Photo of Matt Zimmerman

Matt Zimmerman

Interviewed: August 2006


IRC Nickname: mdz
Location: California, USA
Age: 27
Profession: Technologist

Ubuntu Stuff

In what way are you involved in Ubuntu?

I chair the Ubuntu Technical Board, which oversees the technical direction of Ubuntu, and work for Canonical as Ubuntu CTO.

How much time do you spend working on Ubuntu?

All of my work week, and many evenings and weekends as well.

Are you being paid to work on Ubuntu?

Yes, this is my full-time job.

What does the role of CTO. for Canonical involve, and which parts do you personally enjoy the most?

I oversee Canonical's involvement the development of Ubuntu, which means deciding where we will focus our development resources in order to make Ubuntu more successful. The most fulfilling part of the job has been watching Ubuntu grow from an idea into a global phenomenon in such a short time. I love the constant change which has characterized this effort, as it brings a steady stream of new challenges for me.

What kind of jobs have you had in the past and what is different about working for Canonical?

I've worked in a variety of IT positions, managing colocation facilities, Internet backbones and application server farms. Canonical is a very different sort of company than any other I've worked for, both in its physical structure (most of us are geographically isolated) and its mission (open source software). For me, it's a unique opportunity to pursue new technological and social trends that are changing the way we live and work.

How do you maintain a global overview of the development process?

I combine several approaches: I immerse myself in the software itself, by running the development branch, upgrading on a daily basis and reading source code. I use automated tools and data, including Launchpad, to stay informed of what's changing and where. Regular meetings with the development team on IRC help us all stay in touch with our progress. Most importantly, I stay abreast by talking to developers about their work whenever I have the chance. In a nutshell, I'm constantly context-switching between different sources of information to keep up.

What problems do you come across when packaging and which package did you find hardest?

In my daily work, I do very little hands-on packaging, though I occasionally lend a hand when I'm able. The most challenging bit of packaging I've done for Ubuntu was probably the integration of thin client technology, derived from LTSP, into the distribution.

In what way are summits important for the Ubuntu development process?

Near the beginning of each release cycle, we hold a summit to define our plans for that release. This gives us a chance to talk through the technical issues we encounter and record our thoughts in the form of specification documents, which we can refer to for guidance as we implement new features. This gives us a good idea of what we can realistically accomplish in the time we have, and provides some assurance that our plan makes sense before we do a lot of development.

What did you personally get out of the Paris summit?

Apart from the personal time spent with my co-workers and the community, which is invaluable, I got a long list of great ideas from developers about how they wanted to make Edgy a fun and exciting release.

How does your long involvement with debian conflict/compliment your work on Ubuntu?

Ubuntu keeps me very busy, both personally and professionally, which means that I don't have much time to devote to other free software projects such as Debian. However, my experience with Debian has been invaluable in my work with Ubuntu, as this was what taught me how distributions work, both as a software platform and as a community. So much of what we do is inspired by what Debian has accomplished. My history with Debian also means that I'm better able to relate to the needs and perspectives of Debian developers, which is critical in maintaining that relationship.

What do you see as advantages for corporate environments of choosing Ubuntu over other GNU/Linux distributions or Microsoft Windows/MacOS and how do you think Long Term Support for Dapper will affect this?

Ubuntu offers much more flexibility over proprietary platforms because it can be locally customized and supported to a far greater degree, and deployed quickly and inexpensively without troublesome licensing agreements. It also evolves much more quickly in terms of technology, offering new functionality on a faster cycle than proprietary software. Compared to other Linux distributions, Ubuntu offers a combination of freedom (of use and cost), current applications, a large and supportive community, and commercial viability that is unmatched today. We offer more people more of what they want, and that continues to be a guiding principle for us. Our new long term support offering makes Ubuntu significantly more appealing to more conservative enterprises. IT managers who want to deploy Ubuntu need to know that they can opt for longer term stability over the latest features, and now they have that choice with Ubuntu.

What did you work on for Dapper?

As I mentioned before, I'm not very involved in day-to-day development, though I make small contributions here and there. Looking back at my Dapper uploads, I made a variety of small cleanups and polish (for example to boot messages), fixed a handful of bugs, and made some improvements to the thin client subsystem.

