Calling Pythonista Sisters: Five Reasons to Attend a Coding Conference

If you have just started building a machine that goes BING, pledged to steer clear of Python’s dark corners and seen code combat end in a dance off, chances are you were at PyCon Au 2011.

The two-day Sydney conference – which was preceded by a CodeWar evening and followed by two days of coding sprints – attracted about 300 delegates this year. This included 35 women, which was a healthy increase on the 10 female delegates among about 200 attendees at the inaugural event last year.

I was privileged to be one of this year’s delegates, thanks to one of several Gender Diversity Grants generously funded by Google. In my six months or so in the IT industry I’ve attended many coding group meet-ups, bar camps and developer days, but PyCon Au was my first real geek conference and I was stoked to be there.

However, after speaking to some of the other women at the event, I realised a few had been quite nervous about attending and at least one very nearly did not come because of this.

So, in the interests of encouraging more women and other reticent delegates to attend future conferences, here are some of the benefits I found in attending PyCon Au:

1. Gaining knowledge

Okay so this is obvious, but there is no question it was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the Python programming language and related tools and frameworks.

The PyCon sessions ranged from beginner-level workshops, such as Python 101+, through to advanced lectures pitched at experienced engineers and scientists, so there was something for everyone.

I particularly appreciated Peter Lovett’s workshops, Katie Bell, Georgina Wilcox and Tim Dawborn’s talks on the National Computer Science School and Girls’ Programming Network, Dr Graeme Cross’s presentation on Python-controlled machines and Mary Gardiner’s keynote.

As an industry newcomer, I have noticed the more of these tech talks I attend the more conscious I become of just how much I have to learn, which can be daunting. If this fazes you, I think it’s worth keeping in mind where you started; when I stop and reflect on the fact that two years ago I was a journalist/sub editor with no post-school IT training or experience, I appreciate how far I’ve come rather than being overawed by how far I have to go.

2. Encountering challenges

Gaining knowledge at a conference has an associated benefit in that learning about new or improved practices can challenge your thinking and motivate action.

When you’re caught up in the world of your own workplace or projects, it can be difficult to find the time to investigate new ways of doing things. There is a risk of continuing to be set in your ways while the industry has moved on.

A conference offers an avenue for exploring a variety of techniques and technologies that you might not be familiar with that may well challenge your status quo.

Your response may be to adopt something new, or it may simply prompt you to evaluate the benefits of your current approach and justify why an alternative method would not be beneficial.

Even as a newbie with few set ideas, I found PyCon challenged me to try out some different ways of using Python, as well as of course to improve my skills.

3. Networking

Another massive benefit of attending PyCon Au was that I met all sorts of interesting people from many parts of Australia and even the US.

There was a fantastic blend of coders with different ideas, perspectives and programming language backgrounds, which made for many rousing conversations and a few passionate debates.

There was also a whiteboard for job/hiring opportunities that become so full it had to be extended, which was an excellent tool for those looking for work or employees.

4. Finding community

There was a tremendous sense of community at PyCon Au as the common interest of Python brought a diverse group of people together.

Within this broader community, there were also many informal subgroups based around occupations, framework choices, locations, hobbies or any number of other characteristics.

As I have already mentioned, one of these subgroups was the female contingent. PyCon Au did a fantastic job of catering for women by providing diversity grants, imposing a Code of Conduct and holding a PyLadies breakfast that facilitated women meeting up before the conference had even begun.

While the percentage of women at PyCon Au was still far short of being representative of the female population generally, the numbers were strong enough that we were not an oddity and that was refreshing (as Brianna Laugher has eloquently blogged).

I am typically the only woman at most of the coding groups I attend and I have become used to guys looking at me curiously as if they think I might have wandered into the wrong room. I don’t recall getting any of those looks at PyCon.

The female attendees were able to discuss some of the difficulties we encounter as coders and receive validation and encouragement from each other in discovering many of these experiences are shared.

A group of us were able to talk about some of the barriers to getting more women programming and share tips and techniques for overcoming these.

Whether you’re a woman, identify with some other subgroup or both, PyCon and other conferences like it offer the opportunity to connect with like-minded or accepting individuals with whom you already share an interest, which in my experience can be hugely beneficial.

5. Discovering ways to contribute

Last but certainly not least, I found a benefit of PyCon Au was that it gave attendees both the opportunity to contribute to the Python community and guidance on how best to do so.

Aside from the chance to conduct workshops or lectures, there was provision for delegates to share brief snippets of information through the lightning talk sessions.

Some conference presentations focused on specific opportunities for delegates to become involved, such as Mary Gardiner’s keynote and Nick Coghlan’s presentation.

In addition, after the conference there were two days of guided coding sprints that were open to programmers of all levels.

I was only able to attend the first of these days but enjoyed the collaborative spirit and the chance to give something back.

It was certainly useful to have experts on hand to ensure we were hacking away at the right thing.

So there you have it. That’s my take on the major benefits of attending PyCon. Feel free to leave a comment with anything I left out.

Hopefully we will see an even bigger crowd attend PyCon Au in Hobart next year!