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Don’t forget to have fun, and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and be challenged by others – Brian Callahan from Devio.us

BSD Magazine: Where did the idea of Devio.us came from? What it is about?

Brian Callahan: Devio.us began back in 2010 when some friends got together with the idea of starting a shell service. Being big fans of OpenBSD, they decided to use it as the base of their service, and Devio.us was born.

Devio.us offers a number of services for our users including personal web space, email, an IRC cloak, and even their own personal gopherhole! It is a special mix of retro and modern, blended into a culture and a community that is passionate about *BSD. Since opening in 2010, nearly 6,000 people have gotten accounts with just under 4,000 users still active.

Today, Devio.us has a unique mission: it is both a free OpenBSD-based shell service provider and an online *BSD user group. This mission is accomplished by our critical devotion to building and maintaining our community. We try to be a bridge between those coming to *BSD for the very first time and seasoned developers, and everyone in between. As a community, we are really proud of all the work our users have accomplished. A number of OpenBSD developers got their start on Devio.us, and we work tirelessly to have a community where people can come together regardless of where they are in their *BSD journey and foster an environment of encouraging *BSD development–from the four main *BSD projects to small side projects for inclusion into to ports trees.

Going forward, Devio.us is looking at a multi-dimensional expansion beyond just OpenBSD. The rebranding of the service, the addition of an online *BSD user group to our activities, coincided with our recent talk about the technical and social lessons learned running Devio.us at vBSDcon 2015. This means that we are actively increasing our advocacy to encompass all the BSDs. With the increased technical advocacy joins increased social diversity: Devio.us is hoping to become a model for inclusion in tech communities, not just in raw demographics but in understanding of why diversity matters on a technical and social level. We would also love to help make this a reality.

BSD Mag: That is really interesting – what kind of social lessons did you learn running Devio.us?

BC: The main lesson, which I use to end the vBSDcon talk, is to care less about your technology and more about your people. The best technology in the world will not create a community. But if you focus on creating a community in which everyone feels like they have ownership over it in some way, that can forgive even some bad technology. I think one of the primary reasons we have had to remove so few people is because our community understands that harming the server, the technology, does not just harm the admins but also themselves, their friends, and the whole community. Our users are our best policy enforcers. They understand that Devio.us is our collective home and they are willing to spend the time and energy protecting it.

BSD Mag: Is there is any philosophy behind Devio.us?

BC: Probably not so much at the beginning, but I only became an administrator in 2013! As I understand it, the philosophy in the early years was simply to show how great OpenBSD was and how easy it was to run a shell service using it.

Since joining the admin team, I have used Devio.us to think about what inclusion and diversity mean in open source and tech more broadly. This is certainly a reflection of my day job as a social scientist! So if we have any philosophy today, I would say it is to be a *BSD success story making other *BSD success stories and to be a space that is always reflecting on who we are missing out on, why they matter, and figuring out how to improve our commu- nity and ourselves in that regard.

BSD Mag: What do inclusion and diversity. In tech and security mean to you? Do you think that those fields are more open than others, or is it about different criteria for inclusion?

BC: Open source still suffers from a gross lack of women and other minority voices. More so than the tech industry at large. The many initiatives to remedy this are awesome and often awe-inspiring. The beauty of seeking diversity is that you bring in people with vastly different experiences and skill sets, who can both see and fix problems that you cannot, as well as offer new perspectives to strengthen the code and the community.

In that regard, changing the demographics in and of themselves, while vitally necessary, is not the final step. One could easily imagine a scenario where diversity is done right “on paper” but nothing has changed where it fundamentally matters. So we have to get it right on paper as well as getting those diverse voices into situations and conversations that matter, so that all that expertise and experience is a part of the process and the product.

It is not always a popular opinion to have. But open source likes to talk about how it is open for everyone to participate. It is long past time to make that talk a reality. Devio.us should be a place where talk and action come together.

BSD Mag: Who are your users? What topics do they like the most?

BC: I would say we have a fairly typical user base, the one uniqueness is the dedication to the *BSD family of operating systems. Hopefully, that will change in the future.

BSD Mag: You’ve already mentioned expanding Devio.us beyond *BSD – can you tell us what direction will this take?

BC: We want to expand beyond OpenBSD, to include all the BSDs. All the *BSD user groups that have been around a decade or more have done so by being *BSD agnostic. We want Devio.us to have a nice long life, so becoming *BSD agnostic ourselves is one of the ways of doing that.

