The Apache Software Foundation Blog

Tuesday November 17, 2020

Inside Infra: Gavin McDonald --Part II

The "Inside Infra" series with members of the ASF Infrastructure team continues with Part II of the interview with Gavin McDonald, who shares his experience with Sally Khudairi, ASF VP Marketing & Publicity.



"...you don't know you need somebody until somebody like that arrives."

Earlier you mentioned growth: preparing for growth and being able to accommodate that growth. What areas are you guys experiencing the biggest growth? Is there a specific type of request that's coming in more than others? I'm hearing all the time when I'm dealing with our  Targeted Sponsors, for example, I'm hearing "We need more CI. We want more services in this area. We want more credits." What is it that you guys are feeling, or what are you dealing with in terms of big picture? What's the biggest demand, where are things coming from?

Yeah, as far as I'm concerned you're spot on with CI.

… That's you.

I mean it's not me totally. I have been concentrating on it more as others have been concentrating on other things, yes. Jenkins for example, we had this one --I call it a mega monolith of a service that had all the project services that was on one server, one Jenkins instance. And it was the same instance being upgraded for the last 10 years. So it was time to migrate it, so it's been migrated to five smaller Jenkins services.

BuildBot is also being upgraded and moved to a bigger server. You've got actually Travis is being used to its full capacity.

What does that mean, "to its full capacity"?

When Travis came out, projects started using it, and we're now at the stage where it's at the full capacity ASF is provided.

Oh okay. So if they're giving us 20 whatever, we're at 20.

Right. It's not unlimited. This is why a lot of projects have decided to start moving to GitHub actions, which is also not unlimited. So the more that's provided, the more is needed. I don't think we'll ever keep up with the pace.

Greg says that often. When I talk to him about donations and things like that coming from different companies, he just says "more" and "more" and "more", so he's not exaggerating, right?

No, no, he's not exaggerating.

... If we offer, they'll take it?

Yeah. There's ways in which projects can use CI in the same way they can use other things. And they will use everything that's given to them.

… Insatiable need.

Yeah. Not understanding that there's 300 other Projects that could be using those same services. But there's a few beginning to realize, and there's talks on certain mailing lists that how can we make this more efficient, how can we projects help each other in managing the best usage of these services that we've got. Because they don't want to have it all. They've just been creating whatever they feel is needed for their project. Then sometime later they realize, "Oh, I'm using 80% of what everyone's been given."

… So it's not malicious, just a lack of awareness. When you guys get a new service do you go, "Hi PMCs, we have this thing, there's 20 units available, use with your discretion," or does someone say, "Hey, Infra has this now. We're going to run and take it all," without realizing they're taking it all. How do you introduce new services to the projects? I'm curious because I never see that side of the activity.

Sometimes it's via the mailing list, users@infra. Projects can come to us and ask questions on that mailing list if it's not appropriate for a Jira ticket. People join that mailing list because they're interested in what Infra is up to. So we use that mailing list as a heads up for whatever it could be: "Jira is getting upgraded this weekend, or there's going to be some downtime on this", or it could be things like "okay we've now enabled GitHub actions across the board" or whatever. There were some new features added to one of our self serve things is asf.yaml, which I know you've spoken to Daniel Gruno about.

… You guys actually published a blog post on that. I saw that on Twitter and  just added it to today's weekly news roundup.

Right.

… I was really surprised to see that. It was exciting. Is that new for you to be announcing publicly like that, sharing outside of the ASF's mailing lists?

It is and it isn't. We used to do it all the time years ago. Then as we've become bigger, it's paid staff not volunteers, we're busy all the time. Blog posts got put out of the picture I guess for a while. So this really new cool feature that was provided, the code was provided by a volunteer via a GitHub pull request. And we looked at it, Daniel made some comments, the changes came backwards and forwards until it was ready to be committed the other day. And it's fantastic new features that projects keep asking us for all the time via Jira tickets. "Can you enable this? Can you check this checkbox?" It's work that we shouldn't have to be doing. So now we don't have to do it. They can just edit their own yaml file in their own GitHub repository and those GitHub features are enabled. It was worthy of a blog post.

… I was pleasantly surprised to see that. That is good. It's interesting because we often don't have enough time to do the work, put out the fires, deal with normal life. You have a family by the way, oh yeah let’s not forget that, but you also have to find time to share this sort of information with the outside world. For me, working on the Inside Infra project is amazing because not only do I get to learn about what's been going on, all these years with the ACF for me it's been kind of a black box in many instances with Infra, but I'm also hearing from outside folks who are saying, "This is great to learn," because how would we know otherwise? It's cool that you are able to share more and more however you can. I was really excited to see that blog post.

Hopefully there'll be more coming. Infra does have a blog and it's been not used as much as it should be I think.

