The PyDX Post-Mortem

We spent over a year planning PyDX. From my perspective, the result was worth every bit of stress. I’ve been thinking about what I want to say about the conference now that it’s over. I’ve stopped and started this post a dozen times so far. Several versions have been downright sappy.

Instead, here’s the top five things that stuck out for me during PyDX.

1. Bake Diversity in from the Start; It’s Not Something to Add Later

I have no shame when it comes to talking about diversity numbers in order to drum up sponsors, but I actually feel good about how we PyDX organizers handled questions of how to make our conference more diverse. We focused on what real people needed to feel comfortable showing up to a conference — providing a safe environment, offering child care, even small group opportunities.

  • We came within four tickets of selling out.
  • We provided full scholarships to more than 90 percent of applicants, and were able to offer free tickets to the rest through our volunteer program.
  • We didn’t keep official numbers on diversity, but I made some informal counts. About half our attendees and speakers were diverse on some axis.

We didn’t have to focus on creating diversity when we already had a space that welcomed diversity in — and we responded directly to what people told us they needed to be able to attend. Remember, you can’t assume you know what anyone else needs.

Given that I attended a conference earlier this year that was exceedingly proud that 15 percent of attendees were women, I feel great about PyDX on this front.

2. Technical Talks Don’t Get All That Much Love, Surprisingly

I was obnoxiously proud of our speaker line-up, but I was surprised by what attendees responded to most enthusiastically. Looking at social media during the conference and talking to attendees afterwards, everyone was excited by talks that focused less on code — talks about topics like how to learn and how to build culture did really well.

The exceptions — the technical talks that got rave reviews — all had one of two key characteristics. Either they were workshops, where attendees participated and left with code of their own, or they were doing something far outside of typical Python projects, like making music,

Just about all of the talks went well, by the way. I’m not critiquing any of our speakers here. I’m speaking solely about what attendees were most excited by.

3. Not Screwing Up Codes of Conduct Requires Planning

I strongly believe that having a code of conduct is a minimum requirement for a conference (as well as smaller events and even occasional meetups). Having one sets expectations and creates a safer environment for every single attendee.

Organizing PyDX has only solidified my belief. The experience also highlighted some areas where we can make setting up and enforcing codes of conduct much easier — PyDX was a learning experience, because I’ve usually only been in a position to think about codes of conduct for smaller events.

These are my key takeaways:

  • Create an incident response plan in advance. You never want to be trying to figure out how to deal with a specific issue in the moment, especially when you’re already stressed out of your mind about whether the keynote speaker’s laptop is going to work properly with the A/V equipment.
  • Talk to an expert when creating your incident response plan. We actually didn’t write our own plan — instead, Audrey Eschright sat down with us and went over potential issues and how we wanted to handle them. She put that information together into a document we could refer to during the conference and that had enough detail that we could hand it to a volunteer if need be. Budget the money for that sort of expertise; it’s far cheaper than a lawyer after the fact.
  • Every single organizer and volunteer is on duty for code of conduct issues. You should absolutely have a point person, but any attendee facing a problem will talk first with the staff member they most trust who they can catch alone. And those conversations are going to come up unexpectedly — no matter the events I’ve attended, restrooms are de facto meeting rooms because most people feel they can safely talk about anything there.

4. Venues Control So Many Things and They Could Use Their Power for Good

Our venue was our single largest expense. Our venue was also the most constraining factor in planning PyDX. Until we’d found a venue, we couldn’t figure out food, childcare, or even the actual dates of the conference.

First off, the UO White Stag Block was a great venue to work with. They were able to meet most of our requirements right away and there was really only one request we made that couldn’t be met, due to the classes that were in session in the building during our conference.

That said, any venue winds up controlling a lot of how a given conference runs. We had to work within our venue’s constraints:

  • We could only use specific tape for hanging anything on the walls.
  • We could only use catering that had already been approved by the building.
  • We had to have insurance for the event.

That last constraint has kept me thinking: Insurance is required in order to fix any problem that occurs during the conference, including legal dilemmas. Why don’t venues have similar expectations for tools that mitigate risk, like codes of conduct? Isn’t requiring events to do more work to avoid any problems or negative attention more cost effective for venues?

