This week’s interview is serendipitous, as it comes in the wake of a rash of malicious posters attempting to delude new Ubuntu users into deleting their entire systems. At the forefront of the campaign to educate Ubuntunoobs against accidental erasures is jdong, who is also the forum’s unofficial security “expert.” An Ubuntu member, a forums administrator and now a Master of the Universe, jdong has an amazing background beyond the occasional post you might see in the ‘forums.
Tell as much as you’re willing about your “real” life — name, age, gender, location, family, religion, profession, education, hobbies, etc.
My name is John Dong, I’m 19, male, and an American citizen originally from China. Currently I’m an undergraduate Electrical Engineering/Computer Science major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In my spare time, I like to work on Ubuntu, hang out with members of our community, and tend to my other interests. I have an odd collection of hobbies that ranges from collecting flashlights to reviewing radar detectors.
When and how did you become interested in computers? in Linux? in Ubuntu?
Ever since I was a little kid, the computer has fascinated me. I used to play a lot of DOS games, and when my parents wouldn’t start them for me from DOS I started learning how to do so myself.
I started reading C/C++ programming books at age 9 and my interests continued to grow from there. I was a major Windows nerd by the time I was in middle school, having mastered Win32 MFC programming from Ivor Horton’s gigantic red book.
I actually didn’t pay attention to Linux at all until freshman year in high school when I was stuck in a C++ programming class with Windows 98 machines. They integrated so poorly on our network that compiling code randomly hardlocks the systems, leading to complete data loss.
I remembered hearing a lot about this “Linux” thing and eventually went to download a Knoppix ISO over dialup. It booted and detected all the hardware on the school’s computer faster than Windows 98 can show a login prompt, and I was blown away at the possibility that an OS can be completely run off a CD-ROM so well!
My computer geek nature immediately compelled me to explore and install Knoppix on my home computer, and within a few months I was using only Linux.
I then had a period of jumping from distro to distro every week, and at one point I ran out of distros on the DistroWatch list to try! I spent my longest time in Gentoo (and the distro’s just-look-under-the-hood-yourself philosophy at the time motivated me to learn a huge amount about how Linux works) and second-longest time in Debian testing/sid.
I started looking into Ubuntu after Warty was released for a few weeks. I was previously a Gentoo user for fast-paced development and easy customization, but became disillusioned after two easily-catchable QA slipups left me with a completely unusable system. The second one fell on the night before a paper was due and negatively impacted my ability to get my work done, and at that point I thought I had better start looking for an alternative distro.
I immediately fell in love with how well Ubuntu worked out of the box. A 20 minute install later, I was immediately productive and only needed minor tweaks to match my tastes. My previous Gentoo installs took nearly a week before I felt comfortable enough in it to do my daily work. Since then, I’ve never found another distro as appealing as Ubuntu for my primary choice.
When did you become involved in the forums? What’s your role there?
I registered on the forums like a month or two after it was created. I immediately went to work answering support questions. At the time, the forums were small enough that I could reply to every single unresolved support thread on it within a day’s time.
After a while, I PM’ed ubuntu-geek asking if he needed any help running the forums, and he made me a moderator :) . This was my first real moderator position on a forum, apart from my tiny forums that I maintained for my robotics team.
Since then, I’ve gained a lot of experience managing the forums and became a Forum Council member :) .
Are you an Ubuntu member? If so, how do you contribute? If not, do you plan on becoming one?
Yes. I originally became an Ubuntu member as a part of my Backports project becoming official.
When I used Gentoo, I got a new version of an app within days or a week of its upstream release. When Ubuntu first started, there was a very strict frozen-release policy that meant no updates of any kind except security (not even broken package bugfixes) for Universe.
I found this to be very limiting for the average desktop user, who would be more than willing to trade off a frozen-solid enterprise-type platform for a rolling-versions setup. So, with a bit of research into basic Debian build tools, I started the unofficial Ubuntu Backports project to provide user-requested version updates of packages.
The project spread like wildfire in popularity and before long, I was facing 25GB/hr type bandwidth usage and struggled to find people willing to mirror it!
However, popularity != correctness. In that time, either limitations in my QA ability, lack of communication with Ubuntu developers, and my inexperience with managing QA/compatibility of a project this size lead to Backports packages causing all kinds of breakage for Ubuntu users.
These support requests must’ve overwhelmed Ubuntu developers, because I soon found mailing list archives with sharp hurtful criticism of me and my work, along with immediate instructions to remove all of my packages with any support request.
There is a lesson to be learned from this, for people starting up third-party projects with Ubuntu.
First, shunning the Ubuntu developer community to do your own work cannot be successful in the long run. Without coordination and communication with Ubuntu it’s very hard to anticipate the moves of the official development tree and adapt your work in a way not to interfere with theirs.
Secondly, no matter how bleak the situation works there is always a way to make things right again. A fellow Backports developer dragged me into a Tech Board meeting to discuss Backports, and after several long hours we hatched out a set of policies and plans to integrate Backports as an official Ubuntu repository.
Since then, Backports has worked closely with Ubuntu developers in coordinating updates and propagating fixes, and breakages/regressions are extremely rare, definitely in the single-digits since our birth in Hoary. So please, if you are a developer of a third party project, don’t lose regular contact with the Ubuntu developer community!
Recently, I’ve submitted an application to become MOTU after spending the past few release cycles working on a number of bugfixes and packaging enhancements to various Universe projects.