When we publish, we'll be sure to get that out (https://blogs.apache.org/infra/). Let's talk about project requirements. Of course Apache projects have been setting the standard across countless "usual suspect" technologies: servers and Big Data and build tools and libraries and so much more. We now have incoming projects in Edge computing and IOT and blockchain and even hardware acceleration, all of which are coming in through the Incubator. Does Infra need to know anything technical about these topics in order to get the job done? Or do you just handle the back-end support and it doesn't matter what's coming, who's the project or the category they’re in? Are there instances that cause you to say, "We have to learn/do something completely different for this project"? Is there anything that's coming in that changes the way you're getting your work done?

No.

… Great; so it doesn't matter.

No, it doesn't matter. Obviously the Foundation welcomes all types of technologies coming in, and Infra provides what it needs to provide. We don't need to know the ins and outs of 300 projects' code to get our own work done. That would be impossible anyway.

But when you came in, you came in through Apache Forrest: you came in with a project. Do you look at stuff that's coming in through the Incubator, out of curiosity, are you keeping an eye on that?

I do, yes, just on a personal level I do just because it's something I like.

… Okay, so it's a curiosity thing, rather than your job depends on it.

Right.

With so much evolving in this space, if you need to learn something new, is it top-down -- someone saying, "Hey Gavin, go to Jenkins University"? How do you figure out what needs to get done, and how do you learn how to do the job? How do you close your skills gaps?

I think each team member has their own way of learning more. Obviously more needs to be learned all the time, and that could be going to the particular pieces of software's Website, having a look through their documentation. I mean when we're implementing things, we're at a vendor's Website every day of the week, you know? We use Puppet a lot: it's core to what we do. We farm out to 30 Jenkins nodes or whatever, it would all be done through Puppet. So we need to keep up with what's happening with that project. So I'm on the Puppet Website looking through the documentation all the time. New versions are coming out, new features are being enabled, and that could be something that makes things easier for us, so we can implement that from our side. I do a lot of that reading. You talk about Jenkins University. I actually have--

… That exists? I was just making that up.

Well, there is a Cloudbees university. So in my own time I've actually done half a dozen courses myself on Jenkins through Cloudbees University. I'm keeping myself up-to-date and ahead of the curve on that. It's a deep interest of mine, so in my own time I take those courses.

Do you bring it back to the team and share it with them? Or is every man for himself? Do you guys have a lunch-and-learn --"Hey on Thursdays during our weekly call we're going to discuss topic X"? Is there anything like that that happens on a bigger scale, or is it on an individual basis?

Mostly individual basis, but obviously anything that people learn is going to be shared amongst the team at some point, it's going to be "oh I learned this today". Someone could be learning from someone through a PR (pull request), you know? A new piece of code comes into our infrastructure that someone committed, then the others ... everybody looks at everybody's code. So they would look at it and go, "Oh that's neat. Didn't know that." And that's because someone has gone out and learned it from some Website or some course they've done.

Right. Plus your team is super, super close-knit. I'm sure you are like, "Hey, I found this cool thing, you got to check it out" --you're sharing things together, right?

Yes, yes, we have our own Slack channel where we talk all sorts of things. That could be new software coming out, yeah, or new ways of doing things. Or new cooking methods.

That's the thing I've been hearing: the most common thing that everyone tells me is they talk about food and drinking --not code. That's good too, because that's the fabric that connects everyone together.

You can't talk about work all the time. It doesn't matter what industry you're in. If you're in an office somewhere or you're working in a restaurant. It doesn't matter what you're doing, you're not standing there talking work all day long. You're talking about your kids or what place is a good place to go to or have you seen this, have you seen this movie. You know? We do the same talking, we just do it online.

To that end, ASF since day one has been a virtual organization: anyone can work from anywhere, there's always these great stories about people meeting each other for the first time at ApacheCon after collaborating online for 10 years. It's a really cool thing to see. And for years you've been our man in Australia. Has anything changed with that as we're growing? Obviously you're no longer in Australia, but do we need to have an Infra presence on every continent? Where are things going with this? Has anything changed, or we're still business as usual since day one, because it doesn't really matter?

There's no specific place you need to live to do this job. Obviously global coverage is a good thing to have. When I was first employed, I'm pretty sure one of the bonus points was that I was in Australia. There was that one was US-based, then there's Australia-based, so you've got a fair bit of coverage there. So somebody can sleep while the other ones can then fight those fires. With there being five or six people now, there is still a bit of a gap, but not too much. People do all sorts of hours. And I plan on going back there sometime.

… I was going to say that we're going to dispatch someone to Siberia or someplace in order to cover the timezone. But you are going to go back you think?

Yeah, at some point.

… You miss it?

Yeah. The weather is nice, and we have family there.

