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a potpourri of mirth and madness

Posts Tagged ‘Canonical

Scaling Human Systems: Organizational Design and Growth

This is the beginning of a series of articles about the challenges of growing an organization. I’m writing them to share some principles that I’ve derived from my own experience, as well as many valuable discussions with friends and colleagues, about helping companies grow from being quite small (say, 1-50 employees) to less small (100-500).

Every organization is unique, but all organizations face some common challenges as they grow. Human systems are incredibly complicated, and require frequent adjustment like any complex system. Any two organizations will have many important differences—such as their culture and market situation—which can (and should) influence their growth and development.

For this reason, I believe there are few if any hard and fast rules, and organizational design patterns can be difficult to translate from one organization to another. One organization’s solution can be another’s problem. Even when there seems to be a perfect fit, the process of implementing organizational change can be its own challenge

Even so, I think there is much to be learned by comparing different organizations, and much inspiration to be found in their successes and failures. Two organizations merit specific mention here, as sources of inspiration for me: Canonical, where I worked as Ubuntu CTO from near inception to when it reached nearly 500 people, and Heroku, where I currently serve as VP Engineering as it grows beyond 100 people.

Several of them share a common form:

  • What it means – a short conceptual overview
  • Why it’s important – an explanation of why this particular change is important at this juncture
  • Old status quo – what things looked like when the organization was smaller
  • New status quo – what things should look like for the next stage of growth
  • Behaviors that help – practical suggestions for how to work toward the new status quo
  • Obstacles that hold us back – anti-patterns that prevent progress

Table of contents:

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 20, 2013 at 12:32

Moving on from Canonical (but not from Ubuntu)

This June, soon after my seventh anniversary with Canonical, I will finish my job as Ubuntu CTO at Canonical. You can read my official announcement on the Canonical blog.

It’s sometimes hard to believe that it’s been that long since we first envisioned a Linux desktop “for human beings”. When I look at how far we’ve come, at the difference we’ve made to so many people, it’s easy to see how the time passed so quickly.

It’s been an incredible experience for me to play a part in building Ubuntu and Canonical. Whether building a decentralized company of hundreds of people, to a global community project of tens of thousands of members, I’m grateful for all of the learning opportunities along the way. It has been a privilege to work with so many brilliant, passionate and thoughtful people under such auspicious circumstances. There is much I will miss, and I have many memories to enjoy, from all-night global hacking sessions driving toward a ship date, to casual singing and playing music at our many face-to-face events

Nonetheless, it is time for me to seek out new challenges and stretch myself in new ways. I’ll be moving back to the US, closer to old friends and family, and starting a new job with a different type of company. I am leaving behind a capable and dedicated team at Canonical, who I am confident will achieve even greater things in the years to come.

I will remain active in the free software community as a volunteer. I intend to continue to participate in Ubuntu, and to serve on the Technical Board. I will also be continuing my work with Debian and the DEX project. This year, I’ve accepted advisory positions with the Ada Initiative and the Freedom Box Foundation, and will continue to support those organizations and their missions.

I’ll be in Budapest at the Ubuntu Developer Summit for the next week, and look forward to seeing my friends in Canonical and the Ubuntu community.

I’ll have more to say soon about what I’ll be doing next professionally. Watch this space for updates!

Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 6, 2011 at 07:51

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

Back to the future

In my professional role as Ubuntu CTO, I take on a number of different perspectives, which sometimes compete for my attention, including:

  • Inward – supporting the people in my department, alignment with other departments in Canonical and reporting upward
  • Outward – connecting with customers, partners and the free software community, including Debian
  • Forward – considering the future of the Ubuntu platform and products, based on the needs of their users, our customers and business stakeholders within Canonical
  • Outside-in – taking off my Canonical hat and putting on an Ubuntu hat, and looking at what we’re doing from an outside perspective

My recent work, as Canonical has gone through a period of organizational growth and change, has prioritized the inward perspective. I took on a six-month project which was inwardly focused, temporarily handing off many of my day-to-day responsibilities (well done, Robbie!). I’ve grappled with an assortment of growing pains as many new people joined Canonical over the past year.

With that work behind me, it’s time to rebalance myself and focus more outside of Canonical again. It’s good to be back!

In my outward facing capacity, I’ll shortly be attending Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. I attend several free software conferences each year, but this is a different crowd. I hope to renew some old ties, form some new ones, and generally derive inspiration from the people and organizations represented there. Being in the San Francisco Bay area will also give me an opportunity to meet with some of Canonical’s partners there, as well as friends and acquaintances from the free software community. With my head down, working hard to make things happen, it’s easy to lose perspective on how that work fits into the outside world. Spending more time with people outside of Canonical and Ubuntu is an important way of balancing that effect.

