PyCon 2013: Three Days in the Valley


March 23, 2013 at 7:25 pm (No Comments)

Last weekend I was in Santa Clara for PyCon.  Since then the story of the conference has been writ large in media outlets near and far, but you may not have heard anything about what the conference was really like.  So here’s my view, as someone who had never been to PyCon before (with some thoughts on the controversy interspersed)…

HP Cloud was a sponsor and exhibitor this year at PyCon.  I’m working on a new cloud service written in Python and will need developers at some point, so I traded manning the HP booth for a few hours for the trip.  I’ve been to Lone Star Ruby a few times and two RailsConfs, but I’d never been to a Python event.  Given Python’s reputation as a very friendly, open community, I wanted to get a feel for it it in person.

I’ve never been to the valley proper.  I’ve been to San Francisco a couple of times, but never down to Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Cupertino, San Jose, and surrounds.  In tech, Silicon Valley inhabits a mythical place as the fount from which innovations flow.  Books have been written about how special the place is.  Barrels of digital ink have been spilled over the high cost of living, the startup life, and the bright lights up the 101 in the City.

The AvatarI flew in late Thursday night after a crazy week attending and presenting at SXSW, and then getting robbed.  On the approach vector into San Jose International the whole valley spreads out beneath you, tight, flat grid of civilization.  It’s very Tron.  After taking a taxi from the airport, the only thing that really struck me was that every building I saw over one story had the logo of a tech company I knew on it.  I didn’t book travel in time to get into the convention center hotel, so I was in The Avatar, the overflow hotel.  The Avatar is an 8 bit/robot themed hotel, but really it’s a refurbished 1950’s motor style Holiday Inn with some modern furniture.  At check-in there was a lady in front of me with green hair and big black boots, and in my post-travel haze, surrounded by tin robots and chrome, I remember thinking that this must be where all the cypherpunks had gone.

In the morning light, Santa Clara looked a bit more like every tech town USA, though there was still that ineffable California sheen.  I took the overcrowded bus over to the convention center, picked up my badge, and had a very nice breakfast.  It was a standard eggs and bacon affair, but they were pretty liberal with the bacon.  I think I saw a guy whose entire plate was bacon.

Keynote RoomI picked up my conference bag from a guy wearing a Wreck it Ralph tech team shirt.  Apparently Disney Animation was a sponsor this year.  Next up was the keynote from Eben Upton, where they announced that everyone was getting a Raspberry Pi.  There was a lot of cheering.  He also said that originally they were hoping to make a device that booted straight into python, so if you wanted to do anything you’d need to learn to code, ala the C64 and BBC Microcomputer.  The Pi in Raspberry Pi was originally for Python.  They’re still working on that idea.  The organizers also mentioned in the announcements about the Young Coder program they ran, with obligatory adorable pictures of kids peeking out from behind monitors.

The sessions were interesting, and since it seemed they were being recorded, I didn’t feel as much pressure to sit in every one that seemed cool.  The Messaging at Scale at Instagram talk was really interesting, as was the Making DISQUS Realtime talk.  It’s pretty incredible the traffic the DISQUS folks are pushing out of a half dozen physical boxes.  Whenever you’re on a page with DISQUS comments and you see one slide into the live comments box, you’re talking to one of those half dozen machines.  Crazy.  They had some interesting traffic graphs from the week the new pope was announced.

The Pope

After a few panels I decided to hit the trade show, which really surprised me.  It’s a good time to be a Python programmer.  The trade show at PyCon, a conference of only 2,500 attendees, was one of the best I’ve seen.  I’d never seen a trade show with Facebook, Oracle, Google, redhat, eBay, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, Netflix, Firefox, Hulu and of course, HP Cloud, all in one place.  We sponsored a happy hour the first day, and Heroku covered the second day with free sake.  There was even raspberry pi(e).

Lunch was really well organized, with 7-8 two sided serving tables and acres of big round tables.  The food was ok, nothing to write home about, but better than some conferences I’ve been to.  Breakfast was really their forte, the second and third days we had really satisfying baja breakfast burritos.

Lunch Lines

One of the trade show vendors, Thumbtack, a company that offers custom local service quotes (and is an awful lot like a site we worked on at Polycot, 45fix), had a programming challenge they were handing out.  I’m afraid to say that I burned more than a couple hours over the weekend working on it, and in the end I ended up with a fairly brute force approach that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with, but seemed to be the only straightforward way to solve it.  The programming challenge pages are here, if you’d like to take a crack.  The solution to the second page challenge ended up taking around 25 seconds on my Macbook Pro:

Thumbstack 1 Thumbstack 2

Donglegate

So let’s get into some controversy, shall we?  The Python community is known as an open, welcoming community.  Like any programming community there are plenty of hard core nerds who like to prove how smart they are, but Python was designed as a language that would be very consistent and easy to learn.  There was an entire track on how to teach python, how to run meetups and events, and how to get more women coders into the community.  PyCon has a code of conduct as well, something that attempts to directly address previous inappropriate activity in the programming community.  The Python leadership and organizers want to be really welcoming, they want a good gender balance, they were even talking about how the conference attendance was 20% female.  I think this number is probably skewed because it probably includes a lot of marketing folks who were only manning booths in the trade show, but they’re definitely trying.

