team should consider another Oldenburg like meeting in a while, and if so, what we should do to avoid some of the problems I discussed above.