The best examples to point out are whenever a new OpenBSD snapshot is released, one of our bots in the #devious IRC channel will announce it. Also, every OpenBSD developer in the channel gets a shout out from the bot when they make a commit. Every *BSD developer who is a part of Devio.us–regardless of what project she or he works on–should get a shout out when a commit is made. And we should announce all the releases and snapshots for all the BSDs. That is one small way we can start being more *BSD agnostic. I am sure there will be more changes in the future, and we are appreciative to anyone who has ideas for how we can do things better.

BSD Mag: Your name- devious, where is it from? Who would you like to outsmart?

BC: Unfortunately, the story behind the domain name is not so interesting: the founders of Devio.us noticed that the domain was available and they thought it would be a fun domain name to have!

BSD Mag: You have many rules regarding community. Are users problematic?

BC: It looks like we have more rules than we really do. Everything can be reduced to two main rules: 1. do not leave a mess for the admins to clean up, and 2. try to be a part of the community. I think rule 2 is the more important rule. It is what has kept Devio.us around for as long as it has been and is why we have seen the community grow larger and stronger. Devio.us is not just some box that you can SSH into, run your IRC bouncer, and never think about again. We want users who will be invested in and take ownership of Devio.us. Our users care about the service and want to see the service grow with them. This is why we forbid things like IRC bouncers. We want people. Bots are not people.

In all of Devio.us, we have removed 177 users. And that number does not paint an accurate picture. Most of those 177 users emailed us asking if we would remove their account because they did not think they would be using it any more. We are always sad to see people go, but un- derstand that some people want to leave. So when we get those requests, we do delete the account but it adds to the counter we keep of users removed.

I would guess that the actual number of users removed for breaking rules is quite low. Probably not more than 20.

BSD Mag: So they have to become friends with you first?

BC: That is one way to look at it. I think, though, the com- munity as a whole sees it as welcoming someone new into the community before that person gets an account.

The interesting thing is that most newcomers on IRC who say they want an account get answered quickly not by an admin, but usually by a regular community member who will give the newcomer the broad overview of who we are and what we are about. The one thing this requirement, which is new, has done for us is cut down on the number of applications by people who do not want to be part of the community. They come to IRC, notice that we are a differ- ent kind of shell service, and leave without submitting an application because they realize that running a bot and leaving is not something they can do with us.

BSD Mag: Devio.us is for free. What do you think about open source?

BC: It is important that Devio.us always be available to our users for free. Access to a community can never be dependent on one’s ability to pay: doing otherwise would run counter to our goals of technical and social inclusion.

As for open source, we love it! We would never be able to do Devio.us without it. Open source lets us focus on building our community and not have to worry about software suddenly breaking. Plus, with the six month release cycle of OpenBSD, and the binary updates available from M:tier’s free service, we can be sure that not only will software not suddenly break but it is also receiving regular security updates. That protects us and our users. Devio.us is an open source, *BSD success story with a very exciting future. We hope you will join us!

BSD Mag: There is a note that you are not interested in any info about the users, but to make an account, you have to fill everything in, together with name and e-mail address, etc. So how does it work?

BC: We do ask for a few things on the sign-up form: your name, an email address for us to send you an auto-generated password should you get accepted for an account, your desired username, what default shell you want, how you heard about us, who you chatted with in IRC, and what you plan on doing with the account. This is mostly again to rule out those who just want a place to put an IRC bouncer. I do understand that not everyone will feel comfortable entering their real name in the form. In that case, please reach out to me either by email or Twitter. We can always be accommodating for those who need. And if there are more ways we can make the process better, we want to hear that too!

BSD Mag: Give our readers your contact details!

BC: If you want to reach out to the admins, [email protected]

Me, personally, I can be found at [email protected] or on Twitter @__briancallahan.

BSD Mag: Any thoughts or advice you would like to share with our audience?

BC: Short but sweet: don’t forget to have fun, and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and be challenged by others. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

BSD Mag: Thank you for talking with us.

BC: Thank you!
Thanks for interviewing me!


About Brian:

uKALKi3pBrian is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. His research interests focus on the in- tersections of Open Source and Social Justice, include using Open Source software to teach STEM to under-privileged K-12 students and understanding and aiding the efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in Open Source. A former OpenBSD developer, Brian is involved in many facets of the *BSD community, including being a member of the admin group for the New York City *BSD User Group (NYC*BUG), the Capital District *BSD User Group (CDBUG), and the Devio.us shell provider, giving talks at various *BSD conferences, and teaching *BSD to undergraduate students at RPI.


The Interview comes from BSD Mag VOL 9 NO 10, Issue 74

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