What are you working on for Edgy?

I hope to implement a couple of new features, including the Common Customizations specification, which simplifies the process of making the most common post-installation customizations, and Easy Codec Installation, which guides the user through finding and installing multimedia codecs to view content. You can read more about those here: common-customizations and easy-codec-installation.We'll see how much my free time allows for these during Edgy, but I expect to finish them eventually.

What feature would you like to see/improve in Ubuntu?

Same answer.

Do you contribute to FLOSS (Free/Libre & Open Source Software) in any other ways?

In the past, I've contributed substantially to a variety of projects, such as MythTV, Hercules (the mainframe emulator), EVMS and of course Debian. Today, I devote most of my energy to Ubuntu, reserving a little for my personal life.

Which window manager/desktop environment do you use and what do you like about it?

I use something very close to the default GNOME desktop, which helps me stay in touch with the experience that a new user has when starting out with Ubuntu. I add a few panel applets for workrave, weather, etc.

What programs do you use daily?

I spend most of my time in gnome-terminals with mutt and zsh, communicating with xchat-gnome and gaim, logging into remote systems with ssh, and many, many Firefox tabs. I'm almost always listening to music at home with rhythmbox, and occasionally now with last-exit.

What computers do you have and what are they called?

Here at home I have an HP amd64 desktop system named mizar, a PowerMac G4 desktop named max, a nameless router and WAP built from a Soekris board, and a decrepit old laptop named murphy which serves as a jukebox. While on the road, I use a ThinkPad T42 laptop.

What does your desktop look like?

desktop Magnify

What does your computer area look like?

Computer Area Magnify

What do you drink while working on your computer?

I drink large quantities of cold, filtered water (several liters per day).

Personal Stuff

Where were you born/grew up?

I was born and raised in the eastern coastal state of Maryland, in the US.

Married, partner or up for adoption?

I'm currently single.

Do you have any children or pets?

None, though I enjoy my friends' pets and children.

Where do you recommend anyone visiting your country sees?

I think I would need to tailor that answer to the person. There are so many completely different things to see, from the stark natural beauty of the Bonneville salt flats or the continental divide, to the unique human flavours of New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. Those are a few of my favorites.

Favourite place to go on holiday?

I rarely return to the same place twice unless it's to see family or close friends. I usually prefer to try a new place, even if I had a great time elsewhere previously, because I enjoy discovering new places.

What are you passionate about?

Intelligence and cognition in all its forms. Music. True friends. New experiences. Technology (of course).

What does success mean to you?

Success, to me, is testing what I think are my limits, and discovering that they are illusions.

Who do you most admire?

I admire people who relentlessly pursue their own curiosity and, in the process, challenge the rest of us to do the same. People who question what they see and explore it deeply, who are never satisfied with an incomplete answer. Richard Feynman would be one example.

Favourite quote?

The list is long, but at this moment, I'm thinking of the following, from a Robert Heinlein novel: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Favourite food?

Cheese (too many varieties to list, and always finding more)

What do you do in your spare time? cleverly keeps track of my musical tastes as they change, so that I don't need to give a static answer to that question anymore: I try to maintain a healthy variety in my reading. Some recent books I've read are Hollywood by Charles Bukowski, The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and a few of Cynthia Heimel's books with long and humorous titles. Some authors that I've consistently enjoyed in the past include Douglas Hofstadter, Hunter S. Thompson and William Gibson. I frequently enjoy films; some recent favorites are Abre los Ojos, Basquiat and Lawrence of Arabia. Among my all-time classics, I would have to list Dr. Strangelove, Donnie Darko and Blue Velvet, among many others. As you may have heard from those who stay up late at night at Ubuntu summits, I play the guitar, and I've more recently been learning the piano. I enjoy new people with different backgrounds and points of view, as well as good friends, wherever they may be.

Recommend a non Ubuntu website?

The website I find most inspiring is Wikipedia, but everyone is familiar with that, so here's a more unconventional and local choice: This website tracks seismic events in California, and allows residents to report in their own observations of earthquakes. The US Geological Survey uses this data for ongoing research.

This interview is also available in German