Looking forward, I’ll be thinking about the longer term direction for the Ubuntu platform. The platform is the layer of Ubuntu which makes everything else possible: it’s how we weave together products like Desktop Edition and Server Edition, and it’s what developers target when they write applications. Behind the user interfaces and applications, there is a rich platform of tools and services which link it all together. It’s in this aspect of Ubuntu that I’ll be investing my time in research, experimentation and imagination. This includes considering how we package and distribute software, how we adapt to technological shifts, and highlighting opportunities to cooperate with other open source projects.

My primary outside-in role is as chair of the Ubuntu Technical Board. In this capacity, I’m accountable to the Ubuntu project, the interests of its members, and the people who use the software we provide. Originally, the TB was closely involved with a range of front-line technical decisions in Ubuntu, but today, there are strong, autonomous teams in place for the most active parts of the project, so we only get involved when there is a problem, or if a technical question comes up which doesn’t “fit” the charter of an established team. It’s something of a catch-all. I’d like to re-establish the TB in a more central role in Ubuntu, looking after concerns which affect the project as a whole, such as transparency and development processes. I’m also re-joining Debian as a non-uploading contributor, to work on stimulating and coordinating cooperation between Debian and Ubuntu. I’m looking forward to working more with Zack on joint projects in this area.

This change will help me to support Canonical and Ubuntu more effectively as they continue to grow and change. I look forward to exercising some mental muscles I haven’t used very much lately, and facing some new challenges as well.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 11, 2010 at 15:42

Rethinking the Ubuntu Developer Summit

This is a repost from the ubuntu-devel mailing list, where there is probably some discussion happening by now.

After each UDS, the organizers evaluate the event and consider how it could be further improved in the future. As a result of this process, the format of UDS has evolved considerably, as it has grown from a smallish informal gathering to a highly structured matrix of hundreds of 45-to-60-minute sessions with sophisticated audiovisual facilities.

If you participated in UDS 10.10 (locally or online), you have hopefully already completed the online survey, which is an important part of this evaluation process.

A survey can’t tell the whole story, though, so I would also like to start a more free-form discussion here among Ubuntu developers as well. I have some thoughts I’d like to share, and I’m interested in your perspectives as well.

Purpose

The core purpose of UDS has always been to help Ubuntu developers to explore, refine and share their plans for the subsequent release. It has expanded over the years to include all kinds of contributors, not only developers, but the principle remains the same.

We arrive at UDS with goals, desires and ideas, and leave with a plan of action which guides our work for the rest of the cycle.

The status quo

UDS looks like this:

This screenshot is only 1600×1200, so there are another 5 columns off the right edge of the screen for a total of 18 rooms. With 7 time slots per day over 5 days, there are over 500 blocks in the schedule grid. 9 tracks are scattered over the grid. We produce hundreds of blueprints representing projects we would like to work on.

It is an impressive achievement to pull this event together every six months, and the organizers work very hard at it. We accomplish a great deal at every UDS, and should feel good about that. We must also constantly evaluate how well it is working, and make adjustments to accommodate growth and change in the project.

How did we get here?

(this is all from memory, but it should be sufficiently accurate to have this discussion)

In the beginning, before it was even called UDS, we worked from a rough agenda, adding items as they came up, and ticking them off as we finished talking about them. Ad hoc methods worked pretty well at this scale.

As the event grew, and we held more and more discussions in parallel, it was hard to keep track of who was where, and we started to run into contention. Ubuntu and Launchpad were planning their upcoming work together at the same time. One group would be discussing topic A, and find that they needed the participation of person X, who was already involved in another discussion on topic B. The A group would either block, or go ahead without the benefit of person X, neither of which was seen to be very effective. By the end of the week, everyone was mentally and physically exhausted, and many were ill.

As a result, we decided to adopt a schedule grid, and ensure that nobody was expected to be in two places at once. Our productivity depended on getting precisely the right people face to face to tackle the technical challenges we faced. This meant deciding in advance who should be present in each session, and laying out the schedule to satisfy these constraints. New sessions were being added all the time, so the UDS organizers would stay up late at night during the event, creating the schedule grid for the next day. In the morning, over breakfast, everyone would tell them about errors, and request revisions to the schedule. Revisions to the schedule were painful, because we had to re-check all of the constraints by hand.

So, in the geek spirit, we developed a program which would read in the constraints and generate an error-free schedule. The UDS organizers ran this at the end of each day during the event, checked it over, and posted it. In the morning, over breakfast, everyone would tell them about constraints they hadn’t been aware of, and request revisions to the schedule. Revisions to the schedule were painful, because a single changed constraint would completely rearrange the schedule. People found themselves running all over the place to different rooms throughout the day, as they were scheduled into many different meetings back-to-back.

