Kiwi PyCon 2013 was held last weekend at AUT in Auckland. This was the first time I’ve been able to attend; although I’ve planned to in previous years, the timing never worked out (even this year was very tight).
I missed Michael’s keynote, unfortunately, and also the first session, because it’s also the end of the winter sports season, and so I had to attend prizegiving that morning. If the conference had been somewhere else, I probably couldn’t have attended at all, but since it was only ~65km from where I live, I could still attend most of the two days.
Next up was Testing and OpenStack. I’m only vaguely familiar with OpenStack, and the abstract is very poor, but I don’t like changing tracks mid-session, and testing is of interest, so this was the talk to attend. Again the presentation was fine, but the talk seemed more novice and less intermediate (some familiarity with OpenStack was assumed, but I don’t consider that means that the talk itself was at an intermediate level). I didn’t really take much away from this.
The final talk in the session was Python and Creative Data Analysis. This was a novice talk, and for someone at novice level, probably well worth attending (it was presented quite well). For someone not a novice, even someone with nearly no matplotlib experience (like me), there wasn’t much to be gained.
For the final session of the day, I started with Dissecting Memory Mysteries of Python. I had a lot of hope for this presentation, because this is an area of interest for me, and practical advice would be really useful for work that I do. It was labelled as an intermediate talk, and I would say that was accurate (but I was probably hoping for more of an experienced level talk). The presentation was ok, but suffered from having two speakers, one of whom spoke too quietly. The talk did cover some of how memory management works in Python, but concentrated too much on reference-cycles for my taste (which I find in practice is never the problem when short on memory), and their practical suggestions for improving memory usage weren’t really that good. For someone with no previous understanding of how Python manages memory, this would probably have been a good talk.
The final talk of the day, Using Cython for distributed-multiprocess steganographic md5sum-collision generation. For… reasons, was the best of the conference. The speaker was excellent – far superior to most of those at the conference, and the talk was entertaining and somewhat informative (mostly entertaining, but that’s exactly what it claimed to be, and those are often the best talks at a conference: pure information is better found elsewhere). The only negative was that the abstract was pretty poor – it doesn’t really reflect what the talk was about at all. If the conference had 5 talks of this quality, I would have no hesitation towards attending again.
The second (or third, if you count the tutorials) day was opened with a keynote by Jessica McKellar. Jessica is a very good speaker, and the topic was suitable for a keynote, especially from someone with her background. Essentially, she was advocating increasing involvement with and usage of Python, and going over what she saw as the key barriers to entry at the moment, and therefore what should be targeted in order to help Python remain popular (her brief explanation of why popular is important was well done). Although I certainly agree with her central tenet (everyone needs to do a couple of small things and that’s enough to make a significant difference, and that difference is important), I don’t agree with all of the examples she gave. Her four points were Windows, games, mobile, and science (the latter being an example of something that is working well; i.e. where we can copy ideas from and remain strong).
I started with Python on Windows, although I almost never use it any more. There are some difficulties, although I think that if you’re the sort of person for whom programming is a good match, you can work through the issues without much difficulty – the challenge would be more with ‘casual’ programmers – e.g. a scientist that could use Python to do something, but isn’t really a developer. Most of the challenges here I think can be addressed by documentation – e.g. the Python Tools for Visual Studio are excellent, fairly simple to use, and familiar to a lot of Windows developers. All that they need is more people pointed towards them. I don’t know enough about the casual programmer to know how they get started, but it seems like better documentation would help them too. However, the core of my disagreement here is that I’m convinced that Windows use is imploding – this is going to happen more rapidly than people realise, and so putting a lot of effort in here is not a good use of resources. It would be far better to target mobile instead.
Although Python isn’t necessarily the first choice one would make for games, I think the examples that Jessica gave were really just a re-hash of the Windows issues, and those will also just go away as fewer games are developed on/for Windows, in favour of mobile devices and possibly consoles. I would argue here that again the resources would be better spent on making sure that developing games on the web, iOS, and Android is as straightforward and well-supported as possible.
Her last two points, mobile, and science, I do generally agree with, although I think she undersold the mobile issue. For example, there are many people that will only be using a mobile device – they need to be able to actually develop on iOS or Android (or maybe Chrome OS), not just build for it. There are some tools for this – some that are really pretty good, but more would be better.
The first proper talk of the day was Exploring Science on Twitter with IPython Notebook and Python Pandas. Again, this was labelled as intermediate, but really was novice. It was an ok introduction to IPython Notebook in particular, but not a lot more than that. For a novice, or someone that had never heard of IPython or Pandas, probably valuable. For others, not so much.
