PyConUK 2017

“Could you find a conference a bit closer and a bit cheaper?”

In 2007, the company I was working for at the time was concerned about the cost to send its four backend developers all the way to Lithuania for EuroPython. We weren’t aware of a UK Python conference at the time, but we had a dig around and was surprised to discover such a conference in Birmingham that year and at a price that didn’t bring tears to the IT department budget manager. It was fortuitous in many ways, because this was the debut of PyConUK thanks to a man called John Pinner and his crew of volunteers.

Ten years later, I’ve been to every PyConUK and in all seriousness it’s something I arrange my year’s plans around: the dates are pencilled into the calendar as soon as known, and I’m usually poised ready the moment tickets go on sale. The late, great John Pinner’s legacy continues in safe hands with a dedicated team of volunteers who always manage to deliver a very slick and professional conference. PyConUK is truly a community event, warm and welcoming to all, and it feels like family.

This was the second year in Cardiff, and the venue of Cardiff City Hall has proved to be a magnificent setting, with plenty of space and lots of rooms for talks, workshops, a creche, a quiet room, poster sessions, sponsor stalls, and refreshments. Within easy walking distance is the centre of Cardiff, the castle, museum, and beautiful park land for those moments when you want to pop out for some fresh air or a change of scene.

I’ve spoken three times at the conference so far, but I decided to give speaking a miss this year (although see later) and contribute by assisting the Django Girls workshop on the Thursday, organised by Ann Barr. I’ve been meaning to get more involved with Django Girls for a while, as it’s an important and successful project for encouraging more people to explore programming and web development.

My team of three women came from different backgrounds, and together we went through the tutorial at our own pace – culminating in deploying our creations to a free PythonAnywhere hosting account. It was great fun, and it wasn’t just the team that learnt some new things: I discovered some myself! I will definitely be coaching again next year.

Friday saw me back amongst the main conference. I must admit, I try to go to as many talks as possible and the schedule this year was particularly difficult to manage because of all the great talks happening at the same time. This is definitely a good thing. One of the things I love about PyConUK is that it covers such a wide range of topics: this year we had dedicated tracks for PyData and Education (the latter has formed an important part of the conference in recent years). As a result, it’s very easy to find yourself discovering something new and interesting outside your particular field or interests, and a great way of cross-pollinating between disciplines. Hmm, did I really just say that?

For me, Friday was quite a broad day. I learnt about using open data for trains and the underground, a topic close to my heart as a frustrated commuter. Lorna Mitchell sold the idea of serverless to me, although I still loathe the term. I discovered that there is a collection of telescopes around the world that anyone can control remotely, subject to availability, and the inner space geek in me now wants to book time on it (especially as I’m taking an astronomy course next year). I heard about the Met Office’s system for scheduling cyclical workflows, and pondered on how it could help with various tasks at work. David Jones helped revived a teenage interest in Forth and assembly language. Julie MacDonnell gave a wonderful talk on coding with compassion. And finally, I learnt how to troll machine learning systems, which might prove to be a valuable skill if we end up with a robot apocalypse.

I took Saturday a bit easier, especially as it was the day after the conference dinner and my hotel overlooked the hedonistic delights of Cardiff city centre. I didn’t even have a drink that night either! I ended up taking in some knowledge on lazy evaluation in Python; Pandas (which I have started using at work); and Meg Ray’s talk on Accessible Python Instruction. As the proud uncle of an autistic nephew, as well as a qualified adaptive snowsports instructor, accessibility is something very close to my heart and the talk was very useful, not just for educators.

Speaking of education, it was the kids’ day and we were all treated to a show and tell of what all the kids had been working on during their workshop. As I said before, the education track has been a key part of the conference for a few years now, thanks to the efforts of Nicholas Tollervey, Carrie-Anne, and Cat Lamin. It’s always a highlight of the conference seeing the kids presenting their work, and I’m not kidding when I say it has been inspiring even for an old developer such as myself.

Saturday evening was board game night, which was such a great event and hopefully will be back next year.

Sunday was the last “conferencey” day of the conference. Husband and wife Kushal and Anwesha Das took us through their experiences of Python education and community in India for the keynote. I learnt a few things about code analysis; as well as survival analysis in machine learning. In a weird moment of cross-pollination, although intended for medical trials, I saw some odd similarities with medical trials and my main area of property data during the survival analysis talk. Go figure.

Cat Lamin probably claims the prize for the most emotional talk of conference as she gave one of two talks that day on mental health and discussed her experiences with depression. Chad gave us the other talk, with reference to mental health in the workplace and how to make changes to our working environment that can have a big impact. This is something that doesn’t get discussed enough. The subject of mental health first aid was mentioned, which dovetailed nicely with my lightning talk later that day on the very same subject. It was really good to see mental health being discussed openly, and a great example of the breadth of the conference.

This year was the introduction of the John Pinner awards, a way to bring much needed recognition to those within the community who have made significant contributions. I must admit, I had a bit of a tear in my eye as John’s wife Sheila spoke about John at the beginning.

Monday was the sprints day, a chance to hack on various projects. I usually go in with an open mind and see what’s available. A few years ago, I ended up contributing to the Python 3 codebase which was a great experience. This year, I took the opportunity to try some machine learning using house price data… which was interesting because my full-time job involves property data and I’m just learning about ML! I was introduced to Kaggle, which is a site dedicated to various big data and machine learning challenges. I was a bit out of my depth at the sprint, but everyone was really helpful and it gave me lots of ideas and areas to explore.

And that concluded the conference. Once again, a big thank you to everyone who made it another excellent and successful conference, especially all the many volunteers who contribute a huge chunk of their time to make sure everything happens. I will hopefully see you all again next year.

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