At around this point, UDS had become too big, and had too many constraints, to plan on the fly (unconference style). We resolved to plan more in advance, and agree on the scheduling constraints ahead of time. We divided the event into tracks, and placed each track in its own room. Most participants could stay in one place throughout the day, taking part in a series of related meetings except where they were specifically needed in an adjacent track. We created the schedule through a combination of manual and automatic methods, so that scheduling constraints could be checked quickly, but a human could decide how to resolve conflicts. There was time to review the schedule before the start of the event, to identify and fix problems. Revisions to the schedule during the event were fewer and less painful. We added keynote presentations, to provide opportunities to communicate important information to everyone, and ease back into meetings after lunch. Everyone was still exhausted and/or ill, and tiredness took its toll on the quality of discussion, particularly toward the end of the week.

Concerns were raised that people weren’t participating enough, and might stay on in the same room passively when they might be better able to contribute to a different session happening elsewhere. As a result, the schedule was randomly rearranged so that related sessions would not be held in the same room, and everyone would get up and move at the end of each hour.

This brings us roughly to where things stand today.

Problems with the status quo

  1. UDS is big and complex. Creating and maintaining the schedule is a lot of work in itself, and this large format requires a large venue, which in turn requires more planning and logistical work (not to mention cost). This is only worthwhile if we get proportionally more benefit out of the event itself.
  2. UDS produces many more blueprints than we need for a cycle. While some of these represent an explicit decision not to pursue a project, most of them are set aside simply because we can’t fit them in. We have the capacity to implement over 100 blueprints per cycle, but we have *thousands* of blueprints registered today. We finished less than half of the blueprints we registered for 10.04. This means that we’re spending a lot of time at UDS talking about things which can’t get done that cycle (and may never get done).
  3. UDS is (still) exhausting. While we should work hard, and a level of intensity helps to energize us, I think it’s a bit too much. Sessions later in the week are substantially more sluggish than early on, and don’t get the full benefit of the minds we’ve brought together. I believe that such an intense format does not suit the type of work being done at the event, which should be more creative and energetic.
  4. The format of UDS is optimized for short discussions (as many as we can fit into the grid). This is good for many technical decisions, but does not lend itself as well to generating new ideas, deeply exploring a topic, building broad consensus or tackling “big picture” issues facing the project. These deeper problems sometimes require more time. They also benefit tremendously from face-to-face interaction, so UDS is our best opportunity to work on them, and we should take advantage of it.
  5. UDS sessions aim for the minimum level of participation necessary, so that we can carry on many sessions in parallel: we ask, “who do we need in order to discuss this topic?” This is appropriate for many meetings. However, some would benefit greatly from broader participation, especially from multiple teams. We don’t always know in advance where a transformative idea will come from, and having more points of view represented would be valuable for many UDS topics.
  6. UDS only happens once per cycle, but design and planning need to continue throughout the cycle. We can’t design everything up front, and there is a lot of information we don’t have at the beginning. We should aim to use our time at UDS to greatest effect, but also make time to continue this work during the development cycle. “design a little, build a little, test a little, fly a little”

Proposals

  1. Concentrate on the projects we can complete in the upcoming cycle. If we aren’t going to have time to implement something until the next cycle, the blueprint can usually be deferred to the next cycle as well. By producing only moderately more blueprints than we need, we can reduce the complexity of the event, avoid waste, prepare better, and put most of our energy into the blueprints we intend to use in the near future.
  2. Group related sessions into clusters, and work on them together, with a similar group of people. By switching context less often, we can more easily stay engaged, get less fatigued, and make meaningful connections between related topics.
  3. Organize for cross-team participation, rather than dividing teams into tracks. A given session may relate to a Desktop Edition feature, but depends on contributions from more than just the Desktop Team. There is a lot of design going on at UDS outside of the “Design” track. By working together to achieve common goals, we can more easily anticipate problems, benefit from diverse points of view, and help each other more throughout the cycle.
  4. Build in opportunities to work on deeper problems, during longer blocks of time. As a platform, Ubuntu exists within a complex ecosystem, and we need to spend time together understanding where we are and where we are going. As a project, we have grown rapidly, and need to regularly evaluate how we are working and how we can improve. This means considering more than just blueprints, and sometimes taking more than an hour to cover a topic.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 27, 2010 at 16:15

Using Mumble with a bluetooth headset

At Canonical, we’ve started experimenting with Mumble as an alternative to telephone calls for real-time conversations. The operating model is very much like IRC, based on channels within which everyone can hear everyone else as they speak.

Mumble works best with a headset, which offers better audio recording quality due to the proximity of the microphone, and avoids problems with echo and feedback. I like to pace around while I talk, and so I’ve already invested in a Plantronics Calisto Pro, which includes a DECT handset, a Bluetooth headset and a nice charging base. My laptop has bluetooth onboard, so I set about trying to get Mumble set up to use the headset via bluetooth.

