Speaking at conferences is a great way for tech professionals to meet others, share their stuff, and travel to new places. It’s hard but rewarding work for speakers. I’ve been fortunate to have many speaking opportunities in the past few years. However, there is a hot-button issue in the speakership world: the “pay-to-speak” controversy. I’d like to offer my perspective on the matter.
What is Pay-To-Speak?
Have you ever wondered how speaking at conferences works? Conference organizers announce a “call-for-proposals” several weeks before the conference date. Potential speakers submit their proposals for talks, which often include an elevator pitch, an outline with time estimates, and personal information. Organizers will then invite the speakers with the best proposals to the conference.
Now, here’s the big question: Who covers the speaker’s costs? Conference travel isn’t free. Speakers will need transportation, a hotel room, meals, and other incidentals. Many speakers will also need to take time off from their day jobs to attend the conference. Some conferences will generously pay for their speakers’ travel-related expenses, either through reimbursements or a stipend. However, others are “pay-to-speak,” for which conferences do not cover any speaker travel costs. Speakers must ask their employers to sponsor them or, in the worst case, pay out of pocket. (For clarity, pay-to-speak does not mean that a speaker must pay the conference a fee for the privilege of speaking, at least not that I have seen.)
The pay-to-speak model can cause serious problems:
It can devalue the hard work speakers do to deliver captivating talks. Speakers essentially work for someone else without getting paid. They take several hours away from regular work and family time.
It can cause tension between speakers and their employers. A speaker will probably ask their manager to give both time off and travel reimbursement. That can be a tough conversation. It might involve office politics. Not every employer is thrilled to send their people to expensive conferences.
It can put a financial burden on speakers. If an employer won’t cover costs, then the speaker must pay out of pocket, which could force the speaker to make hard sacrifices.
Less-privileged speakers may need to decline invitations because they cannot afford to pay the travel costs themselves. That’s tragic and unfair.
These are real problems. As a result, many popular speakers boycott pay-to-speak conferences. Some conferences proudly advertise that they are not pay-to-speak. I won’t copy any hot tweets here, but just follow the #PayToSpeak hashtag on Twitter to see some. There are some strong words out there.
An Alternative Perspective
Personally, I love conferences that can cover my travel costs when I’m a speaker. It certainly eases my financial burden. I also think that for-profit conferences should not only cover speaker travel costs but also pay speakers for their presentations. However, the pay-to-speak model is not inherently evil. There are situations for which pay-to-speak is, in my opinion, a good model for conferences. Look no further than the Python conferences.
Python is one of the world’s most popular programming languages right now. Python is unique among programming languages because it is developed and supported entirely by the community. It is free, open-source software. The Python core developers, the people who “make” the language, are all volunteers. The Python Software Foundation (PSF) is a non-profit organization that holds the intellectual rights to Python. Python does not have a company behind it like Java (Oracle), C# (Microsoft), Go (Google), or Swift (Apple). Companies certainly support Python development and events, and a few individuals are employed by such efforts, but Python is nevertheless an independent, not-for-profit endeavor.
The best way to engage the Python community is through Python conferences. The biggest one is PyCon, held annually at different locations in North America. There are several other PyCons throughout the world, and the United States has many “regional” Python conferences like PyOhio and PyGotham. I’ve attended quite a few in recent years.
All the Python conferences I know are pay-to-speak. However, they are also non-profit. There’s no company making money off the conferences. The organizers are volunteers. Everything is financed through ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and donations. The PSF also gives support. PyCon’s very tagline is, “By the community, for the community.”
Furthermore, Python conferences deliberately seek to keep registration prices low so that the conferences can be accessible to as many people as possible. That means costs must be kept low. Any conference needs money to run – lots of money. Speaker travel is a huge financial cost for a conference. Do the math: if a conference has 50 speakers, and each speaker needs about $2,000 for travel expenses, then the total cost is about $100,000! That’s enough to make any volunteer organizer lose sleep. Choosing a pay-to-speak model helps keep costs low.
As a result, registration prices for Python conferences are very affordable. Below are individual rates for 2019 conferences:
PyCon 2019: $400
DjangoCon 2019: $595
PyColorado 2019: $125
PyGotham 2019: $150
PyOhio 2019: free
Alternatively, there are for-profit conferences that charge thousands of dollars for their tickets.
Many Python conferences also offer financial aid grants to speakers and attendees who need assistance covering travel and registration costs. If an accepted speaker cannot afford to come on their own, they can probably get assistance. Many Python conferences also stagger ticket costs between educational, individual, and corporate tiers so that individuals paying out of pocket have less burden that those whose companies cover their costs. Simply put, if you want to go to a Python conference near you, then cost should not be a barrier.
Personally, I have no problem with Python’s pay-to-speak conferences. When I speak at Python conferences, I treat it as my service to the community – much like how others contribute code to open-source projects. The Python community has given much more to me than I could pay back, so instead, I’m happy to pay it forward. And the ones who “profit” from Python conferences are ultimately the ones who attend.
