Archive for September, 2016

Rambling Thoughts on PyCon UK 2016

[UPDATE: People reading this might get the impression that my experience was negative. Really, though, it’s just that, for reasons outside the Conference, I was rushed and not really prepared and so didn’t enjoy things as much as I might have done. In other words, the negative tone is subjective rather than objective!]

If you track back through my write-ups of my previous PyCon UK experiences, you’ll see a bit of a trend: every year I say something like “This year was different”. And so it was this year. But this year it was differently different: it was different for the whole of PyCon UK, not just for me.

PyCon UK was famously the brainchild of John Pinner (RIP) and was organised and run by him and a team of Python enthusiasts from the West Midlands with help from elsewhere. But we had clearly outgrown our Coventry venue: in the last two or three years, the facilities have become increasingly strained.

So this year we were in Cardiff where Daniele Procida and others have successfully organised DjangoCon several times. Specifically we were in the City Hall which gave the conference more capacity and, I’m told, a slightly more responsive building staff over the weekend. I haven’t seen many facts or figures from the organisers, but certainly over 500 people were registered, in contrast to something like 300 for the last couple of years in Coventry. I don’t know if that’s because the size of the venue allowed more tickets to be made available or because Python has had a popularity explosion in the UK. I also don’t know whether it includes the Teachers’ and Children’s tickets, or those for the Open Day. Still: bigger.

I was unable to take any time off work around the conference. We have a highly important deadline fast approaching for a Big Contract and all shore leave was cancelled. I was especially sorry to miss the Education Day for teachers, which I’ve been involved with since its inception 4 or 5 years ago. So when I finally arrived on Saturday morning, I went straight into the Kids’ track which was running a Code Club session on Racing Turtles. I’d heard not long before the Conference that there hadn’t been much take up for the Kids’ Day, so I was very glad to see that the place was packed with children & their parents. Unscientifically, I’d say that most were between 9-12 with a small number above and below those ages. Probably rather more girls than boys.

After the break, there were sessions on Minecraft and micro:bit. I helped with the latter – I’m not a fan of Minecraft! And after lunch was a free-for-all in the Kids’ Track. The idea was to work on anything which had taken your fancy in the morning. I know from previous years that this sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. (Generally parents of younger kids who are disengaged tend to take them away at this point). But for those old enough, or whose parents are keen enough, it was a great chance to explore possibilities. At different times there were quite a few conference-goers popping and out to offer help, although sometimes it’s not needed as everyone has their head down in a project.

I always enjoy the youngsters at Python. Of course, not every child gets as much out of things as they might do. Some of the worksheets needed a lot of reading and then a lot of typing which was daunting especially to some younger participants. (And laziness is A Thing, of course!). But it’s great when the children get the bit between their teeth and get excited about what they’ve achieved… and that they worked it out themselves, and debugged it themselves. And they’ve got an idea about where to go next.

For various reasons I spent relatively little time at the Conference proper. In particular, I only attended three talks, all of them given by people I knew and containing few surprises. It’s nice to see that several projects which I was slightly connected with early on have grown considerably and definitely merit a newer look: GPIOZero, PyGame Zero and PiNet. Like everyone else, I was impressed by the talk transcribers.The Conference venue was very pleasant and what I saw of Cardiff was welcoming – even though they were milking their connection with Roald Dahl, who’d been born there 100 years before.

People have spoken and tweeted about how welcoming and open PyCon UK was for them, and I’m delighted. For me, the experience was a mixed one, I think for two reasons. One was that I was there for considerably less than 48 hours: I arrived on Saturday morning and left mid-afternoon on Sunday. I had necessarily little time to interact with people and, once I’d helped with the Kids’ Track, I particularly wanted to catch up with Andrew Mulholland of PiNet fame, and to say hello to people I pretty much only see at PyCon UK. Floris wanted to chat about networkzero and, once I’d done all that, it was almost time to go. I had an hour in the glorious Quiet Room (aka Cardiff City Council Chamber) before heading off on a coach to Bristol followed by a 2+hr stand on the train back to London.

The other thing which muted my experience was how much bigger the Conference was this year, how many more people. Obviously, the fact of its being in South Wales will have skewed the catchment area, so to speak. But I was surprised at how few people I knew. Of course, at one level, this is great: the Python community is big and getting bigger; I’m not in an echo chamber where I talk to the same 12 people every year; people from the South & West who couldn’t get to Coventry can get to Cardiff. At the same time, I was irrationally lower in spirits (partly through lack of sleep, no doubt!). Normally I have no difficulty in just stopping by people to say things like “My name’s Tim; what do you use Python for?”. But this year, I just found it harder. So – sorry to people whom I appeared to be ignoring or who found me distracted.

In particular I realised how much I’d missed by not being there the previous two days: it’s a little like starting at a new school when everyone else has already been there a while. There’s nothing I could have done, but I regretted it nonetheless. Hopefully it’ll be better next year.

I look forward to seeing other people’s post-Conference write-ups and photos. I’m especially interested in people who didn’t enjoy things, or at least weren’t bowled over. Not because I’m reaching out for negativity, but because surely some people will have had an indifferent or even a negative experience at some level, and it would be good to understand why.

Well there’s more I could say, but if you’ve even read this far, that’s more than I expected. I hope I’ll see you there next year, and meanwhile enjoy the tweets.