Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking at my first PyTexas conference. I’d never been to PyTexas before, but I’ve been to it’s Ruby relative, Lone Star Ruby a bunch of times. In a lot of ways it was similar (the local crowd, lots of enthusiasts, two tracks of talks), but in some ways, very different…
The first and most notable thing to mention about PyTexas is that it’s held at the Memorial Student Center at Texas A&M University, which is in College Station. That means the conference is two hours from Austin and Houston, and three hours from San Antonio and Dallas/Fort Worth. This isn’t a complaint, it’s a nice facility, but it explains something about PyTexas: It’s not and will never be a large programming conference, simply due to being too far from the Texas programmer population. That being said, it’s impressive how many people they’ve pulled in, and is a testament to the Texas Python community that so many people (about 100 folks the day I was there) made the trip.
The tradeoff for the drive is that the event (being hosted by the A&M School of Architecture) is really inexpensive ($25 early bird, $50 regular). I would have thought that would have meant there would have been a big student turnout, but that didn’t seem to be the case. School hadn’t started yet, so that may be one reason. There were a lot of interested, engaged professionals there, and a lot of people doing serious day to day work with python. I saw a couple of Rackers, and though there wasn’t anyone else I knew from HP Cloud, there was some OpenStack talk in the halls.
My wife has been getting into python recently, and since I wasn’t planning on spending the night away from home (2 year old daughter + 7 months pregnant wife = at home at night), I talked her into coming with me for the day. Registration was well organized, and there were good snacks. The event had a few sponsors I wasn’t familiar with, including MapMyFitness, which tracks exercise metrics for folks, and StormPulse, which provides weather forecasts for businesses. It’s always nice to see businesses showing how they’re using a language for real. The Lone Star Ruby conference companies tend towards web startups and Rails.
The gender balance was about what you’d expect, maybe 10:1. If it was a little bigger there might be a more organized outreach, but right now it’s just word of mouth. I did hear about it on the PyLadies ATX list, and there may have been more women on the tutorial day.
I think there were some challenges on the organization side of the conference. Speakers didn’t seem to get into the registration system, and two of the speakers didn’t show up. That’d be easier to compensate for at a bigger conference, but when there are only two tracks it really shows. Unfortunately one of the no-shows was Thomas Hatch of SaltStack, whose talk I was really looking forward to. Maybe it’s online somewhere.
I’d proposed two talks, but only had time to prepare one, so I ended up spending 50 minutes talking the audience through building two simple Bottle applications. One of the apps serves as an API service, the other as a web-exposed UI. The code for both, built step by step with comments, is up on GitHub. I’ll link to the video of the talk whenever they post it.
Walker Hale from the Baylor College of Medicine down in Houston spoke before me, talking about Bottle’s sister microframework Flask. Flask and Bottle are really, really, really similar, so he stole a bit of my thunder, but I think the audience enjoyed the live coding I did (with paper diffs!), and I got some good feedback. Unfortunately the Memorial Students Center is a no-hat building (out of respect for the Aggies who’ve given their lives in defense of the country), so the audience had to endure my out of control mop.
Lunch was included in the cost of registration and provided by a nice local food truck.
There were a couple of lightning talks at the end of the day, including Barbara Shaurette of PyLadies Austin talking about her interesting new initiative to connect professional programmers with high school computer classrooms. No set of lightning talks would be complete without the next big thing, Docker.io, so of course there were two (!) of those. Docker’s going to take over the world, believe me.
PyTexas was a fun little conference, though driving down in the morning and back in the evening was really exhausting. It’s small, and isn’t as slick as some larger conferences, but it has a nice raw charm. The love the attendees and speakers have for python really shows through. If it’s easy for you to get to, and you aren’t busy, I recommend it. If they moved it to Austin or San Antonio, I’d go for the whole thing and I think the conference would be at least three times as big. (Speaking of Texas python conferences, if you haven’t signed the Austin PyCon 2016/2017 petition, please do!)
Last weekend I was in Santa Clara for PyCon. Since then the story of the conference has been writ large in media outlets nearandfar, 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. Bookshavebeen 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.
I 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.
I 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
Recruiting 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.
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!
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.