This will be my last week working for Canonical Ltd.
I joined the company almost seven years ago, right at its inception. I was contracting at the time and a member of the Debian project maintaining the dpkg package manager, when I received an e-mail out of the blue that led to a phone call with a South African I’d never heard of who wanted to offer me a dream job working on a Debian-based Linux distribution. Sadly I never kept that original e-mail, but I tried to replicate it from memory for Canonical’s 5th birthday:
How are you and your family hope fine?
I am Mark SHUTTLEWORTH, from the great country of SOUTH AFRICA.
Due to good fortune mine in business, I have come into money of the sum $575,000,000 (US).
I would like to with you discuss BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY, and solicit your confidentiality in this transaction.
Pleased to discuss by phone at your earliest convenience.
Ok, Mark wasn’t really a Nigerian 419 scammer, but some people did discard his e-mail as spam! The job sounded interesting, and I was largely waiting for him to stop talking on the phone so I could say yes. Even better, he was going to pay me up front for the first couple of months because the company hadn’t been formed yet let alone contracts signed and such. No, I didn’t have to send him any money first to make the transaction happen
So I joined the super-secret IRC channel (#weirdos, on the FreeNode IRC network, just fire up Pidgin in Ubuntu and…) and discovered Jeff Waugh, Robert Collins and Thom May already onboard. This was going to be big. After a month of being in awe at each new person being brought on, we had our first meeting in London over Easter. For many this was their decision time about whether to join, or not. Plans were drawn up, mostly on napkins at Pizza Express in Sloane Square:
Funnily enough, there’s a Pizza Express in Millbank Tower, the current location of Canonical’s Offices.
We weren’t very good at coming up with names, the original domain name of the company was no-name-yet.com and the Debian folk called us the Super-Secret-Debian-Startup. The company started out as MRS Virtual Development (Mark’s middle name is Richard). And the nickname for the distribution before Ubuntu was settled as the final name was The Warty Warthog.
Everything was announced at Debconf in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The first of many long economy class flights taken on behalf of the company. This meant that by the time Jeff and I attended GUADEC in Kristiansand, word had got around. There was much joking about our insane plans:
Mrs VD’s Warty Ubuntu? Sounds like an STI cream!
Yes, it cures Red Hat.
Many were of the opinion that users just didn’t want a six-monthly release of Debian, with a hard emphasis on the Desktop, hotplug and making things just work. Fortunately they were wrong, but we didn’t have time to be smug because things got a bit out of hand. I remember Mark saying that his goal for the first two years was that Ubuntu be in the top three Linux distributions. Ah.
Next up was our first ever big company meeting. Lots of variations happened of these over the years before we finally settled into the Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) format. Initially they were all-hands events, and started off a bit more like sprints/rallies than anything like the current schedule-frenzy that is UDS. Fortunately one of the changes is that they’ve gotten a bit shorter. After a two week coding sprint at Mark’s apartment in London, there was a two week all-hands in Oxford, UK.
I wanted to find a photo with laptops in, for some this event was painful. We learned that hotel cleaners are not always to be trusted. Fortunately Robert’s laptop was far too heavy to be stolen.
Then Ubuntu 4.10 was out! And the world changed. Well, maybe a bit.
The next conference was LCA in Canberra, followed by our own third developer meeting in Sydney. This developer meeting was pretty recognizable as a UDS in fact, except two weeks long and all-hands again. I was granted the very rare privilege of flying to Australia on Mark’s personal private jet.
I actually got to fly on this a few more times over the years, and after an amazing night-time landing flying across San Francisco into San Jose airport, got the bug and learned to fly myself! But I’m digressing.
On the plane we’d bought Ubuntu 5.04 CDs, our second release. We’d got a few boxes of them, and it was my responsibility to look after them and try and persuade the conference staff to let us put some out to pick up. I took a small handful and wandered to the reception desk, with a sheepish look on my face. I was accompanied back to my dorm with the reception staff who wanted the rest! I think that’s when I finally realized how popular Ubuntu had become, seeing almost everyone at the conference running Ubuntu machines only solidified that.
We had a big printed-out version of the 5.04 CD cover that we got people at the conference to sign. It’s still on the wall of the Canonical Offices to this day.
