Change the Future - one small slice of PyCon US 2013

I'm currently kicking back in Red Hat's Mountain View office (I normally work from the Brisbane office in Australia) after a lovely lunch with some of the local Red Hatters, unwinding a bit and reflecting on an absolutely amazing week at PyCon US 2013 just down the road in Santa Clara.

For me, it started last Wednesday with the Python Language Summit , an at-least-annual-sometimes-biannual get together of the developers of several major Python implementations, including CPython (the reference interpreter), PyPy, Jython and IronPython. Even with a full day, there were still a lot of interesting topics we didn't get to and will be thrashing out on the mailing lists as usual. However, good progress was made on a few of the more controversial items, and there are definitely exciting developments in store for Python 3.4 (due in early 2014, probably shortly after PyCon in Montreal if past history is anything to go by).

Thursday was a real eye-opener for me. While I did have to duck out at one point for a meeting with a couple of the other CPython developers, I spent most of it helping out at the second of the Young Coders tutorials run by Katie Cunningham and Barbara Shaurette. These tutorials were conducted using Raspberry Pi's with rented peripherals, and the kids attending received both the Pi they were using as well as a couple of introductory programming books.

Watching the class, and listening to Katie's and Barbara's feedback on what they need from us in the core substantially changed my perspective on what IDLE can (and, I think, should) become. Roger Serwy (the creator of IdleX, a version of IDLE with various improvements) has now been granted access to the CPython repo to streamline the process of fixing the reference implementation, and we're working on plans to make the behaviour of IDLE more consistent across all currently supported Python versions (including Python 2.7). (Some aspects of this, especially Roger's involvement, are similar to what happened years ago for Python 2.3 when Kurt B. Kaiser, the PSF's treasurer, shepherded the reintegration of the IDLEfork project and its major enhancements to IDLE back into the reference IDLE implementation in the Python standard library).

Friday saw the start of the conference proper, with inspirational keynotes from Jesse Noller (conference chair and PSF board member) on helping to change the future by changing the way we introduce the next generation to the computers that are now an ever-present aspect of our lives, and from Eben Upton (co-founder of the Raspberry Pi foundation), on how the Pi came to be the educational project it is today, and some thoughts on how it might evolve into the future.

Jesse's keynote included the announcement that every attendee (all 2500 of them) would be receiving a free Raspberry Pi, and that any Pi's that attendees didn't want to claim would be redistributed to various educational groups and programs. Not only that, but Jesse also announced, a new site for sharing Raspberry Pi based projects and resources, as well as a "Rasberry Pi Hack Lab" running for the duration of the conference, where attendees could hook their Pi's up to a keyboard and monitor, as well as experiment with various bits and pieces of electronics donated by one of the conference sponsors. Richard Jones also stepped up to run some additional short introductory PyGame tutorials in the lab (he had run a full 3 hour session on PyGame as part of the paid tutorials on the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the conference).

One key personal theme for the conference revolved around the fact that I've volunteered to be Guido's delegate in making the final decisions on how we reshape Python's packaging ecosystem in the lead up to the Python 3.4 release. I'll be writing quite a bit more on that topic over the coming weeks, so here I'll just note that it started with proposing some changes to the Python Enhancement Proposal process at the language summit on the Wednesday, continued through the announcement of the coming setuptools/distribute merger on Thursday, the "packaging and distribution" mini-summit I organised for developers on the Friday night, the "Directions in Packaging" Q&A panel we conducted on the Saturday afternoon, some wonderful discussions with Simeon Franklin on his blog regarding the way the current packaging and distributions issues detract from Python's beginner friendliness and on into various interesting discussions, proposals and development at the sprints in the days following the conference.