The pay-to-speak controversy is a complex issue. No side offers a perfect solution. What’s right or wrong is not the pay-to-speak model itself but rather the intention behind the decision to be pay-to-speak. If a conference seeks to profit from a speaker’s labor, then the speaker should be paid as with any business transaction. However, if a conference is truly a non-profit endeavor with benevolent intentions and a genuine inclusion strategy, then pay-to-speak might be okay.
When I was a kid, I was an enthusiastic Boy Scout. And every year, I looked forward to summer camp. For one full week, I would have a mini-adventure in the woods with my friends while earning new ranks and developing new skills. Summer camp was the highlight of every summer. As an adult, this is exactly how I feel about PyCon.
PyCon 2019 was my second time at PyCon. While I doubt any conference will ever have the same impact on me as my first PyCon, my second one was nevertheless every bit as good. I had a phenomenal experience. As always, I like to capture my reflections in an article so that I never forget the wonderful times I had. Here’s my story.
PyCon 2018 was a career-changing experience for me. I felt it at the time, and I can validate it now a year later. PyCon 2018 was my first serious engagement with the Python community. PyCon 2018 inspired me to speak at other conferences. PyCon 2018 introduced me to friends I still have today. As soon as PyCon 2018 ended, I knew that I needed to return for PyCon 2019.
Between 2018 and 2019, PrecisionLender (my employer) started doing much more Python work, especially in our data analytics division. I got approval from my manager to go to PyCon, but I also knew that others in the data division would benefit from PyCon as well. When I suggested the idea to the VP, he replied with one line: “Let’s do this thing!” With his blessing, I convinced four other PrecisionLender-ers to join me: Adam, Henry, Joe, and Raff.
I’m so thankful PrecisionLender approved our trips. Going with other friends from my company boosted not only my excitement for the conference but also my desire to learn new things. I’m proud to represent a company that supports its employees so well.
Good conferences are good but exhausting. They cram hundreds of adrenalized people into back-to-back activities requiring deep focus for hours at a time and for consecutive days. Amidst the mania, it is crucial to pace oneself. My friend Kojo sums this up perfectly in what he calls the “self care sprint.” It’s okay to step back to catch your breath. It’s vital to one’s mental health to take breaks, rest, and recover, especially at conferences as intense as PyCon.
Heeding Kojo’s advice, I took a #SelfCareSprint on the day before PyCon tutorials began. How so? I spent my afternoon at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which exhibits pieces from around the world dating from ancient times through the present day. Make no mistake: the Cleveland Museum of Art is world-class. In addition to their permanent collections, they had a special exhibit on Shinto artifacts from Japan. I barely had enough time to walk through all the galleries. What I did see impressed me, inspired me, and challenged me. Some pieces even spoke deeply to my soul.
The dichotomy of art and technology balance each other. Exploring pieces of art and the viewpoints they represent helped me center myself. I could clear my mind in preparation for the conference. I gained rest and recovery. I am human, after all.
PyCon 2019 hosted two days of tutorials before the main conference. Whereas talks are thirty minutes long and open to anyone, tutorials are three-hour sessions that require preregistration for limited seats. Tutorials are meant for hand-on learning with expert instructors. I had never attended tutorials at a conference before, and so this time, I wanted to try.
My first tutorial was Writing About Python (Even When You Hate Writing) by Thursday Bram. Since I do lots of blogging (and I ultimately want to write a book), I wanted to get first-hand advice on technical writing in the Python ecosystem. Thursday gave great advice on writing techniques and gotchas. The most valuable takeaway was her proofreading checklist. Her tutorial also inspired me to do something cool later in the conference. (Keep reading!)
My second tutorial was To trust or test? Automated testing of scientific projects with pytest. Unfortunately, this tutorial wasn’t right for me. I thought it would be about testing within data science, but it turned out to be a basic walkthrough of pytest. I didn’t learn any new material. What I did learn, though, was that I should be pickier with tutorials – I had to pay in advance, and I couldn’t just walk out to another talk.
My third tutorial was Escape from auto-manual testing with Hypothesis! by Zac Hatfield-Dodds. Hypothesis, a property-based testing tool, is hot right now. I first learned about it at the previous year’s PyCon, and I always wanted to learn more. Zac provided not only helpful lectures but a rigorous set of examples for us to complete. Hypothesis also works seamlessly with pytest. Zac made be a believer: Hypothesis is awesome! I need to spend more time learning it on my own.
As always, the talks were on point. I didn’t attend as many talks this year because I was too busy in the “hallway track,” but there were quite a few noteworthy ones that I attended.
In Don’t be a robot, build the bot, Mariatta showed how she and the Python core developers automated their GitHub workflow with the help of useful bots. It was cool to see how mundane processes can be automated away and how much more efficient teams can become.
In Break the Cycle: Three excellent Python tools to automate repetitive tasks, Thea Flowers showed how to use tox, nox, and Invoke to automate just about anything in Python. I’ll definitely refer back to this talk for testing.
In ¡Escuincla babosa!: Creating a telenovela script in three Python deep learning frameworks, Lorena Mesa showed us how serious machine learning can also be used for fun projects. Although the telenovela script she generated was short and humorous, it clearly proved that ML can get the job done.
