Reflecting on a year of regular, public IRC meetings

Published by Jon on November 1st, 2016 in Debian

The release team first started holding a regular, public planning and status meeting a little over a year ago, in September 2015. At that time, FTP masters had experimented along similar lines and I took some inspiration from that, including the keeping of proper minutes that anyone can look at. I wanted to open up our discussion processes and allow other developers and users to see (and perhaps influence) our plans for the release taking shape month by month, and how we reached certain decisions with a lot of mature discussion and not just on a whim.

A secondary aim, since we are quite geographically distributed and getting together for same-room meetings is hard, was to bring more accountability to ourselves when we decided something ought to happen; if it’s in the minutes, there’s no escaping someone asking “so what happened to … ?”. That’s worked better for us on some topics than on others.

Finally, public minutes mean that anyone who might be interested in joining the team can see easily what we’re up to and how we shape the release throughout the cycle. That might help lower the barrier to entry, which can only be good for the team.

I had hoped that regular meetings would inspire other teams to do similar; I haven’t seen any indication of that to date (though perhaps it’s just down to awareness). The Reproducible Builds contributors held fortnightly meetings for a period in 2015, though not inspired by ours, and I heard recent talk of starting those again. I still think that there is plenty of scope to improve the transparency of core teams in general in Debian, but also that regular meetings aren’t going to work for every team.

A regular slot which is not varied except when absolutely necessary, is essential for avoiding the temptation to just push it back another week when things are busy. In our office we have an allegedly-regular Thursday afternoon slot for technical demonstrations, which has suffered from exactly that problem for a long time now, and I wanted to avoid that issue. We have a calendar to remind us when each meeting is due, along with other important events like freeze milestones. Our slot is the fourth Wednesday of the month, a fairly arbitrary choice which seems to have worked out quite well.

Time zones are more of an issue, even within Europe. We have mostly used a European evening time, but that’s not very helpful further West where it’s in the middle of the working day, or the middle of the night if you’re further East (that one fortunately isn’t an issue for us so far). Even within Europe it’s difficult, as we have to try and balance commuting time in the UK with dinner on the continent, or dinner with late evening, or adjust for saving changes, or… you get the idea. If we gained a far-eastern team member one day, this would be a real issue.

We use Meetbot for recording the minutes. I have heard criticism that it publicly archives IRC logs to the web essentially forever, but for us that’s the whole point. With a little practice and discipline it does generate really nice minutes, with a bullet summary of the important parts, a summary of actions agreed and a log of the conversation for detailed reference. Anybody reading them can see how we reached a conclusion, and I’m of the view that goes some way to avoiding a reputation for cabal-ism. It does pay to use the #info, #agree and #action tags liberally, but other things are slightly unnatural – like always remembering to use a URL at the beginning of a line and not in the middle of a sentence, or Meetbot doesn’t notice it. Practice goes a long way.

I’ve naturally fallen into chairing most meetings, for better or worse – the consistency seems beneficial, but I worry that I’m dominating the discussion sometimes. Discipline in making sure everybody has been included is something I’ve had to get better at. It’s essential to have a public agenda and to stick to it, and it should include some stock items at the start and end (including making sure the URL to the previous minutes has been given, reviewing outstanding actions, and arranging the next meeting before ending the current one). There is some skill in judging the agenda length and deciding which items can be deferred to make sure it doesn’t drag on too late – we’ve found anything more than an hour is far too long, and between 45 and 60 minutes is pushing it. Getting some easy topics out of the way before starting one which is more contentious can be helpful to avoid having to defer them later. I circulate the URL to the minutes and the date of the next meeting publicly on the mailing list immediately after each meeting, or as soon as possible.

With little feedback, I have no idea if our meetings are helpful to those outside the team or not. We do still hold in-person meetings from time to time when we’re all together, because they’re useful for some circumstances (like some genuinely private topics we occasionally need to discuss, or for sprinting). I would hope that public meetings inspire confidence that we’re on top of the release process, that they show we have a mature and transparent decision making process (for example, in deciding to move the freeze date to accommodate an external release schedule as a one-off, and subsequently deciding to not move it back when circumstances changed), and – mostly – that other teams might benefit for the same reasons. But I can also see that they make more sense in a team with a defined project cycle than they might in one which is more administrative or where work is more sporadic (no point holding a meeting for the sake of it, after all).

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One Response to “Reflecting on a year of regular, public IRC meetings”

  1. OdyX Says:

    Notably, the Debian Technical Committee is running regular and public IRC meetings, which are announced on-list, and happen on #debian-ctte. We’re also using MeetBot.