Unfortunately, I didn't actually get to meet Simeon in person, even though I had flagged his poster as one I really wanted to go see during the poster session. Instead, I spent that time at the Red Hat booth in the PyCon Jobs Fair.  The Jobs Fair is a wonderful idea from the conference organisers that, along with the Expo Hall, recognises the multi-role nature of PyCon: as a community conference for sharing and learning (through the summits, scheduled talks, lightning talks, poster session, open spaces, paid tutorials, Young Coders sessions, Raspberry Pi hack lab, and sprints), as a way for sponsors to advertise their services to developers (through the Expo Hall and sponsor tutorials) and as a way for sponsors to recruit new developers (through the Jobs Fair). PyCon has long involved elements of all of these things (albeit perhaps not at the scale achieved this year), but having the separate Expo Hall and Jobs Fair helps keep sales and recruitment activity from bleeding into the community parts of the conference, while still giving sponsors a suitable opportunity to connect with the development community.

Both at the Jobs Fair and during the rest of the conference, I was explaining to anyone that was willing to listen what I see as Red Hat's role in bridging the vast gulf between open source software enthusiasts (professionals and amateurs alike) and people for whom software is merely a tool that either helps (hopefully) or hinders (unfortunately far too often) them in spending time on their actual job/project/hobby/etc.

I also spent a lot of time talking to people about my actual day job. I'm the development lead for one of the test systems at Red Hat, and while it is very good at what it does (full stack integration testing from hardware, through the OS and up into application software), it also needs to integrate well with other systems like autotest and OpenStack if we're going to avoid pointlessly reinventing a lot of very complicated wheels. Learning more about what those projects are currently capable of makes it easier for me to prioritize the things we work on, and make suitable choices about Beaker's overall architecture.

At the sprints, in addition to working on CPython and some packaging related questions, I also took the opportunity to catch up with the Mailman 3 developers - the open source world needs an email/web forum gateway that at least isn't actively awful, and the combination of Mailman 3 with the hyperkitty archiver is shaping up to be positively wonderful.

I didn't spend the entire conference weekend talking to people - I actually got to go see a few talks as well. All of the talks I attended were excellent, but some particular personal highlights were Mike Bayer's deep dive into SQL Alchemy's session behaviour, the panel on the Boston Python Workshop and a number of other BPW inspired education and outreach events, Mel Chua's whirlwind tour of educational psychology,  Lynn Root's educational projects for new coders (with accompanying website), Dave Malcolm's follow-up on his efforts with static analysis of all of the CPython extensions in Fedora, and Dave Beazley's ventures into automated home manufacturing of wooden toys (and destruction of laptop hard drives). There were plenty of other talks that looked interesting but I unfortunately didn't get to (one of the few downsides of having so many impromptu hallway conversations). All the PyCon US 2013 talks should be showing up on as the presenters give the thumbs up, and the presentation slides are also available, so it's worth trawling through the respective lists for the topics that interest you.

In the midst of all that, Van Lindberg (PSF chairman) revealed the first public draft of the redesigned (I was one of the members of the review committee that selected Project Evolution, RevSys and Divio as the drivers of this initial phase of the redesign process), and also announced the successful resolution of the PSF's trademark dispute in the EU.

This was only my second PyCon in North America (I've been to all three Australian PyCons, and attended PyCon India last year) and the first since I joined Red Hat. Meeting old friends from around the world, meeting other Pythonistas that I only knew by reputation or through Twitter and email, and meeting fellow Red Hatters that I had previously only met through IRC and email was a huge amount of fun. Attending the PyLadies charity auction, visiting the Computer History Museum with Guido van Rossum, Ned Deily and Dwayne Litzenberger (from Dropbox), chatting with Stephen Turnbull about promoting the adoption of open source and open source development practices in Japan, and getting to tour a small part of the Googleplex were just a few of the interesting bonus events from the week (and now I have a few days vacation to do the full tourist thing here in SFO).

I'm still on an adrenaline high, and there are at least a dozen different reasons why. If everything above isn't enough, there were a few other exciting developments happening behind the scenes that I can't go into yet. Fortunately, the details of those should become public over the next few weeks so I won't need to contain myself too long.

This week was intense, but awesome. All the organisers, volunteers and sponsors that played a part in bringing it together should be proud :)


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