In Scraping a Million Pokemon Battles: Distributed Systems By Example, Duy Nguyen showed how he scraped data from competitive Pokémon battles to level the playing field for new players. In the process, he developed a pretty slick distributed systems setup!
In Shipping your first Python package and automating future publishing, Chris Wilcox showed best practices on building and releasing Python packages. This talk was well-timed for me – I’ll definitely use this info for a current pet project of mine.
Dependency hell: a library author’s guide by Yanhui Li and Brian Quinlan will also be a great resource when considering dependencies for packages.
In to GIL or not to GIL: the Future of Multi-Core (C)Python, Eric Snow showed his thoughts for how to fix problems with the GIL and true multi-core processing.
In The Perils of Inheritance: Why We Should Prefer Composition, Ariel Ortiz made clear the nasty side effects inheritance can have and how composition is often a much better approach. The talk was fairly introductory, but I couldn’t agree more.
The expo hall was full of companies and organizations. The swankiest booths this year were:
Capital One – the Guido portrait and puzzle and the Zen of Python wall
Jetbrains – content developer tables for PyBites, Real Python, and others
Microsoft – four interactive Azure stations + active lab tables
However, my favorite company in the expo hall, hands down, was The Pokémon Company International. Their table was small and easily overlooked, but every time I passed by, it was packed. Everyone loves Pokémon! I got to meet a few of their engineers and managers. Apparently, they do much of their backend in Python. They’re also growing quite a lot. They were raffling off a giant Pikachu, and one of the engineers even developed a Google Home app that would make Pikachu respond whenever someone spoke to it! It was so charming to see them there. I’m glad that things are going well for Pokémon.
If you don’t overfill your swag bag, then you’re doing PyCon wrong. This year’s haul was as good as last year’s. I walked away with:
A deck of cards with the Zen of Python from Capital One
An artistic deck of playing cards from Heroku
16 packs of Pokémon cards
A JetBrains yo-yo
A few pairs of sunglasses
Water bottles from DoorDash, Wayfair, and Citadel
A guide to building Slack apps
The best t-shirt award goes to Microsoft for their Visual Studio Code shirt, with honorable mentions for LinkedIn and SmartBear. I also shared a good amount of this swag with my coworkers at PrecisionLender.
Cleveland (and greater Ohio) are renowned for craft breweries. Every time I return to Ohio, I’m always delighted by the beers I discover. I spent many lunches and dinners with a flight set on the side. Here’s where I went:
Hofbräuhaus Cleveland, twice! (I even bought the souvenir Maßkrug!)
Masthead Brewing Company
Noble Beast Brewing Company
Southern Tier Brewing Company
Great Lakes Brewing Company
The best was the Lichtenhainer from Noble Beast – a sour that tasted like a ham sandwich on sourdough. The worst was the “shampoo beer” from Southern Tier – did they forget to rinse the lines after cleaning them?
Back at PyCon 2018, I met an Aussie by the name of Julian Sequeira, co-founder of PyBites. We hit it off. In fact, meeting Julian is one of the reasons why I continue to engage the Python community today. Through Julian, I met other friends like Jason Wattier, Brian Okken, Cristian Medina, and many others. Leading up to PyCon 2019, Julian organized a BIG dinner at Great Lakes Brewing Company for a bunch of Python content developers: PyBites, Real Python, Python Bytes, Test & Code, tryexceptpass, and Automation Panda (me!). Not only was it a time of sweet reunion, but I finally got to meet others like Bob Belderbos, Michael Kennedy, and David Amos in person. One of the best parts of the dinner was when a few of us chose to walk back to the hotels over the bridge instead of calling taxis. The night was cold, but the experience was worth every second.
Sadly, I did not get to deliver a full talk or tutorial at PyCon 2019. Believe me, I submitted. But that didn’t stop me from trying – there’s always one more chance with lightning talks! One exercise during the Writing About Python tutorial was to pitch a lightning talk idea. At the time, I struggled to come up with a good topic. I first considered something about testing or being a tester, but those ideas just didn’t feel right. Then, I struck gold: what about giving helpful tips for blogging, based on my experiences with Automation Panda?
I put my idea on the call-for-lightning-talk-proposals on Saturday morning: “3 Quick Tips for Software Blogging.” When I didn’t receive any notification by lunchtime, I thought my pitch had been rejected. Then, while chilling in the quiet room at 3pm, I received an email: “Congrats! You’re giving your lightning talk today at 5pm!” Excitement, then panic, took over. I threw some slides together, rehearsed them in my head, and marched myself to the main auditorium. My lightning talk was second in queue, and I delivered it like a BOSS!
Ever since my first PyCon, I’ve dreamed about having a Python conference in the Carolinas. There was a PyCarolinas 2012 and a PyData Carolinas 2016, but both were one-hit wonders. My dream remained in my back pocket until PyCon 2019.
While meandering the expo hall on Friday, I ran into Tim Hopper and Brian Corbin, two friends who were also from the Carolinas. We talked about lots of things, but one point of discussion was about relaunching PyCarolinas. Later, Dustin Ingram, chair of PyTexas, tweeted that there would be a conference organizer’s open space on Saturday. I asked if I could join because of my PyCarolinas dreams, and he said absolutely yes. Brian and I both attended, made connections, and got tons of helpful information.