This is a question I've been asking everyone. What are the biggest threats that infrastructure managers need to watch out for? Not necessarily a doom-and-gloom threat kind of lightning bolt coming out of the sky, unless there is something like that to be aware of. With the pandemic there's been all these security crises and all sorts of weird stuff happening. Is there anything in general you think people in this role need to know about or watch out for? Is there any advice that you think folks should be aware of?

Oh I have no idea. The pandemic hasn't really affected me in terms of the role. I mean being an all virtual organization, I'm not sure it's affected the Infrastructure team at all on a work level.

… Remarkably with that, we remained business as usual while everybody else was scrambling trying to figure out how to cope. So I agree with you on that. Another question I ask is what would you think people would be surprised to know about ASF Infra?

I'm sure the same answer has come out of everybody's mouth. That there's only five, six of us looking after this many projects. I don't really know, yeah. There's just so few of us I guess doing this.

As there are so few of you doing it, and you think that would be surprising for people to know, how many people do you think normally should be doing this work? I'm curious about that, because I don't understand how you guys are able to do this. For me there's always this awe of how you guys are making this work as I can't figure out how.

From my perspective I don't know any different. I've not worked at Google or Microsoft or any other tech company down the road. I've not worked in offices, so I've got no comparison. I wouldn't know whether it takes 20, 30, 40 people. All I know is that we could do with a few more people to take the strain off, because we're all working hard. There's not a day we can say, "Oh there's not much today."

… Are you on a schedule? Do you have days off, or are you on some level seven days a week?

It's different for everybody. Working from home which I've done for these last 10, 11 years is I guess you get used to it. You get up in the morning and you have your coffee, then you're straight into the work. That could be 7:00, 8:00 in the morning. Then you're doing bits and pieces. You're getting some work done. Then "oh hang on a minute, I need to go to the shops," so you can take an hour or two off and go to the shops. Then you come back, then you find yourself closing your laptop at 10:00, 11:00 at night.

… From bed.

Yeah. I like to work the weekends. If I wanted to take a Tuesday, Wednesday off or something like that, I'll just take Tuesday and Wednesday off. During these pandemic times, I haven't had to do much of that.

But the flexibility is crucial and it's super helpful, because you need to keep your mindset. I mean it is very easy to go mad. You could very easily get overwhelmed with this type of workload.

You need to try your best to balance it out. I know other people that work remotely say you must have your own office at home, your own space. And the rest of the family needs to know when you're in that office you're at work.

… Daddy is not accessible. That's not realistic either, right?

No, I mean 10 minutes ago I don't know if you heard my three year old coming up to me.

… I did, and I was going to ask you if you needed to stop because I heard the little one.

My office at the moment for this interview is the dining room table. The kids are upstairs.

You partially answered the next question that I ask everyone. Which is, if you had a magic wand, what would you see happen with ASF Infra?

More staff.

… That's what you mentioned earlier without me asking, so more staff, more people. What kind of roles? More of a generalist thing, or do you need a database guy or a specific type of person?

Either of those would be nice. I mean we've got a dozen services that use databases, so we all know databases. I don't know how many of us are database admins. None of us are, I don't think. But we know enough that we need to know for our services that we run. So do we need a DB admin? I don't know. It could be that if a DB admin came along he would say or she would say, "Look at this, I can improve all this. You've been doing it wrong all these years." And maybe we have, I don't know. So you don't know you need somebody until somebody like that arrives.

Do I think we need somebody specific? Maybe another Python individual. Because we are focused on any new code that we write internally for our own benefit would be in Python. But Daniel is pretty good at that, and so is Greg.

Do we desperately need somebody like that, or do we need a generalist? Probably a generalist at this point.

… To handle the volume.

Yeah.

What's your favorite part of the job?

Interesting ... Let me think about that for a second. I think when you do something and somebody from one of the projects comes back and says, "Thanks very much. You've been a great help." I enjoy helping the projects.

I mean obviously I enjoy working on CI stuff. I enjoy maybe providing a new self-serve tool to help projects and help the team out. Various things. I enjoy the job. I've been here that long, obviously I enjoy the job. But yeah. It's nice when somebody from a community says good job. 

… Is that infrequent? I know that we tend to be very high standards and very "that's expected" mentality. Do folks scrimp with the appreciation?

Yeah. Yeah pretty much. But it does happen. I've had a few "thanks very much, you've been great". Sometimes you need to work with a project not for an hour or a day, but sometimes you might need to work with them for a few weeks on something. It might be a migration or something like that. By the end of it you say, "Okay that's done, I'm going to leave your mailing list now or leave your Slack channel," then you get a message saying, "Thanks very much, we really appreciate your work."

That's great. When you first came into the role, when you first came Infra, what was your biggest challenge?

