PyCon UK 2017

I recently returned from PyCon UK 2017 which took place in Cardiff from Thursday 26th to Monday 30th October. There were about 900 people throughout the 4 days of the conference including teachers attending a Picademy; young coders attending a Code Club, a Raspberry Jam and a micro:bit show-and-tell; data scientists attending a PyData track; those attending a Django Girls session; and everyone attending the conference proper.

tl;dr I really enjoyed it. I got the right amount out of it without burning out; I had interesting conversations with people; I picked up a couple of useful ideas for work; and I enjoyed helping the teachers, the young coders, and anyone else who asked me for advice or input. On Monday I was happy to be sprinting on my networkzero module with some other conference attendees who'd seen my talk on Saturday and interacting with the education crowd, especially the Mu maintainers and Ben Nuttall.

After last year's PyCon UK, I'd told myself that I'd definitely make an effort to help with the organisation of the Conference in some capacity. But, with one thing and another, I didn't put myself forward until the end of August. Of course, by that time, onboarding a volunteer means a lot of explanatory work on the part of the team so I was gratified when Peter asked me to pick up some of the administration of the Financial Support scheme. I also joined the organisers' Slack and was able to contribute to the discussion around the Lightning Talks bucket scheme (of which more later).

One area I'd particularly wanted to improve was communications before and during the Conference. Communication is hard: no matter how much effort and goodwill, some people miss all the notices & signals you give out and are disappointed or upset. There was an unfortunate storm in a teacup a few weeks before the Conference when someone -- having checked the website -- Tweeted that it was a shame there had no been no Financial Aid scheme. In fact, there was a very generous scheme and we were able to help quite a few people otherwise couldn't have come. But applications had closed and the details of the scheme had been removed from the website. It was all sorted out but it goes to show how easily misunderstandings can arise, even with goodwill.

I volunteered to rework the front page of the PyCon UK website in the days leading up to the Conference to include the practical information which people need when they're planning their trip (or actually at the Conference). In the course of the discussions around this, the idea of a Zen of PyCon UK arose, loosely inspired by the Zen of Python. I put something together which was tweaked by the others. And so it was that I found myself on stage, introducing the "Zen" at the opening session of the Conference [Photo by Mark Hawkins].

You can see the schedule of the conference itself with links to slides where they've been made available. Depending on when you're reading this, you should also be able to see many of the talks on the PyCon UK Youtube channel. What isn't perhaps so obvious is the tremendous amount of work going on behind the scenes before, during and after each day to make all that happen. As Daniele pointed out in his closing address, it was so common to have someone say "I can do that" whenever an issue arose. And aside from those occasional issues, there were just the everyday, ongoing work: Chloe organising the Registration Desk all the time she wasn't chairing a session (or being the Right Sock in Friday's Lightning Talks); Owen managing the Lightning Talks buckets and the Session Chairs; Alex printing out hundreds of copies of the schedule every day; Kirk organising the Board Games evening (and being the Left Sock); Nicholas with help from Tom and myself, organising the Thursday Dojo; volunteers turning up to chair sessions in any of rooms we were using; the micro:bit Foundation teams organising the the micro:bit sessions; the Raspberry Pi Foundation teams organising the teachers' 2-day Picademy event and the Saturday Young Coders' day; Tim organising video & sound recording in every room and training others to do the same; all the work done beforehand by Owen and Kristian to bring the new UK Python Association into being; the professional photographer and stenographers who brought their own expertise; the creche organisers; loads of people whom I've forgotten or didn't even know about because they just did their job and got out of the way. And behind everything, Peter & Daniele keeping everything running smoothly, liaising with the excellent City Hall staff.

The message of the Conference was: enjoy yourself and make sure others enjoy themselves. Be friendly. Be welcoming. Talk to people you don't know. Step into discussions you might otherwise have skirted because you can be sure you won't be excluded. Even the gift to speakers was welcomed: a pair of Python-themed socks. Amusing, practical, and universal: everyone can wear socks.

At some point someone had posted a message of thanks to the organisers. I realise it's somewhat gauche to quote my own reply here, but I'm going to, because I think the point I'm making is important:

No matter how trite it sounds, it would be no use our standing up there and saying "Please be welcoming. Please be respectful" if you all had other ideas. The atmosphere of the Conference is the result of the agreement of everyone that this is how it should be. And that's a great testament to the UK (and wider) Python community. [Tim Golden on Slack]

So many people have said -- on Twitter, on Slack, in person -- that they felt welcomed, that they thought PyCon UK had something special. There were several talks around a growing awareness of Mental Health and the need for a greater inclusivity. I think many people were surprised to hear Chloe -- whose cheerful enthusiasm and occasionally quirky humour were the first thing you encountered at the front desk -- explaining how PyCon UK had changed her life. Arriving at her first PyCon two years ago in Coventry, she was hugely nervous and didn't know how she'd manage to interact with other people. By the end of that conference she was so much more confident that she put herself forward for the organising committee for the next PyCon UK.

Of course there were keynote speakers, talks, workshops, and lightning talks: the bread and butter of the Conference. I picked up useful information for Big Data handling, consuming public transport APIs, making use of Postgresql and other bits and pieces, all of which will be helpful to me at work and elsewhere. Add to all that the "Hallway Track" where you just find yourself in fruitful conversations with people in between times, in the dining hall and so on.

The 5-minute Lightning Talks have always been a popular slot at the end of each day of the conference. This year, rather than just have people sign up on a whiteboard which tends to favour those in the know, we offered a bucket lottery where 5 cards would be pulled out of each of two buckets each lunchtime. One bucket was for first-time speakers, the other for everyone else. This worked well and we had the usual wonderful variety of subjects, including Python as a model sailboat controller, baking brownies, how to give good talks, a guide to saving someone's life, a guide to Mental Health First Aid and many others.

Well this is longer than I'd intended, and there is so much more that could be said, but it's difficult to capture the atmosphere and the enjoyment without having being there. Even now there's still a background buzz around how this year turned out and what we might do even better next year. I understand that there'll be a feedback form fairly soon. Or you can just contact the organisers. Above all, don't shy away from robust criticism. I've been very positive above and I've heard good things from other people. But if something didn't work for you, please say so and explain why.