How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love PyCon

Ok, I’ll admit it. I was pretty nervous about going to PyCon. I was giving a talk, I was only going to know a couple of people there, I was going for an entire week, and it was going to be in a city where they speak a language of which I only know about two words. Also, I was a bit unsure of what to expect in terms of the social climate (especially given that the only other non-academic tech conference I’ve been to has been DEFCON, which is not exactly known for being low on sexism).

I shouldn’t have worried, though. PyCon was phenomenally awesome! I met a million amazing people and the talks were exceptionally well done. Everyone was incredibly friendly and outgoing, so much that I rarely found time not to talk to people! I have to say that PyCon is easily the best conference I’ve ever been to (even better than last year’s CogSci, which was also pretty great). Here’s a recap.


I flew in on Thursday night, unfortunatly missing the opening reception. Right off the bat, I met another grad student named Olga, who had been on the same plane as me and was likewise trying to figure out how to get from the airport to the conference venue. We ended up sharing a cab with some folks from Sauce Labs, which was way less stressful than trying to figure out an unfamiliar transit system in a foreign language with heavy baggage in tow. I dropped my stuff off and met up with Matthias for dinner before I went back to my hotel to collapse.


The next morning, I went to the conference and picked up my swag and badge, then got breakfast with Matthias, where we ran into Greg Wilson (of Software Carpentry) and Fernando Perez (of IPython). We had a great discussion about what things aren’t emphasized enough when teaching programming to beginners, and how the IPython Notebook could be used for class assignments.

I went to the keynote by John Perry Barlow, then wandered around the expo hall a bit, then went to hang out in the speaker room to work on my talk. I eventually went back to my hotel to practice my talk a bit more, then went back out to the New Relic party. I mostly hung out with Matthias, but also got to meet a few other pythonistas towards the end; I was fairly jetlagged and nervous about my talk the next morning so was not feeling particularly social.


I got up early to run through my talk once more, then headed back to the conference to see the keynotes by Jessica McKellar and Fernando Perez. Jessica’s was alternately sobering and motivating; Fernando’s got me excited all over again (for probably the 100th time) about IPython Notebook, despite being excited about it to begin with! My talk on writing psychology experiments with Panda3D was then immediately after the keynotes. I am pretty happy with how it went, and people seemed to really like it! It even caught the attention of one of the CPython core developers, who tweeted “Getting powerful tools into the hands of scientists like @jhamrick is one of the big reasons I love working on open source”. Wow, seriously made my day!

After my talk my brain was pretty fried, but I went to a few other talks like this awesome one about analyzing rap lyrics with Python and dealing with imposter syndrome (which is an issue I still struggle with at times). Later, I spent some time hanging out at the expo booth, and then went to dinner at an awesome vegan restaurant called Aux Vivres with some Boston/MIT friends, both old and new!


At breakfast, I hung out some more with Olga. We had an amusing exchange of realizing that we were familiar with each other online prior to meeting: she had tweeted my post on Python koans right before the conference started, and I knew about prettyplotlib, which she wrote. I always get a kick of out realizing that someone you met in meatspace is someone you already know (or are familiar with) online.

The Sunday keynotes were (as the others) spectacular. Van Lindberg gave a beautiful and eloquent talk about the importance of diversity in the PyCon community, and Guido Van Rossum answered audience questions (exclusively from women) off-the-cuff. After the keynote, I went to the PyLadies’ lunch, and a couple of talks, including creating an indie game in Python. After the talks, I went for a bit to the open space for 500 Lines or Less, which I am contributing to.

I went to dinner with Matthias, Olga, and a few other people I had only just met at the conference. After taking entirely too long to decide where to eat, we found our restaurant of choice was closed. Eventually, we ended up in an Irish pub and afterwards decided to go to a chocolate bar. As luck would have it, it started raining just as soon as we left, so we had a quite fun adventure trying to get to the chocolate bar. Arriving soaked, we warmed up with crepes and spicy alcoholic chocolate drinks. Yum! This particular evening was so much fun, and our group dynamic was great. We alternately had serious discussions about the world’s problems, and silly discussions like where to put IPython stickers (answer: bottom of Olga’s boots).

Monday and Tuesday

The main conference ended on Sunday, but I stayed the rest of the week for sprints! Actually, on Monday and Tuesday, I wasn’t working on development sprints – I was helping to teach a Software Carpentry bootcamp to librarians with Preston Holmes, Dhavide Aruliah, and Luke Lee. I was a bit apprehensive about this, as I knew very little about librarians, but it ended up being quite successful! The class went from not having touched a command line, to writing a 90-line Python script by the end of the day on Tuesday that read in a text file containing “dirty” data, converted the data to a consistent and reasonable format, and saved it back out. I was so impressed that the class was able to progress so quickly and produce something with real applicability.

Wednesday and Thursday

After the Software Carpentry bootcamp finished, I joined up with the IPython sprinters. Matthias pointed me towards a few things to work on, including writing an interactive widget for regular expressions, adding a placeholder feature for text widgets, and validating notebook JSON. This has by far been the most I’ve done for IPython, which is super exciting for me – I hope I’ll be able to keep the momentum going forward and continue to contribute to the project!

The last night, I went out to dinner with other folks sprinting on IPython and scikit-learn, then to a bar where the last few PyCon stragglers were meeting up with the Montreal Python group. Even on the last night, when everybody was exhausted and looking forward to going home, I still met new awesome people who were super friendly and interesting to talk with.

Go to PyCon!

So, yeah, PyCon was awesome. This recap was basically just the highlights. There were many instances of having an awesome 10 minute conversation with somebody, sharing tips with people in the speaker room, and meeting developers on projects that I really respect and admire. I really hope I will be able to go again – I should start thinking about my talk proposal for next year!

I missed a lot of talks that I wanted to see, especially on Friday (when I was busy prepping for my talk). Thankfully, they are all online, so I have a good list of things to watch over the next few weeks!

Anyway, if you’re considering going, even just a little bit: go. It is so worth it.