Europython 2009 was my first Python conference, this being the first year that I’ve been able to use Python professionally for application development. We’d made a decision that if we were to be using Python commercially, we should be active within the Python community, so two of our team travelled from Norway to Birmingham, UK. Prior to Europython 2009 my use of Python had been confined hobby projects, occasional scripts and substantial commercial use with a several industrial-scale SCons builds.
I’ll start out by stating that I came away from the conference a little dissappointed, although I must emphasise in no way cheated, by the experience. I’ve attended a great many professionally and community organized conferences over the years, and I felt in many regards Europython was somewhat further down the quality scale than it should be, given the rising importance of Python. I’m concious that this posting may come across as a litany of complaint, but I feel that some changes could significantly improve the experience for everybody involved. Organisers of such events are forever soliciting feedback, so here goes!
Europython 2009 was a multi-tracked conference with up to six parallel sessions, so its not possible for me to report on even a representative sample of the sessions. Nonetheless, the overview of the not-so-random sample presented below may give you a flavour of the experience. I’m not involved in web development currently so I tended to shy away from the plethora of sessions covering web frameworks. What does interest me are the alternative Python implementatons, IronPython and Jython and uses of Python for scientific computation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to the SCons talk, another interest of mine.
Size, venue and organization
Europython had around 500 delegates in attendance, which is I believe a record. The chosen venue was something of a disappointment. Although the main lecture theatre (The Adrian Bolt Hall) was effective, the other rooms in use were without exception compromised in significant ways. One was quite small with insufficient capacity and little or no air conditioning – although it should be noted that Birmingham was experiencing something of a heatwave at the time. Another featured a concrete pillar between the speaker and his audience – although much better air conditioning in here – and a third had the audience seated on a raked seating arrangement that creaked and groaned with the slightest movement. I wonder how the musicians who usually inhabit the placed manage?
The lunch arrangements were wholly inadequate. Lunch involved collecting a polystyrene plate, bowl and a drink from a refectory upstairs, loading these with food canteen style and then precariously balancing these items (no trays here!) and trooping down a fire escape stairwell back into the corridors between the lecture halls where there was insufficient seating. At one point our Vice President of Product Development, had expressed an interest in attending Europython, having shown a genuine curiosity in the langauge – we’ve been working hard on internal advocacy. At the point at which I found myself having to stand up to eat my lunch standing up in a corridor, having requisitioned a corner of the coffee serving table with my colleague, I was glad he wasn’t here to witness this somewhat unprofessional scenario (Yes, I know its a community event, and not ‘professionally’ organised, but a touch of professionalism can go a long way in the Python advocacy stakes with the right people). I appreciate there were a mitigating circumstances (a broken lift) but the nature of the facilities alone will make me think twice about who I encourage to attend this event in future.
Preparation and planning
Shortly before Europython I’d returned from a conference called EAGE 2009 which had 7000 student and professional delegates in a major European convention centre (RAI in Amsterdam). I’ll confess that this may have done much to anchor my expection levels vis-à-vis conferences immediately prior to Europython. Venue differences and registration cost aside (Europython was 5× cheaper than EAGE) one clear difference was the poor level of preparedness of speakers at Europython compared to EAGE, even though at both conferences speakers were drawn from professional, student and amateur circles. Time and again at Europython speakers hurriedly arrived in the room with little or no time for setup of equipment such as projectors. At this point I must give a note — no, make that a plea — to conference organizers: Please place a printed notice in 144 point text stating the preferred projector resolution on the table or lectern at the front so we can be spared a linear search through the possible resolutions at the beginning of each talk.
Now, I don’t know about you, but on occasions that I’ve been presenting and a private meeting or a conference, especially if it involves a live demo requiring network connectivity, I’m in the room setting up, connecting, authenticating, testing, and re-testing for up to 30 minutes before hand ensuring that everything will run smoothly. Although this doesn’t ensure a professional delivery, it can usually eliminate the tiresome, and stressful for the speaker, configuration during the talk. Its also a common courtesy to your audience to be ready before they are and not keep them waiting. Doing this means you means you’ll get longer to talk, and time for questions. I’m sure most people would agree that time for questions beats staring Display Settings for the umpteenth time.
Some talks dependend on a ‘live’ Internet connection – always a bad idea but in this case it was fatal. Wireless connectivity was intermittent throughout the conference.
I found the quality of the material presented at Europython to be highly variable; it covered the gamut from borderline incompetent to very good indeed. Many of the talks simply did not have sufficient material behind them to justify the length of the time slot they were given. I wonder if fewer parallel tracks with shorter talks would give a better result; audiences would be larger, the pace quicker and delegates would be a able to see a larger proportion of talks, which would help in technology transfer between the different subgroups within the wider Python community.
The keynotes were engaging as one expects. Cory Doctorow gave the predictable but entertaining DRM is evil and copyright unenforceable polemic, in the moral vacuum we have come to expect. Bruce Eckel delivered an entertaining historical overview of language features across C++, Java, C# and Python. Susan Blackmore and Simon Greenish made an impassioned plea for funds for Saving Bletchley Park, although the talk lacked any technical content about the operations or machines there, which given the technical audience was a little disappointing. Sir Tony Hoare rounded off the keynotes with a comparative study of the disciplines of software engineering and computing science, finishing with the not unreasonable prediction that one day “software will be the most reliable component of every product which contains it”, although he didn’t venture to suggest a time-scale on which this might come to pass.
I’m glad I attended. The conference was good value and on the whole informative. The organisers should seriously consider a better venue for next year and raising the standard of talks would make a return visit a more compelling prospect. The easiest way to do this may be to simply reduce the number of talks, or shift more of the content into a more appropriate format such as lightning talks.