Tavish Armstrong


A Semi-Coherent Review of PyCon Canada 2012

Tue 27 Nov 2012 17:20:00

Two weeks ago I was foolish enough to take a few days to escape from university life long enough to go to PyCon Canada, a nice little conference in Toronto that can only be described with words that end with exclamation marks: fantastic!, awesome!, etc. I’m no veteran of tech conferences — this was, I think, the ninth I’ve ever attended0^ — so I have a narrow view of what conferences can look like.

This was, however, the first non-student conference I’ve been to without it being related to work. That was nice — I could just relax and watch the talks and hang out with fellow Python enthusiasts like my friend (and former co-worker) Jon “VK” Villemaire-Krajden. That also drew attention to something I noticed about the conference: it was delightfully non-commercial, as far as conferences go. Sure, there were sponsors, and the sponsors said things at the microphone, and there was an area where you could schmooze with the sponsors — but on the whole, it felt like a conference of enthusiasts and open source people, not people trying to sell things.

People who spoke words

Jessica McKellar started things off with a talk on fostering a welcoming open source community. Near the beginning of her talk, she told a story about her time as an instructor at Hacker School: they took a few whiteboards and wrote questions on them like “What are your fears as a programmer?” She showed a slide with a bunch of students’ answers and it really resonated with me.

Sometimes programming is hard because it is hard, and sometimes programming is hard because of seemingly silly, trivial emotions. Sometimes programming is hard because you’re afraid of breaking something. Or because you’re afraid of looking stupid on the internet. Or because you’re afraid of looking stupid off the internet. Recognizing these things and talking about these things is more important than it sounds. To me, seeing this really smart open source hacker on a stage talk about these things and admit that they, too, are afraid of not being smart enough is so much more encouraging than just knowing that I can contribute to open source.

Michael Feathers spoke about functional programming. I’ve been drinking the FP Kool-Aid for a while now, so it wasn’t a mind-blowing talk for me; but he had a way with words and said what other people have been saying, but better. I’m not sure what his exact words are, but he said something along the lines of “these functional things are cool because you need to learn them only once,” that is, a lot of those functional programming tools that people talk about are pre-packaged general, common algorithms. Sure, you can get the job done in two nested for-loops, but maybe using someone *else*’s for-loops will work out better?

Fernando Perez ended the conference on a high note with his talk on the IPython Notebook, a browser-based tool for Python programming. The IPython Notebook is a bit like a REPL, a bit like an IDE, but the main idea is that it’s in the browser. That means if you write code that generates an image, it can show the image alongside your code. It means that if you have code that outputs a protein, the result can be an interactive 3D model. This project is so cool that I’ve wasted spent more time than I care to admit playing with it since the conference.

Code Sprints!

I wasn’t in town for long — and I wanted to spend some time with friends — but I did manage to drop by the code sprints for a while. The sprints were at the Ladies Learning Code space near Honest Ed’s, a lovely little building with a pretty decent cafe in the basement.

Sleep deprivation might have done strange things to me, but I’m pretty sure these things happened:

Although I wasn’t around to see much, it does sound like a lot got done at the sprint. I’ll be sure to stick around longer next time.

Things that were not good about this conference

I really don’t have anything bad to say about how the conference was run. Really. Sure, the venue was cold the first day. The wireless was a bit patchy here and there. But whatever. Did I mention my ticket cost $25?

Personally, I think all “code sprints” should be called “Happy Fun Best Friends Coding Club But Also Testing and Documentation and Learning Extravaganza,” but sports and athletics metaphors are, unfortunately, thoroughly entrenched in the software world and I suppose I’m not going to win this one. Sigh.

Oh, and it may not surprise you to hear that I detected a substantial dose of Python elitism. I like Python too, but can we all try not to alienate PHP and Java developers? Couldn’t hurt, anyways.

Would I go again? Would I bring a friend?

Yes and yes.

  1. Woah. When did that happen?