PyCon Au Particulars: 10 Elements of a Quality Conference

It’s been about two years since I made my entrance into the wonderful world of software development conferences by attending PyCon Australia Sydney 2011.

Over the past few days I have been enjoying my second PyCon Au, this time in Hobart, and taken some time to reflect on what makes the conference unique and how I’ve grown as a developer since the Sydney event.

At my first PyCon Au I had no other conference experiences with which to compare but I recognised I had stumbled on something worthwhile and blogged about the five major benefits of attending a coding conference.

Two years on, I have attended quite a few conferences and even been privileged to speak at a couple.

In fact, a couple of people I ran into at PyCon Au this year were surprised to see me there as they had met me previously in a different context.

I have stayed true to the intention I expressed in my very first post on this blog, to expand my coding horizons by extending the limits of my language, and that has led me to become a part of multiple programming language communities. I believe each community has something to offer and — especially as someone seeking to foster women in tech — I think there is great benefit in being involved in many of them.

Looking through the lens of my experiences over the past couple of years at conferences and other events focused on a variety of languages, I can now discern that there are many things PyCon Au does particularly well.

Here are my 10 favourite features of PyCon Australia:

  1. Inclusion of enthusiasts. I met a lot of software engineers at this year’s PyCon Au, but I also met folks from completely different professions who just enjoy dabbling with Python. There were also many students and people from a variety of vocations wanting to learn to program to make their jobs easier. The conference schedule included talks suitable for beginners, so there was something for everyone. It was wonderful to see that people with a variety of professional backgrounds felt comfortable to attend and were warmly welcomed.
  2. Commitment to diversity. The IT industry is struggling with gender (and other) diversity issues, but I’ve never felt out of place as a woman at PyCon Au. It really is an inclusive event, as outlined in its Code of Conduct, and attracts quite a number of women (enough that you don’t feel like the odd one out in the crowd). Special effort is made to make sure women feel welcome with the inclusion a PyLadies breakfast on the program, which men can also attend provided they are invited by a female attendee.
  3. Financial aid program. When it comes to the aforementioned two points, the conference puts its money where its mouth is. Its generous financial aid program helps students, teachers and members of groups that encourage diversity to attend the conference, as well as funding presenters and other community representatives.
  4. Open-source sprints. The main conference event is followed by two days of sprints, where delegates come together to hack on open source code. Core developers from some of the Python ecosystem’s key projects are on hand to help out and give the support and encouragement required for attendees to be able to submit a patch with confidence. This event helps to upskill developers and documenters, and garners valuable contributions to the community.
  5. Prioritisation of lightning talks. Many conferences have lightning talks, but I don’t think any I have attended have given them as much space as PyCon Australia. There was an hour set aside for lightning talks on each day of PyCon Au this year, which was one of my favourite parts of the day. The delegates responded to the call for talks with gusto, delivering informative and entertaining five-minute presentations. It was nice to have so many different voices on stage.
  6. CodeWars. This is an event held ahead of the conference that isn’t quite like anything I’ve experienced elsewhere. Teams compete in a coding tournament described as “Seriously technical, seriously irreverent, and seriously fun”. The challenges aren’t your standard coding problems; much work goes into creating puzzles that stretch the imagination and engage the audience.
  7. Sit-down conference dinner. There’s something really lovely about actually sitting down and having a proper meal with your fellow delegates. The PyCon Au organisers always make sure there is plenty of good food and beverages to go along with the good company. This year there was also a brilliant keynote by MooresCloud CEO Mark Pesce during the dinner.
  8. Job board. PyCon Au hosts a large whiteboard where attendees can record if their companies are hiring, or if they are looking for work. It’s a simple idea but a very effective means of facilitating this valuable delegate communication. 
  9. Next day video. All of the conference tracks were recorded this year and the videos are all expected to go live this week, with some already released. Having this assurance that recordings will be available so quickly makes it much easier when you’re agonising over which presentation to attend.
  10. Miniconfs. One-day Django and OpenStack events were held ahead of the main conference. The miniconfs were a new addition this year, but by all accounts they made a significant contribution to the conference experience. 

Although it won’t be a regular fixture of PyCon Au, special mention should also go to the amazing setting this year’s conference had in Hobart, Tasmania.

The conference team organised a phenomenal venue, with stunning views of the harbour and Mount Wellington.

The 2013 conference was the biggest yet, attracting 310 delegates from as far afield as the United States, Europe and Asia.

Coordinator Christopher Neugebauer announced at the conference close that PyCon Au 2014 and 2015 will be held in Brisbane, so the challenge is there for us Queenslanders to make sure the next couple of years hold even bigger and better things for this excellent event.

View of Mount Wellington View of Mount Wellington from inside the conference venue.

Sunrise over the harbour Sunrise over the harbour, as seen from the Hobart hotel hosting PyCon Au.