Dustin then asked me if I’d like to include a slide for PyCarolinas in the “regional conference parade” on Sunday morning after the lightning talks. Heck yeah! PyCarolinas was the very last slide as a call-to-action: We have a dream; come help us make it real!
At 10am on Sunday, I held an open space to talk about (re)launching PyCarolinas. 26 people came! We got everyone’s info, created a Slack room, and started throwing around ideas. In the week after the conference, over a hundred people signed up for our Slack room. The excitement is palpable. Our goal is to host PyCarolinas in summer of 2020 for 150+ people. I’m so thankful I got the opportunity to be the spark that lit this wildfire, on such a big stage.
Together with my blog, I use my Twitter handle @AutomationPanda for professional development. Twitter is especially helpful during conferences for communicating with friends and sharing experiences. During PyCon 2019, I crossed a big milestone: I hit over 1000 followers! That was cool.
I also made my first viral tweet, thanks to a sticker from Facebook:
If you read these reflections down this far, thank you. Seriously, I mean it.
The best part about PyCon 2019 for me was the time I spent with my friends.
PyCon 2019 was a high point for friendships. Everyone I knew was there. I couldn’t walk for 10 minutes around the convention center without running into someone I knew. I feel like I’m truly part of the Python community now. Here were just a few highlights:
Going there with my PL team: Adam, Henry, Joe, and Raff.
German dinner and souvenir Maßkrugs with Adam at Hofbräuhaus.
“Shampoo” beer with Joe and Adam at Southern Tier.
Snagging Pokémon cards on opening night with Mason Egger, and then running into Jason Wattier on the way.
Ramen dinner and Hilton rooftop drinks with the PL crew plus Mason.
Impromptu lunch with Adrienne so she could share the awesome things she’s accomplishing.
PyOhio 2018 was a free Python conference hosted at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH from July 28-29. I had the pleasure of not only attending but also speaking at PyOhio, and my company, PrecisionLender, graciously covered my travel expenses. I had a great time. Here’s my retrospective on the conference.
The main reason I went to PyOhio was because I was honored to be a speaker. When I was at an Instagram dinner at PyCon 2018, I met a few conference organizers who encouraged me to propose talks at other Python conferences. On a whim the next morning, I spitballed an idea for a talk about building a test automation solution from the ground up in Python. After talking with a number of people, I realized how test automation is such a struggle everywhere. I took inspiration from Ying Li’s keynote and crafted a story about how Amanda the Panda, a Bamboozle employee, becomes a test automation champion. And, BOOM! My talk proposal was accepted for PyOhio and PyGotham! The video recording for my talk, “Egad! How Do We Start Writing (Better) Tests?”, is below:
Good news: Raleigh and Columbus have direct flights. Bad news: they are either early-morning or late-night direct flights. So, I left Raleigh on Friday morning before the conference and spent the day in Columbus. Surprisingly, the security line at RDU wrapped around 2/3 of the Terminal 2 perimeter, but I still boarded the flight on time. Once I landed in Columbus, I took the COTA AirConnect bus downtown for the low price of $2.75.
My goal for Friday was personal development. I rarely get a chance to escape the rigors of everyday life to focus on myself. Personal retreats let me clear my mind, dream big, and begin taking action. And on this day, I started writing my first test automation book – a dream I’ve held for over a year now. I spent a few hours at Wolf’s Ridge Brewery, sampling beers with lunch as I developed a rough outline for my project.
First flight of the conference!
Lunch at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing
Taps at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing
My evening was low-key. I took a nap at my hotel, the Blackwell Inn and Pfahl Conference Center. For dinner, I ate at White Castle for the first time – and it was pretty darn good. After practicing my talk, I got a tiramisu bubble tea from Vivi as a night cap.
My first White Castle experience
The notes for my talk
Vivi Bubble Tea
Tiramisu bubble tea
PyOhio was a much smaller conference than PyCon. There were fewer vendor tables but nevertheless a wide selection of stellar talks. As a result, the conference felt more intimate and more focused. Perhaps that feeling was due also to the venue: the third floor of the Ohio Union had full rooms with “cozy” hallways. Hats off to the organizers, too – everything ran smoothly and professionally.
The doors to the Ohio Union
I met Brutus Buckeye!
OSU campus view from my hotel room
As soon as I arrived, I scored my name badge, my swag bag, and my official PyOhio 2018 t-shirt. The opening keynote from Adrienne Lowe, “From Support to Engineering and Beyond: What to Take with You, and What to Leave Behind,” about the highs and lows of trying to make it as a developer was exceptionally inspiring. Engineers often don’t talk about how hard the job is, especially for newcomers to the industry. Everybody suffers from imposter syndrome. Everybody feels inadequate. Everybody is tempted to quit, even to the point of tears. The vulnerability in hearing others say, “Me, too,” is so relatable and so relieving.
The first talk-talk I attended was Trey Hunner’s “Easier Classes: Python Classes Without All the Cruft.” Trey gave an excellent overview of writing more sophisticated Python classes. TL;DR: upgrade to 3.7 and use dataclasses.