There were at least 5 female programmer groups in the trade show: PyLadies, Women who Code, LadyCoders, CodeChix and The Ada Initiative.  There was a charity auction for PyLadies, and the Ada Initiative even had a feminist hacker lounge in the trade show:

Feminist Hacker Lounge

It was by far the most actively gender progressive conference I’ve ever been to, which makes the whole hullabaloo about dongles and forking so weird.  There was a lot of justified outrage after the Golden Gate Ruby CouchDB talk.  The Ruby community isn’t known for being as newbie friendly, and is generally a bit more rock star testosterone driven.  PyCon tried to do a better job, and despite all their good efforts, the takeaway from most of the people who read about the event will be, “Won’t those nerds ever learn to treat women with respect.”  That’s a shame, because they really tried.  If you’re interested in diving into this rabbit hole, the Geek Feminism wiki has a good page about it.

I keep thinking that the gender equality thing that PyCon tries to promote is a lot like the friendliness of the community.  It exists because we say it does, and the fact that there’s a conversation around it makes it real.  If you’re sitting next to someone at a conference that talks a lot about friendliness, you’re more likely to be friendly and open yourself up and risk rejection.  I had a lot of great, interesting conversations at PyCon over breakfast and lunch, including one with a young lady from Portland who had been to PyLadies and other female programmer meetups.  She said what she really wanted wasn’t get togethers to talk about how being female in tech is weird, she wanted meetups where they sat down and actually wrote code.  She said that if programming is a meritocracy, you should be able to prove yourself and grow by doing, which makes sense to me.  Less dongle jokes, more ladies, more kids, more code.  It’s a big tent.

Right after registration I was standing next to a group of people who had clustered together, and someone actually invited me over to join the conversation.  I’ve never had that happen at a tech conference, ever.  It turned out that none of the people in the group had ever been to PyCon before.  It wasn’t a passed down openness based on previous experience, it was because we all knew PyCon was open, because they make a point of saying it.  It’s right there on the conference web page: “Change the future – education, outreach, politeness, respect, tenacity and vision.”

I don’t have a good answer on how this whole thing should have played out.  It’s a mess.  It shouldn’t have been a mess.  I hope the folks who organized PyCon aren’t taking it too personally.  I don’t see that they could have done anything better than they did.

Booth Monkey Like Me

I went to PyCon, in part, to man the HP Cloud booth.  The last time I manned a booth was at SXSW, where while covering for the Creative Commons folks during their session, Bruce Sterling walked up to me and asked why he should give his books away for free.  I didn’t have a good answer.

Booth Monkey

This time was a little easier, the thing we’re battling the most with developer at HP Cloud is just awareness.  Most people don’t know that HP has a public cloud offering, so I was happy to explain what we did and get some insights from real customers.  Of course, the Spotify booth was opposite ours, and getting those insights can be a challenge when you’re competing with this:

Wrapping Up & Going Home

I never got to really see much of Silicon Valley.  I didn’t get to hit the Apple Company Store or visit the garage or the HP offices in Palo Alto.  Hopefully I’ll be able to go back soon.

There were some other really good talks at PyCon.  I know I need to start using iterators and generators more.  I may even take a poke around Python 3.3.  On Sunday they had a job fair and poster sessions, which was really interesting to me, since I’ll be presenting a poster in a month and a half at an HP conference.

PyCon Job Fair & Poster SessionsRecruiting was the activity of the conference.  It seemed like everyone was looking for Python developers, and like Ruby was back in 2007, there just aren’t enough to go around.

Bag-O-Swag

When I flew out to Santa Clara I only had my laptop bag.  Walking around the trade show I realized that I didn’t really need to bring extra t-shirts, nearly everyone was giving them away.  I ended up carefully packing an entire bag of swag, including my hard-fought goodies from Thumbtack.  Thankfully the San Jose airport’s bathrooms have child seats.  HP had some nice swag this year, a pen-shaped screwdriver set.  Someone even came up and gave me a compliment about it.

I decided to get some Python neckerchief wearing beanie snakes for the girls back home, which gave me a chance to take this picture.  I have had it with these pythonic snakes on this pythonic plane!

Pythonic Snakes on a Pythonic Plane

Austin’s a big tech town, so it wasn’t a surprise that I ended up sitting next to a fellow PyCon attendee.  In this case it was Chris Kucharski, the guy who runs the web team at Dimensional Fund Advisors.  We had a great chat about Python, Austin, teams and technology.  It was cool to find out that he hosts the Austin Learn Python Meetup at Dimensional’s offices.  The more supporters in the community and the more new developers, the better.  Maybe in a few years PyCon will be as diverse as we all want it to be.

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