I eagerly await that decision, but regardless of what it may be it will not negatively impact my level of work output in Ubuntu. I am dedicated to making this distro the best there is, and to make sure no bug is left behind ;-) [Editor’s note: As mentioned in the introduction, that application was approved within the past few days.]
What distros do you regularly use? What software? What’s your favorite application? Your least favorite?
I use Ubuntu Linux the most — every system that I can convert to Ubuntu is Ubuntu! I keep close watch on Fedora and SUSE too, often with VM’s or dual-boots of them.
As far as other operating systems, I enjoy using OS X on my Macbook and playing around with FreeBSD. I am still a Windows admin for my parents’ computers (we’ve tried a transition to Linux but their applications and personal productivity were still highest on Windows).
I am a computer nerd — I hate turning a blind eye to any part of the computing world and try to stay fresh and knowledgeable in all platforms. We all have things to learn from each other, and ignorance never makes anyone better!
What’s your fondest memory from the forums, or from Ubuntu overall? What’s your worst?
My best two memories from the forums were becoming a moderator and becoming an administrator. Ubuntu means a lot to me, and these positions symbolize my dedication and responsibility to the Ubuntu community. Overall my Ubuntu experience has been nothing but positive and there are too many great stories to list.
As far as worst experiences, they have been internal disagreement in the staff. Over the course of our history there have been a few incidents where we couldn’t reach agreement any longer and had to let go members of our team. It is the hardest thing to do, and memories of these conflicts often catches me when I’m reminiscing on the forums and bring tears to my eyes. There were talented individuals that I’ve lost contact with whom I miss dearly.
Similarly, I am saddened every time a conflict between a user and the staff could not be reached. We don’t like using our powers for punishment any more than you like receiving it.
What luck have you had introducing new computer users to Ubuntu?
Well it’s been mixed, and boils down to the problems with teaching old dogs new tricks ;-) .
A good majority of my friends use Linux as their primary OS, and almost all of them are at least interested in the distribution and have tried it — even if they choose not to use it. I am not a big fan of forcing any kind of software onto people who are at least content with their current choices.
However, I’d be more than happy to spend any amount of time setting up and teaching someone the basics of Linux as long as they are interested. I don’t want to be the Linux equivalent of long-distance-service telemarketers!
My major failure-to-switch subjects are still my parents. We’ve tried a few times but it hasn’t worked out great so far. However, my mom’s been getting quite a bit of exposure to embedded Linux in her line of work (Electrical Engineering) so there may be a next chapter coming up soon!
What would you like to see happen with Linux in the future? with Ubuntu?
There are a number of things I like to see happen with Linux as a whole.
First off, we need to improve our graphics driver situation. Right now there’s very few, if not zero, cards that work to majority’s satisfaction under Linux and comply to our fundamental philosophies. It seems like recently there’s been promising progress and commitments to fixing this situation but it’s got to get better.
With Ubuntu, the first thing I’d like to see is a massive performance to the intelligence of startup and application loading algorithms. I’ll readily admit that our friends at Redmond beat us hands-down for having a solid, dynamically adapting startup and loading system that can boot and open applications intelligently and quickly.
We’ve already got good groundwork (upstart, readahead), and in-development work (the prefetch SoC project) towards bettering this situation and I’d like to see it advance.
Another thing with Ubuntu is the number of open/unresolved bugs. I’ll readily admit too that there are plenty of bugs in Launchpad that are fixable with just a few hours of effort, or are already fixed by contributors but haven’t found their way into the repository.
As one of my favorite Ubuntu developers always loves to point out, you can’t just sit back and wave the magic wand and expect things to be done! I make a daily effort to occupy myself with fixing bugs and popular grievances before packaging new and shiny stuff, and encourage everyone to get involved helping track down or even fix bugs in Ubuntu.
There are plenty of ways for people with all skillsets (no, you don’t need programming expertise or computer science classes!) to contribute. Sitting back and whining that “they” (i.e. the developers) aren’t fixing things is never the right attitude.
If there was one thing you could tell all new Ubuntu users, what would it be?
First of all, keep an open mind. I know you are probably an expert in whatever operating system and software you are using now, and it feels frustrating and overwhelming to suddenly feel totally computer illiterate or unable to do things you were so fluent in doing back on your old OS.
Ubuntu is different, and experienced Ubuntu users have found a way to do almost everything they need to do in this distribution.
Secondly, try to find the time to give back to the community that gave you your wonderful software. Help answer some questions on the forums or IRC that you know the answer to. Write documentation or clarify some instructions that you found unclear. Maybe even help package your favorite application.
My experience working with this community has been that the only roadblock to contributing is a contributor unwilling to learn. Everyone I’ve worked with has been more than glad to give up their time to help solve one of my issues, and I am willing to do the same in return!
Thirdly, appreciate and respect the work of others. A common attitude I’ve been seeing is insulting Microsoft whenever they get brought up, or ridiculing some distro and saying how Ubuntu is superior to it, or vice versa. Even though we may be competitors or plain don’t agree, we can still remain informed and respectful to other people’s work.
Plus, particularly in the FOSS community, there’s always codeflow everywhere. Even though you may not, for example, use Fedora or OpenSUSE, your current distro and software almost undoubtedly has their contributions in it.
And finally, with much more seriousness, be critical of everything you hear. Don’t believe and spread stories about Ubuntu or some software based on second-hand word or some guy’s blog without first verifying with a reputable source whether or not it is true.
Don’t type whatever command someone says or install whatever package you find on the web. Linux is a secure operating system, but only as secure as the user operating it. It is no replacement for a prudent, cautious, and responsible user.