The next talk I attended was Leo Guinan’s “Go with the Flow: Automating Your Workflows with Airflow.” Apache Airflow is a platform for automating workflows. As an automationeer, it struck me as being like a continuous integration system generalized for non-build purposes. The Q&A portion of the talk was lit.
After finding an authentic Chinese restaurant for lunch, my friend Matt arrived! I worked with Matt in the testing space at LexisNexis. He drove all the way from Dayton to see my talk and hang out. We spent the early afternoon catching up, and we went to Hook Hearted Brewing for dinner after the conference because we’re beer buddies. I was so thankful he came to support me – it meant a lot!
Roast duck soup
Menus like this means the food is legit
Moar bubal tee!
My talk was at 3:45pm. Other than discovering my Thunderbolt-to-HDMI adapter was a dud, the talk went very well. I decided to stick to a script for this talk because most of it followed a story, and I’m glad I did. (For my PyCon talk, I chose instead to speak without a script and rely instead on the slides alone.) There were about 30 people in the audience. Many expressed appreciation for my presentation!
Prepping for my talk
Hoof Hearted Rose Gose
Hoof Hearted Wangbar
Tacos at Hoof Hearted Brewery
The last talk of the day for me was Jace Browning’s “Automated Regression Testing with Splinter and Jupyter.” It was the perfect follow-up to my talk. Whereas mine was mostly high-level, Jace showed implementation and execution. I loved how he compared raw Selenium WebDriver calls to splinter calls, and I was thrilled to see hands-on test execution using Jupyter. One of the things that makes Python so great for automation is that modules can be called from the interpreter – and Jupyter notebooks make that so easy.
The Second Day
Sunday was a shorter conference day. The opening keynote, Lorena Mesa’s “Now is better than Never: What the Zen of Python can teach us about Data Ethics,” didn’t start until 11:40am. Lorena showed us what the Zen of Python can teach us about data ethics in a scary, modern world.
I got lunch at Chatime: dan dan noodles (or rather, an imitation thereof) and a matcha latte with grass jelly. Yum! After lunch, I attended Daniel Lindeman’s “Python in Serverless Architectures.” Now I know what the buzzword “serverless” means! I even found out that I had already developed a serverless app using Django and Heroku. There are some really cool ways test automation could take advantage of serverless architectures.
Another one of my favorite talks of the afternoon was Vince Salvino’s “Containers Without the Magic.” Vince broke down how easy containers are to use. It was a great refresher for me.
At 3:15 on Sunday, I tried something new: I hosted an open space for test automation. “Open spaces” are rooms that can be reserved for a time slot to meet up informally about a common interest. (For example, PyCon had a juggling open space!) At first, nobody showed up to my open space, but after a few minutes, one lady walked in. She had been a software tester for years and wanted to start doing automation. I walked her through as much info as I could before time was up. She was very grateful for the guidance I offered. It worked out nicely that she was the only person to come to my open space so that she could really get value out of it. (My friend Jason also popped in and helped out; more on him below.)
The open space room
Dan dan noodles and bubble tea for lunch
At conferences, my biggest fear is being awkwardly alone. I want to spend time with good people, both new and familiar. Thankfully, PyOhio didn’t disappoint.
Backstory: At PyCon 2018, I met a guy named Julian who runs PyBites (together with his buddy Bob). We really hit it off, and he invited me to join the PyBites community. They offer great code challenges and a “100 Days of Code” challenge course, as well as a blog about all things Python. Through the PyBites community, I met another guy named Jason who would be at PyOhio 2018 with me. We agreed to meet up for dinner and drinks after the Sunday talks.
(On a side note, I recommend PyBites as a great place to learn new things, hone skills, and meet great people!)
That Sunday night, it just so happened that Adrienne and Trey, two of the other speakers, intersected Jason and me as we were deciding where to go for dinner. The next thing we know (after a hotel pitstop), we’re all walking off together to Eden Burger, a local vegan burger joint. I had a vegan “cheeseburger” with fries and a “milkshake” – and they were genuinely delicious! More than the food, I enjoyed my time with new friends. I was really inspired by the cool things each of them is doing. I guess that’s Python conference magic!
Jason and I hit World of Beer after dinner. After Slack-ing for weeks, it was so good to spend time with this fine gent. We discussed Python, software, our careers, our families, and our dreams. What a perfect way to conclude PyOhio 2018!
From left to right: Jason, Adrienne, Trey, and me! (Photo credit: Jason)
Tree-hugger vegan cups
Celebration beer flight for a successful PyOhio 2018!
There were so many takeaways from PyOhio 2018 for me:
Conferences are phenomenal for professional development. The pulse I get from conferences is electrifying. I walked away from PyOhio galvanized to be an even better software engineer. The talks opened up exciting new ideas. Inspiration for several blog posts sprang forward. The people I met motivated me to try new things. I got so much vigor out of such a short time.
My friends around the globe are awesome. Matt, Jason, Adrienne, Trey, Julian (vicariously), and all the other great people I met at PyOhio made my conference experience so rewarding.