Hard question. I don't know to be honest. I mean the people that I was working with, whether it was paid staff or volunteers, I knew them anyway because I'd been volunteering previously. I don't know of any challenges to be honest. It was moved from volunteer role to paid role. Gradually over time I got to know the people, got to know the Infrastructure layout, where things were at a technical level.

... Do you think there was any sort of attitude shift towards you when you moved towards paid? It was new then: you were one of the earlier team members. Being paid anything kind of raised an eyebrow at the time. I remember that really clearly. Did you face anything like that? Were you challenged by that?

It wasn't an issue for me. If there were any attitude changes, I didn't notice. I don't think the volunteers leaving over the following couple of years was related.

… Well people burn out. And it's a lot of work. That's the other issue: "Hey I'm here to help out, I know Apache needs help, I'll lift or I'll help raise the building or whatever," --that's one thing, but the fact that the demand is constant, you can't expect people to be spending their free time to do all this work. We do need people to be dedicated and paid for. I'm all for that. 

As you've been with us for such a long time, I'm sure there've been highlights for you. What's your proudest contribution or role or moment in this position?

That's a particularly hard question for me. I think I don't get proud over anything much to be honest. I enjoy doing what I do, but I don't have anything specific to call out. Getting my 10 year t-shirt was a proud moment, I guess.

… There you go. Are you saying that because you're shy or you're super humble?

I don't know.

… Or you're super hard on yourself? I mean there's that too: "That's it, that's all I've done." 

No, I'm not one for calling out the self. That's probably the English in me, I guess.

I appreciate you as one of the gold star participants in my Media & Analyst Training, because you've done it so many times. But I noticed that in you, and that was part of the thing I was always trying to tweeze out of you. "Oh we need to talk about ourselves," and you're like, "No." A lot of people have that tendency to downplay or just not go around "rah rahing". I have to mention that's a very American thing to do, but it happens across the industry. Whether you're interviewing for a job or talking to someone at a cocktail party or whatever. Now even more so with social media, so it's the challenge of balancing that. I want you guys to get the recognition. You are doing massive work. You guys are heroes. I know it might sound weird just to hear that, but it's true.

Yeah. Yeah. I guess. Yeah, I don't have anything to call out. I mean if somebody said to me, if I was in ... not that I've had a job interview in over a decade, but I guess that's one of those questions, isn't it? "What are you most proud of in your last role? What did you accomplish? What was your best thing that you did?" And that's why I've not been good at interviews, because I wouldn't know what to say.

… That's where that t-shirt comes into play. I survived and I thrived over 10 years.

Yeah.

That's great. What about your co-workers, how would they describe you?

You see, we just talked about how quiet I am. But on the Thursday team meetings, I probably talk the most.

… I do not believe that. How do you mean?

It's a standing joke, "Oh this week's team meeting was only 20 minutes because Gavin didn't attend," you know? But I don't waffle on, I do talk about work. It's just I've got a lot to say.

That's good. You stick to the point, you're not waffling on. All right. What else do I need to know that I haven't asked? Is there anything specific that you want to highlight, a project you're working on, an achievement, something? Anything that I'm not touching upon that's like "I need to make sure that Sally knows X"? Is there anything you haven't touched upon that we haven't discussed?

No, I don't think so. I was thinking before the call, "What are we going to talk about?" 

… Media training. There you go, you're preparing your speaking points.

Yeah. 

… Ta-da, so that's my proud achievement. I got Gavin to think about speaking points. 

Yeah. I mean yeah, as far as how the Infrastructure team are doing at the moment, are there any big things coming up? Not from me, I don't think. No.

I started thinking about this series when we were in Vegas (ApacheCon) last year. We had so many people show up at media training, I was thinking, "This is such an interesting group that no one ..." --you're not faceless, you're there, but it's so hard to discern the individual behind the group, right? And the group, like you said, is so small, so I think there is such an amazing story with you guys. And you're so integral to the Foundations actual operation. Because you're so ubiquitous, people don't think about it. And I think that's ... Maybe because I'm non-technical, for me it's this massive lift. It's like shooting a rocket up. It's incredible. So I certainly appreciate you guys. I think it's just amazing what you do, and you deserve a pat on the back and an attaboy and all sorts. I'm here to cheerlead.

Thank you.

You bet. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time today. And thanks for doing this, and thanks for passing on the word with the team that it's not a painful experience. I'm also trying to encourage other members of the community to consider doing something like this. We do the "Success at Apache" posts, with individuals writing about themselves and their experiences. Apache wouldn't work if it weren't for the people. Right? It's all about the people. This is not from a PR perspective, but after 21 years I am always ... I keep wanting to know the same things about everyone. And I know it's not limited to me. If I'm curious, I'm sure other people are curious.

= = =

Gavin is based in the UK on UTC +0 (currently on CET). His favorite thing to drink during the workday is coffee with milk, no sugar, and consumes about 10 cups per day.

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