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7 Things I Learnt From PyCon Australia 2014

By James Lake
7 Things I Learnt From PyCon Australia 2014

With PyCon Australia 2014 having officially ended this past week I thought it a good time to reflect on the various ideas and lessons I have learned. Pycon Au is the official Australian conference for all things associated with the Python programming language, which was hosted this year at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre in South Bank. The conference, which ran from 1st - 5th of August, consisted on a Friday mini-confs (with Django, science and OpenStack streams), the main body of conference talks over the weekend, and half day workshops, called ‘Sprints’ on the Monday and Tuesday.

This was my first year attending PyCon, as I was given a entry pass thanks to Conetix who sponsored the event, please note I am by no means a professional programmer, more of a hobbyist. So in that vain I thought I’d share with you 7 lessons I learnt from PyCon Au 2014.

1. Accessibility is good for developers

Accessibility is something that most developers aspire to do with their site, however when deadlines fast approach it’s something that quickly becomes a nice-to-have before ultimately falling into the we’ll-get-back-to-it-later pile. Katie Cunningham, author of  the book, Accessibility Handbook gave a thought provoking keynote presentation, dispelling many of the common misconceptions when it comes to accessibility. The one I found most poignant was the idea that by incorporating accessibility in your design you become a better developer/programmer. Your code must be clean and organised, your meta tags needs to be correct, and you need to put genuine thought into decisions like colour choice and layout. At the end of the day, thats a win/win for everybody.

 

2. Programming is a social exercise

When people think of programmers they think of a lone figure in a darkened room hunched over a keyboard, machine gun like typing, as bloodshot sleep deprived eyes scanning over thousands of lines of code. And while there’s some truth to that perception, programming and learning how to write code has become mainstream in the last few years. As more and more of our life moves online the importance to learn to program has become greater, and is a skill being picked up by people in professions traditionally unrelated to building software. Lucy Bain and Nadia Vu shared their experiences from running a Python study group. Among their many pieces of good advice, they placed strong emphasis on physical contact with other students being critical when learning a skill like computer programming.

 

3. Poor UX is a major security flaw

Traditionally, in software development security has been the domain of mathematically minded engineers, and User Experience (UX) design has been the realm of arty designers and never the twain shall meet. This is no longer the case argues Justin Clacherty, who is engaged in a project to build an Open Router that is both secure and has an easy to use and intuitive graphical user interface. He made the very valid point that if things like router menus are confusing or hard to use this leads to users either configuring things incorrectly, or even worse, not at all. Either way a major security flaw. To achieve this goal Justin’s team is utilising the easy to use and light weight Pyramid Web Framework in their design.

 

4. Python users are a bunch of masochists

Unbeknownst to me, a tradition of DjangoCon Au is the closing speech on is given by someone not only a non member of the Python community, but someone who actively dislikes it. Tony Morris, a non-python programmer gave a scathing view on the limitations of the Python language, comparing it to his personal preference of functional programming using Haskell. I learned two things from this talk. Firstly Tony is a brave man to stand in front of a room full of people who identify themselves as “Pythonistas” only to call them an unflattering definition of “Pythonic” (trust me it’s not nice). Secondly, for any community to grow it needs to face tough truths, and what better for an outsider to hold up that mirror for some soul searching.

Note: Tony was a great sport about the whole thing. So much so that if he ever sees the light and wants to come join the python community we'd welcome him with open arms.

 

5. Python is for students

Dr. James Curran from the University of Sydney is a man with a vision. In recent years he has been working to help develop a national curriculum to teach computer science and programming to Australian students from Year 3 through to Year 10, with the hope that one day programming will be seen as essential a skill as reading, writing and maths. By no means a small undertaking, Dr Curran views Python as the best language for students to learn due to its many features such as easily readable syntax and a very economic use of code compared to other programming languages. Exciting times lay ahead and Python will be there at the centre of it.

 

6. Python is for women

The elephant in the room within all software development circles is the massive gender imbalance that currently exists, with females only accounting for about 11% of the workforce. When much is being done to help even the scales, it is a long term project for the software industry that has no magic bullet fix. One thing I can say after this past weekend is that while they may be few, women within the Python community are building some of the most interesting and game changing projects by anyone’s standards. While we've got some way to go, for now I think we can safely put that one in the win column.

 

7. Python is for everyone

The world of Python is a multifaceted one with many areas of specialisation and expertise. In the space of three days I sat through talks on databases and server infrastructure, to web and app development, to applications in fields such as maths, science, medicine, music, logistics, videogames, and education. And there are people who code professionally, code for fun and even those who haven't come much further than "Hello World". But despite the variety there is a real sense of openness and inclusion. It is refreshing to see two people have an informed debate about differing points of view in a respectful and constructive manner, or to feel that it’s okay to ask questions and admit that you don’t know something. As a first timer I can’t express how important this was, and how important it will continue as the community only continues to get bigger.

To check out a number of the talks from this years PyCon AU head over to their Youtube page, as well as their web site.

PyCon AU 2015 will also be held in Brisbane, so if you're around town and ever wondered what all the fuss is all about, come on down. We'd love to see you there!