Good values foster wonderful communities. My company, PrecisionLender, has four major values: Be helpful, humble, honest, and human. Those values make my company such a great place to work. I see those same values in the Python community, too. People at PyOhio even asked about these values when they saw them on my PL shirt and my business card. I think that’s partially why Python conferences are always so welcoming and inspiring.
Bigger conferences have more pizzazz, while smaller conferences are more intimate. PyCon 2018 was big, flashy, and awesome. I scored so much swag that I nearly couldn’t fit it all in my suitcase to carry home. PyOhio 2018, on the other hand, focused much more intently on the talks and the people. A perfect example of this was Leo Guinan’s monologue-turned-dialogue on Airflow: it was natural for people to just ask questions. Both types of conferences are good in their own ways.
PyCon 2018 was likely a watershed moment for my career. I cannot reflect on PyOhio 2018 without seeing it as an extension of my PyCon 2018 experience. The only reason I attended PyOhio was because someone at PyCon encouraged me to propose a talk. The reason I met Jason is because I first met Julian. The reason I want to keep speaking is because PyCon went so well for me. The fact that both conferences were hosted in Ohio only two months apart is also rather serendipitous. Like my first trip to China, I think PyCon 2018 will have a lasting impact on my career.
By the Numbers: Python Community Trends in 2017/2018 (Dmitry Filippov, Ewa Jodlowska) – At the end of 2017, the Python Software Foundation teamed up with JetBrains to conduct an official Python Developers Survey. Data science is taking Python by storm, and Python 3 now has majority adoption. There are tons of other cool statistics, too!
How Netflix does failovers in 7 minutes flat (Amjith Ramanujam) – That speed at that scale is mind-blowing. This is a fascinating talk, even for non-engineers!
Solve Your Problem With Sloppy Python (Larry Hastings) – “If you ever start writing a shell script, delete it and write a Python script instead.” This talk is a jovial reminder that Python is a powerful tool, even for hack-n-slash jobs.
The AST and Me (Emily Morehouse-Valcarcel) – Emily gives a great overview of the inner workings of the Python language. This talk is a must-see for anyone into compiler theory.
Dataclasses: The code generator to end all code generators (Raymond Hettinger) – Dataclasses are new data structures to Python to generate classes based on specs.
Pipenv: the Future of Python Dependency Management (Kenneth Reitz) – Pipenv is a new tool that makes pip, Pipfile, and virtualenv easier to use together. Kenneth gives a good overview of Python packaging and why pipenv is awesome.
Type-checked Python in the real world (Carl Meyer) – Sometimes, I wish Python had static typing. Now, it can! Facebook has done some innovative things to make it possible.
Beyond Unit Tests: Taking Your Testing to the Next Level (Hillel Wayne) – Property tests + contracts = integration tests. Hillel gives a fantastic strategy for making tests smarter.
“WHAT IS THIS MESS?” – Writing tests for pre-existing code bases (Justin Crown) – This is a pragmatic guide to adding new tests to old code. Now, you’ll never procrastinate on your tests again!
Demystifying the Patch Function (Lisa Roach) – Mocking is a great practice for limiting scope in unit tests. Whether using unittest.mock or other patching/mocking packages, this is a great talk for learning why and how to do mocking in unit tests!
Automating Code Quality (Kyle Knapp) – One of Python’s most beloved traits is its elegance. Maintaining high standards of code quality can be challenging for large projects, though. Kyle shows how to use existing tools to drive higher quality.
Keynote (Ying Li) – [35:07] – Ying is a software security engineer at Docker. In her keynote, she urged all people involved in technology to learn the basics of security. Definitely watch the video recording – she used a fun story to illustrate her points.
Keynote: The People and Python (Qumisha Goss) – [1:07:35] – “Q” is a librarian at the Detroit Public Library who taught herself Python so she could teach coding classes to kids. She shared the highs and lows of her experiences, especially in light of many disadvantages her students had. My favorite takeaway was to “cultivate greatness in others.”
The main reason I went to PyCon 2018 was to deliver a talk entitled “Behavior-Driven Python” about behave, one of Python’s most popular BDD test automation frameworks. One of my major professional goals for 2018 was to speak at a conference – and any conference would do. Fortunately for me, PyCon accepted my proposal, and Piper Companies in Raleigh graciously footed the bill! The video recording for my talk is linked below. It also has a GitHub example project and a companion article. (I’ll write a separate article with links to other talks I enjoyed.)
PyCon 2018 was held in Cleveland, Ohio. I had never been to Cleveland before, and I found the downtown area to be charming. Everything I needed was within walking distance: the Huntington Convention Center where the conference was held, the DoubleTree by Hilton on Lakeside Ave where I stayed, the skyline, the city hall, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Great Lakes Science Center, and Lake Erie itself.
The Huntington Convention Center, where PyCon 2018 took place.
“FREE” stamp sculpture next to city hall.
Cleveland has a nice skyline.
Interesting shot on a bridge near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I flew into Cleveland on the evening of Thursday, May 10. Unfortunately, I missed the opening reception because my Frontier Airlines flight was delayed. (I guess I got what I paid for.) When I arrived, I had only one destination in mind: Great Lakes Brewing Company. Great Lakes has been one of my favorite breweries since I first started drinking craft beer in college. I boarded the Red Line train at the airport and rode it directly to the Ohio City station, where their pub is located. The food and beer did not disappoint!