I’ve probably made all this sounds a bit glamorous, jet set life style, celebrity, probably even danger. But at the end of the day, it was a job. For example, at no point did we find ourselves white-water rafting in Brazil with an instructor who didn’t speak English.
To this day I don’t know whether “Frenchie!” means “Faster!” or “STOP! We’re going to DIE!”.
There was a lot of hard work too. When we were preparing to release our first Late To Ship, err, sorry, Long Term Support release a few of us decided to use the space at Canonical’s new offices at Mossop Street to get together and test the hell out of it. The idea being that any serious issues could be fixed there and then. We still do these “Release Sprints” to this day, though the next one breaks the tradition of being in London due to some Prince getting married that week.
We kept track of the release status using a sign helpfully provided for us by the then-COO Jane Silber, it has two sides. This is the happy side.
More releases followed, more conferences, more meetings. We got better at the releases, and even started getting better at the conferences after enough goes at it. The meetings were generally ok, except sometimes there was a bit of a problem getting to them!
You see, myself and a colleague Colin King are cursed. Seriously, if you ever find yourself getting on a plane and see both of us on that same plane, get off the plane. No, better yet, get the hell out of the city!
You remember that great big snow storm in the UK back in the winter of 2009? That was our fault! Colin and I were booked to fly on the same flight.
Things went well until we were sat in the Gatwick business lounge, and it started snowing outside. Our plane never arrived so our flight was cancelled. Since the queue for the Easyjet desk went around the airport three times, our travel agent got us booked on a flight out of City Airport in the morning, and sorted us a hotel by that airport. Easy. Gatwick Express into London, District Line tube, then transfer onto a bus for City Airport. Only problem is by the time we’d left the tube, there were several feet of snow on the ground and more falling all the time, the buses were not running and we were a couple of hours walk from the airport. Oh well, needs must!
The next day we rebooked repeatedly onto later flights until the afternoon, when we finally managed to get Eurostar tickets to Brussels. Another night in a hotel, another 6am start, ICE to Köln and another to Berlin. Finally arriving Tuesday afternoon. Our average pace from Gatwick to Berlin turned out to be roughly walking speed.
Now this might have been an interesting story for the dinner table, except it happened again! That volcano in Iceland? Our fault! Just over a year since the previous time, we were at a conference in San Francisco together, and we ground all air traffic in the skies of Northern Europe. We really are sorry about that, and since the disasters seem to be escalating, that’s why I have to leave Canonical.
While an amusing thought, there’s actually a small amount of truth to it. You see, due to airlines, flight priorities and so-forth I was actually stuck in San Francisco for three weeks as a result of the volcano. Instead of attending the release sprint, I worked from the offices of Ubuntu-friendly companies in the bay area and fixed problems flagged the previous day by the release manager. At night I explored the city.
I’d been to SF before quite a few times, including a long holiday with my then-partner, and I’ve always loved the place. I was for all intents and purposes living there for three weeks, and a previous dream to move there got stronger.
I also bought an iPad which made me realize that perhaps the desktop distribution was approaching a decline.
I also got a chance to do pure development again, having bugs triaged for me and I fell in love with programming again – rather than the oddball effort that is distribution engineering.
And I was working in offices, and while I’ve enjoyed working from home for the past seven years, I was far more productive in the office environment.
There are lots of other reasons of course, but ultimately they all come down to it being time for a change. So where next?
While I do really admire what Apple have done, they’ve already got their ideas set in stone and I want to beat them.
So I’m going to be joining Google. After months of waiting, and worrying, my US Visa was approved last week and I’m half way through procrastinating about packing my house and life up for the big move!
Don’t worry though, I won’t be disappearing into a black hole! I’m retaining my Ubuntu membership, Core Developer upload privileges and my seat on the Ubuntu Technical Board (which means there will be a non-Canonical person on the board once again!). I’ve even re-activated my Debian membership.
I’m also going to continue developing Upstart, I’ve been working hard on the new version for what seems like an age now, and I’m not giving up now; not in the least because Google use Upstart themselves on many projects, including Chrome OS.
The only real worry is whether I end up spending more time at the Google Gym or the wide variety of Google cafés.