The second talk of the session was From nothing to daily use: How Python changed my work life. This was correctly labelled as novice, but was by another excellent speaker. There wasn’t much to take away in terms of Python development, but it was a great insight into non-programmers (sort-of) coming into Python, and how Python is in use at a central New Zealand organisation. Again, if there were five talks of this quality, then PyCon NZ would be an easy recommendation.
The final talk of the session was Advanced methods for creating decorators. This was correctly labelled as experienced (one of only two at the conference), and was exactly what it claimed to be. The speaker read the presentation, which is never great (I’m not sure what I got from it that I wouldn’t get from reading an essay), but otherwise it was informative and well done. More talks like this, especially if they were better presented, would be excellent.
After lunch I attended Publishing Theology with Python, again labelled as intermediate but actually novice. For a novice talk, it was fine. I was hoping for more practicalities, and more focus on getting Word documents to ReST (when actually that step is done by a raw copy and paste and manual markup), but it was moderately interesting.
Prior to afternoon tea were the lightning talks (around 12, I think). These were generally very low quality – there were a couple that were worth listening to, but many that I would rather have skipped, and some where the speaker was both not good at speaking, and didn’t really appear to have anything to say. Too many people used it as a “share what you are doing” opportunity, rather than something that would be of interest to the group.
The final session of the day started with Computational Advertising, Billions of records, and AWS – Lessons Learned. This was listed as experienced, but was really intermediate (at best). A poor abstract (just throwing together a lot of words, really), but an ok talk. Either more practicalities (exactly how were things done), or being much more general would have improved this, rather than the middle ground that was taken.
The last session of the conference was the third-best: Testing for Graceful Failure with Vaurien and Marteau (actually Loads). This was accurately intermediate (although on the novice side rather than the experienced side), and very well presented. The two tools sound interesting, and definitely something that I’ll be checking out (these are the only two tools that I learned about at the conference that sound worth investigating). It would be great to see more talks like this.
There’s not much to say about the rest of the conference – it was fairly typical (venue, food, etc – although the swag-bag was very light). There were a lot of giveaways (t-shirts, books, licenses, etc) that took a lot of time and were a bit odd. I don’t really understand why people would applaud someone who was just randomly selected to get some free stuff, or why the giveaways needed to be drawn out so much. In general the organisers did a good job, though – it’s not really their fault that the quality of talks (and speakers) wasn’t as high as it could be (unless they turned down the good talks, which is unlikely). It’s possible that I missed some great talks – I’ll be watching the videos once they are available (most of them, if not all).
Two issues that should be addressed for next year are the “audience level”. Of the talks I saw, there was only one that was actually experienced, four that were actually intermediate, and six that were actually novice. Many of the novice talks (and one of the intermediates) claimed to be higher. The first problem is that the level need to be accurate, so that people can go into a talk with a realistic expectation of what’s required. The second problem is that this skews far too far towards novices – there needs to be more experienced talks in particular, and more truly intermediate ones as well.
Overall, I wasn’t particularly impressed. Since the conference was close to home, it only cost me around $400 (travel, registration, food), which is very cheap as far as conferences go, but could instead pay for a new iPad Mini (which I’d use for much more than a weekend), or several books, or licenses, or various other things where I think I would get better value. If I was looking for work (or workers), or for collaborators on an open-source project, then I can absolutely see value. However, I’m not doing any of those right now. If the conference had more experienced-level talks, more inspiring talks, and more great speakers, then I would absolutely attend again. If I was a novice, or low-level ‘intermediate’, then I would certainly see value. The venue for 2014 wasn’t announced (Dunedin was two years ago, and they tend to alternate, so I would guess that Christchurch and Wellington are the two most likely, although Hamilton might be a contender), but as things are I’m not really sold on attending again, unless the speaker line-up looks particularly good, or something else changes (e.g. if I am looking for workers).
An option that I would be interested in, but I doubt will be done, is a “green” option for attending. I would pay a discounted registration (90%?) to get access to live streaming video of the presentations and a posted t-shirt (or even the whole conference bag). I can still interact with other attendees in real time (via Twitter, ADN, etc – questions can also be handled this way), if not to quite the same level, get much the same out of the conference, and save a lot of the cost (e.g. even this year with it so close to where I live, I would still save 75% of the overall cost), and be much more environmentally friendly (i.e. reducing wasteful travel).