The Red Line
Delayed flights are never fun.
Great Lakes Brewing Company
GLBC Brats and Pierogies
GLBC Flight Set
Great Lakes Brewing Company
The First Morning
PyCon 2018 had three major phases: tutorials from May 9-10, talks and events from May 11-13, and sprints from May 14-17. I attended only from May 11-13 for the “main” part of the conference. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I was blown away by what I found.
The first thing I did on the first day was registration. I showed up at about 8am to get my badge and my conference t-shirt. The volunteers also handed me a “swag bag,” pre-populated with a map and some random goodies. Since I had my backpack, I didn’t think I would need an extra bag – boy, was I wrong!
The main conference area was an expo hall full of companies and organizations giving away endless freebies, much to my naive surprise. (This was nothing like the last conference I attended, PyData Carolinas 2016.) The major stalls were Microsoft, Amazon (AWS), Google, Facebook/Instagram, LinkedIn, Anaconda, O’Reilly, and Heroku. Others included the Python Software Foundation, Django Girls, JetBrains, Elasticsearch, ChowNow, Yelp, Patreon, Squarespace, Linode, platform.sh, PostgreSQL, Nylas, DigitalOcean, DataDog, Cactus, Six Feet Up, OfferUp, Twilio, Nexmo, Okta, Pluralsight, Zapier, Bloomberg, Shopify, PyBee, EdgeDB, Anvil, and others I can’t remember. Over the three days of main events, I talked with people at nearly every stall to learn about what they do and to score that dank swag. I walked away with twelve t-shirts, five pairs of socks, laminated Python guides, a JetBrains yo-yo, a Google puzzle, Yelp gloves, a Facebook earbuds case, an OfferUp water bottle, a couple koozies, and a countless number of stickers.
The welcome banner at my hotel
All the swag!
The Django Pony at the Django Girls table!
The expo hall entrance
Setting up the expo hall
The talks in Grand Ballroom A. Mine was Friday at 12:10pm!
While waiting for the first keynote address, I ran into Kenneth Reitz at the Python Software Foundation table. Kenneth is the original author of requests and pipenv. It was a pleasure to meet him in person. He also interviewed me for his PyCon 2018 podcast! My segment is at 19:11.
I was about to go to the keynote address when I walked by the O’Reilly stall and discovered a book signing: Harry J.W. Percival was scheduled to give away free signed copies of the second edition of his book, Test-Driven Development with Python. I got my “golden ticket,” waited in line, skipped the keynote, and scored that dankest swag of the conference. O’Reilly was giving out other books throughout the conference, but as a Software Engineer in Test, this one was the big kahuna for me. #worthit
Kenneth Reitz (left) and the Automation Panda (right)
The O’Reilly book signing
My talk, “Behavior-Driven Python,” was scheduled at 12:10pm in Grand Ballroom A. I wasn’t terribly nervous because I had given this sort of talk many times, but I was worried that I would run out of time. Before speakers give their talks, they go to the “green room” where they test projector cables and meet the “runner” who will take them to the auditorium. I got to meet other speakers, which made me feel more comfortable. My talk got off to a delayed start due to some technical difficulties with the projector, but I think it went really well. The ballrooms could each seat several hundred people, and it looked like my talk was fairly well attended. A number of people asked me questions afterwards. Then, I ended up having lunch with a new friend I met named Gabriel, too!
The Rest of Day 1
I spent the rest of the afternoon attending talks, which can be mentally exhausting after too much. However, at the end of the day, I got to spend some sweet time with my dear friend Kennedy from college. Kennedy reached out to me before the conference to let me know that he would be there. I ran into him each day, but we got to spend the most time together sitting outside Ballroom A just catching up on life. We hadn’t seen each other since 2010 at RIT. Kennedy is really getting into software infrastructure and DevOps-like work. It was such a blessing to see him there.
My bro Kennedy sports that Linode shirt like a boss!
Dinner was another fortuitous blessing. ChowNow invited me to dinner and drinks at TownHall. I met their chief product officer, their engineers, and their recruiters. We talked a lot about test automation. They’re in a very similar situation as my current company, PrecisionLender: a hundred people and growing, realizing their need for automated feature tests, and discovering how hard it is to build an automation solution themselves or find someone who can. They were really great people doing awesome things, and I can’t wait to see them grow.
ChowNow also had a fun giveaway challenge. To enter, one needed to hit a REST API endpoint, which then returned further instructions. It was a bit of a puzzle – I got confused for the first few minutes, but after a hearty facepalm I figured out the challenge and successfully submitted my entry. (Python REPL and requests FTW!) The grand prize was an iPad Pro, but I won the consolation prize of $20 in ChowNow bucks. Not bad.
The Second Day
For me, Day 2 at PyCon was almost entirely about talks. The morning keynotes were really inspiring: Ying Li told a great story modeled after the Wizard of Oz about how everyone plays a part in security, and Qumisha Goss shared how she inspires kids at the Detroit public library to get into coding with Python. There were more talks I wanted to attend than I could. I learned about sloppy Python, developing arcade-style games, statistics on Python users, Appium, and compiler tools.
