Interview with Simon Law, Ubuntu's "Bug Czar"

Posted by dcparris on Jul 12, 2006 9:11 AM EDT
LXer Feature; By Carla Schroder
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LXer Feature: 12-Jul-2006

Canonical Ltd., the parent company of Ubuntu Linux, recently hired a brand-new Quality Controller, Simon Law. I was curious about what a Quality Controller does on a Linux distribution, especially a popular high-profile distribution like Ubuntu. It's difficult for me to imagine the scope of such a job. Any Linux distribution has thousands of available packages from thousands of different sources. Then each distribution adds its own customizations. Each distribution supports a number of hardware architectures. Some programs are in phases of rapid development and distribute a constant flurry of releases and patches.

Do the old dictums "release early, release often" and "many eyes make all bugs shallow" still apply in an era when non-coder users far outnumber programmers and software developers? When Linux has so grown huge and complex, and reaches into every aspect of computing? To me, the idea of trying to impose some meaningful quality control on all that is like trying to organize the tides.

But then, I'm just an old country sysadmin, not a brainiac engineer like Mr. Law.

Mr. Law's website and Live Journal are as much about photography, food, music, and travel as they are about computing. (Which proves not all FOSS geeks are monomaniac coders who do nothing else.) He kindly consented to an email interview, which is reprinted here verbatim.

Are you working full-time for Canonical now?

I started working full-time for Canonical at the end of April, when I became convinced that there was a pressing need for an interest in Quality in Ubuntu.

So I've been hired to start up the QA department. And it's a job that's been both very challenging and very rewarding.

Are you doing any hands-on, or is your role more of the person in the high seat directing traffic?

I do a little bit of the former and a little bit of the latter. It's always good to be able to get your hands dirty, and then to step back once in a while to look at the big picture.

We've been thinking of ways to make Edgy Eft turn out well. As you may know, Edgy is full of new features that will be delivered in less than four months. So we need to test it better than we've ever tested Ubuntu before. And that's where volunteers can really help out.

You mentioned "I have some thoughts on how Ubuntu participates in the free software ecosystem, and dealing with bugs is something that is quite important to that." Want to share those thoughts?

Ubuntu is one of the big community software projects. And it's one of the very few community distros. So there are some pretty interesting effects that we have on the rest of the free software community.

One of them is that as a user-friendly distribution, we're the primary contact for people trying out free and open source software. You can think of us as ambassadors for an entire community. We may not agree with everyone else on everything, but we do have a strong commitment to humanity to others. And that's something most free software projects share.

Following the excellent example set by the Debian Project, we also try to forward high-quality bug reports to the authors of applications that we distribute. We have working relationships with the GNOME Project, the Debian Project, and hundreds of other developers. And we try very hard to improve them.

Is there more to the job than bug finding and squashing? Like figuring out procedures to cut down on the number of flaws in the first place, or suchlike?


It's definitely better to find bugs early on in development. And infinitely better not to write those bugs in the first place. But we all can't be perfect, can we?

For Edgy Eft, our little team of volunteers will be running tests on new features that are being incorporated. And that's starting to happen as we speak. This is so that we can provide feedback to developers, as they're writing the software, so that we won't have too many surprises near the end.

How do you decide when to fix a bug, and when to kick a bug report upstream?

We do our best to link all relevant bugs with the upstream software developers. It's all part of being a good citizen in the free software and open source world.

Whenever we encounter a bug with a piece of code we haven't written, our bug triagers go searching in the upstream bug tracking database. If they find a bug that's already there, great! Our bug tracking system, Malone, is designed to track the status of that bug. We'll put a link to the corresponding Ubuntu bug so that upstream developers can track our progress.

Then it's up to the developers to decide when to resolving a particular bug. If it affects our users, we'll commit resources to fixing it then and there.

Ubuntu and its derivatives are very popular, and they are attracting hordes of newbies, including a sizable number with little Linux experience. A big part of the strength and vitality of Free Software is community participation. What can non-coders do to help improve Ubuntu?

There are plenty of things you can do to help out, no matter what your skill level! Participate describes many of the various things that the community does to improve Ubuntu every day.

Specifically for QA, you can join the Ubuntu BugSquad. We're a tight-knit group of people who are interested in helping with the neverending flow of bugs that come in. You can start by helping to triage new bugs and testing experimental bits of software. Plus, we give out lots of virtual hugs.

How does the QA process work? Do you have testers, or do you rely on user feedback, or read tea leaves, or what?

The Ubuntu BugSquad is a superb team of volunteers. We take user feedback, in the form of bug reports, and work with users to isolate their problem. Then it gets escalated to developers who have a high-quality bug report to read.

That's not all that's involved in QA for a distribution. But it is what we're concentrating on right now.

Do you do anything besides cook and attend conferences and festivals? :)

Sure! I throw excellent parties.

I also moonlight as a freelance photographer and journalist. You can find some of my articles at Akachic Records.

I'm also quite partial to giving talks and public speaking. In fact, I'll be at the University of Waterloo at the end of July to talk about Ubuntu and free software development. And when I have a spot of free time, I actually hack on free software.

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fine interview! grouch 3 1,803 Jul 13, 2006 3:07 AM

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