The first thing I tried was to click on the bluetooth icon on the panel, and select Set up new device.... After setting the headset to pairing mode, I waited quite some time for it to show up in the list, but it never did. After opening the preferences dialog, I discovered that this was (presumably) because I had already paired it, ages ago.

So, I went about trying to get PulseAudio to talk to it. After some hunting, I tried:


pactl load-module module-bluetooth-device address=00:23:xx:xx:xx:xx

This created a new Card in PulseAudio, which I could see in the Hardware tab of the Sound Preferences dialog and in pactl list, but it was inactive:


Card #1
Name: bluez_card.00_23_XX_XX_XX_XX
Driver: module-bluetooth-device.c
Owner Module: 17
Properties:
device.description = "Calisto PLT"
device.string = "00:23:XX:XX:XX:XX"
device.api = "bluez"
device.class = "sound"
device.bus = "bluetooth"
device.form_factor = "headset"
bluez.path = "/org/bluez/13899/hci0/dev_00_23_XX_XX_XX_XX"
bluez.class = "0x200404"
bluez.name = "Calisto PLT"
device.icon_name = "audio-headset-bluetooth"
Profiles:
hsp: Telephony Duplex (HSP/HFP) (sinks: 1, sources: 1, priority. 20)
off: Off (sinks: 0, sources: 0, priority. 0)
Active Profile: off

The Hardware tab confirmed that the device was Disabled, and using the “Off” profile. I could manually select the “Telephony Duplex (HSP/HFP)” profile, but this had no apparent effect. There were no Sources or Sinks to send or receive audio data to or from the headset (and thus nothing new in the Input or Output tabs of the preferences dialog). syslog hinted:


pulseaudio[15239]: module-bluetooth-device.c: Default profile not connected, selecting off profile

At this point, I recalled that when I suspend this laptop, the bluetooth driver gets unhappy. I don’t commonly use bluetooth on this laptop, so I hypothesized that the driver was in a weird state, and I decided to try unloading and reloading the btusb module. Once I did so, the device showed up in the panel menu, with a “Connect” menu item. Aha! The manual module loading above may turn out to be unnecessary if the device shows up in the menu initially.

I selected the Connect menu item, and a bunch of magic happened, with the result that I heard the headset’s tone to indicate it was activated. Sound Preferences now showed it under Hardware as active using the Telephony Duplex profile, and it appeared under Input and Output as well. pactl list showed its sources and sinks. Mumble offered it as a choice for the input and output device. Progress!

Some experimentation (thanks, Colin) revealed that other people could hear me through the headset just fine.

However (Problem #1), I couldn’t hear them clearly through the headset. If I switch Mumble’s output to my speakers, they sound fine, so it’s not Mumble. So I tried:


paplay -d bluez_sink.00_23_XX_XX_XX_XX /usr/share/sounds/alsa/Front_Center.wav

…which also sounds awful. There is a whining noise, which gets louder when the audio signal is louder, which makes it very difficult to hear. I don’t know if the problem is with PulseAudio, bluez, the kernel, or the device, but using speakers for output is a workaround. This does seem to cause some echo, though, so I’ll need to track this down eventually.

Problem #2 is that Mumble seems to prevent PulseAudio from suspending the headset’s source. Even if I set it to “Push to Talk” mode, the headset stays active all the time, which will drain the battery. PulseAudio seems to do the right thing, and kill the radio link, if the source is left idle, and brings it up when there is activity, so this looks to be Mumble’s fault. I’ll need to fix this as well.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 26, 2010 at 12:58

Interviewed by Ubuntu Turkey

As part of my recent Istanbul visit, I was interviewed by Ubuntu Turkey. They’ve now published the interview in Turkish. With their permission, the original English interview has been published on Ubuntu User by Amber Graner.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

April 19, 2010 at 15:15

Ubuntu Inside Out – Free Software and Linux Days 2010 in Istanbul

In early April, I visited Istanbul to give a keynote at the Free Software and Linux Days event. This was an interesting challenge, because this was my first visit to Turkey, and my first experience presenting with simultaneous translation.

In my new talk, Ubuntu Inside Out, I spoke about:

  • What Ubuntu is about, and where it came from
  • Some of the challenges we face as a growing project with a large community
  • Some ways in which we’re addressing those challenges
  • How to get involved in Ubuntu and help
  • What’s coming next in Ubuntu

The organizers have made a video available if you’d like to watch it (WordPress.com won’t let me embed it here).

My first game of backgammonAfterward, Calyx and I wandered around Istanbul, with the help of our student guide, Oğuzhan. We don’t speak any Turkish, apart from a few vocabulary words I learned on the way to Turkey, so we were glad to have his help as we visited restaurants, cafes and shops, and wandered through various neighborhoods. We enjoyed a variety of delicious food, and the unexpected company of many friendly stray cats.

It was only a brief visit, but I was grateful for the opportunity to meet the local free software community and to see some of the city.