That evening, Instagram invited me to dinner. I thought it would be drinks and appetizers at a bar, like with ChowNow. Oh, no, it was … Let me tell the story. Before PyCon started, Instagram invited me to join them for a special dinner. I think they invited me because I was a speaker. Instagram provided promo codes for a free Lyft to Crop Bistro, one of the best restaurants in the city. It resides in an old bank: marble columns and fresco paintings on the walls. When I arrived, the hostess walked me to the back, down the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the bank’s old vault, which had been converted into a private party room. They served a full three-course meal with a full bar, and it was damn good. That ribeye steak… I met a lot of great people, too. I talked with Instagram’s release manager at length about struggles with test automation. I also got to chat with a number of their engineers (many of whom were from China), as well as other Pythonistas who were invited. It was a wonderful event, and I truly thank Instagram for the invitation.
The Vault at Crop Bistro
A 3-Course Meal!
Also, I want to say that the weather in Cleveland was pretty darn cold! Daily temperatures were in the 50s, while at the same time in Raleigh, they were in the 90s. I froze my ears off walking from the hotel to the convention center!
The Third Day
At the Instagram dinner, I met a few guys who help organize Python conferences. They encouraged me to submit proposals to PyGotham and PyOhio. So, when I woke up on Day 3, I did! Hopefully, my proposals will be accepted.
The Job Fair
Representing PrecisionLender! Someone asked me about the four values on the back of the shirt.
The main event in the morning was the Poster expo / Job Fair. However, since I had already met most of the companies, I spent most of my time at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame instead. I’m a huge fan of rock music. The museum had awesome exhibits with really cool memorabilia. I even got to vote for new inductees – I voted for Iron Maiden! I headed back to PyCon for the afternoon talks, but then I skipped out of the finale to finish seeing all of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibits before the museum closed.
Cliff Burton’s Bass Guitar (Metallica)
The Beatles entry in the Hall of Fame
Outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Angus Young’s Stage Outfit
My original dinner plan was to visit another local brewery. PyCon was hosting an event dinner at the Great Lakes Science Center, but I didn’t register in time to get a ticket. Nevertheless, my friend Kennedy offered me his meal ticket since he was returning home that afternoon. Hashtag-BLESSED. The museum was so cool. My favorite part was the NASA Glenn Visitor Center – they had one of the Apollo Skylab capsules! Many of us Pythonistas built a really tall tower out of wood blocks that we had to knock down once dinner was ready. The food was excellent, too: steak, salmon, mac ‘n cheese, green beans, and cheesecake for dessert.
Apollo Capsule from Skylab
Inside the Mercury Capsule
Apollo Capsule from Skylab
My (Delta) direct flight home left on time Monday morning. I could barely fit all the swag into my suitcase! I caught a cold while attending the conference, but thankfully it didn’t take effect until I was back home.
So much happened at PyCon 2018. Even though I was doing stuff nonstop for three days, there was still so much more there to do. It will take me a few weeks to fully process everything. Here were my major takeaways:
I accomplished my goals. Before going to PyCon, I set three major goals for myself: (1) get a pulse on the state and direction of Python, (2) establish rapport in the community, and (3) become inspired to pursue greater work. CHECK! I met a lot of great people who all love using Python. A number of people really enjoyed my talk. I learned how so many groups, from top-tier Silicon Valley companies to local user orgs, are using Python to do cool stuff. There are also now just as many data scientists as web developers using Python. Seeing Python used in so many different domains really inspired me to learn more about those domains in which my knowledge is limited. I feel like I have more work to do after the conference than I did to prepare for it!
The Python community is so welcoming and friendly. When PyCon’s banner says, “For the community, by the community,” it’s true. This conference was about people much more than it was about programming. I was initially afraid that I would be lonely because I didn’t know anyone, but once I got there, everyone was outgoing; even me! Python is a language for everyone from beginners to experts, and there was no sense of elitism whatsoever at the conference. The atmosphere reminded me very much of freshman orientation week at RIT, when total strangers would strike up conversations and bestow well-wishes at every turn.
All companies have major test automation struggles. There is a universal awareness of the need for good testing, but there is also universal struggle to develop reliable feature tests at scale. Knowing that companies like Facebook/Instagram and ChowNow have problems similar to companies where I have worked gives me boosted motivation as a Software Engineer in Test to keep going!
Never write shell scripts. Just write Python scripts. Yes! This came from the “sloppy Python” talk. It’s so true. Shell scripting is so low-level and often unreadable. Plus, Python is cross-platform!
Flask is a big deal. Flask is a minimalist Pythonic web framework. It is a lightweight alternative to Django and Pyramid. Everyone was talking about it. O’Reilly was giving away books about it.
Prep for PyCon 2019! I want to return to PyCon very much. Next year, I have a better understanding of the talks, so I can make better proposals. I’ll also check out the open spaces and lightning talks. PyCon 2019 will be back in Cleveland, too!
I feel like I have so much more to learn! Here’s what’s next for me:
Watch videos for all the talks I missed.
Come up with a personal professional development plan.