5. The Amount of Help People Offer is Amazing

PyDX is truly a community conference. We had two larger sponsors: MailChimp and Anaconda, both of whom made a major difference in our ability to put on the conference. But around 80 percent of our funding came either directly from ticket sales or from local companies supporting the conference (including a lot of consultants and other small businesses!).

I feel like everyone I spoke to in the weeks leading up to PyDX offered to help in some way. The whole experience has been an important lesson in gratitude for me — a reminder that people will help if you just remember to ask. A few will even go out of their way to help without the request.

Thank you to everyone who made PyDX a reality.

And for those inquiring minds who want to know, we were four tickets short of selling out, so I’m not getting the tattoo. At least, I’m not getting it this year.

A Preview of the Conference I’ve Been Planning for the Last Year

pydx-color-logo-blue

I’ve been working on PyDX for over a year. So have my phenomenal co-organizers, Rachel Kelly, Georgia Reh, Melissa Chavez, and Christopher Swenson. This weekend — October 10th and 11th — all of that hard work is going to pay off.

PyDX, by the way, is a community conference for Python programmers in the Pacific Northwest.

Our Schedule Rocks

I’ve already said that I sort of wish I wasn’t organizing PyDX, because I want to attend it. We’re filming all of the talks, in part because I would cry if I didn’t get to hear at least a few. Here are the talks that I’m particularly thrilled about:

  • Melissa Lewis’ keynote (Saturday AM) — I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Meli speak at PyLadies events and she is going to blow away the PyDX crowd.
  • Terian Koscik’s Build a Bot workshop (Saturday AM) — Terian has an impressive array of Twitter bots that do some cool tricks. She inspired me to start working on my own Twitter bot, but I need some help (I’ll probably watch the video of this talk repeatedly).
  • Evan Palmer’s Making MIDI Music with Python talk — I admit that I actually got to hear Evan practice this talk, but I’m still excited for the final version. He’s making music programmatically!

You can see the whole schedule here as a PDF. I’m biased, of course, but I think we’ve got a great line up across the board.

I’m incredibly grateful to our speakers for putting in proposals and agreeing to speak at PyDX. Many are traveling to Portland on their own dime to do so and I’m a little in awe of the group of people we’re bringing together.

A Conference for Everyone

One of our commitments from the start of organizing this thing was to create a welcoming conference where everyone feels comfortable. Every PyDX organizer has been to tech conferences where we’ve felt like we don’t belong and we’re willing to go to extreme lengths to avoid anyone feeling that way this weekend. A lot of these decisions, by the way, didn’t take all that much time or money to implement.

A Dry Conference: Tech conferences tend to be boozefests, even though many people either don’t drink at all or would prefer not to drink around people they know professionally. So we’re not providing alcohol as part of the conference (though attendees are welcome to meet up after hours for drinks if that’s their thing).

A Code of Conduct: I’ve reached the point where I just won’t deal with events and organizations that don’t have a code of conduct (as well as a way to enforce their CoC). It’s a matter of safety.

Scholarships: Our tickets are priced at $100, which isn’t cheap. The value is more than there (especially when you consider we’re providing food, childcare, great speakers, and more) but we are aware that it’s out of reach for many of the people who might benefit from attending PyDX. So we’re offering scholarships. And if you want to sponsor someone else’s scholarship, you can sponsor for any amount through this payment form. A full scholarship costs us $200 to provide, because we offer stipends for travel and other expenses, depending on the recipient’s need.

We had a good business case for diversity, by the way, which helped us explain the importance of these steps when fundraising and marketing. PyCon North America is taking place in Portland in 2016. We’re making sure that anyone who is considering learning Python before that point has an easy way to get started and to join the local community (which desperately needs more programmers).

Plenty of Pythonic Personality

Community conferences are great because they have more personality. When a conference hosts several thousand attendees, everything has to run like a well-oiled machine. But since PyDX is a smaller community conference, we can have a little fun.

Our entire vibe is a weird mix of hipster jokes and Monty Python references. I’m still not sure I’ve found all the jokes on our website, but I did have a great time writing our sponsorship prospectus (I did have to spend some time researching synonyms for ‘artisanal’).

And I’ve dared the community to help us sell out. If we sell out of tickets (and yes, scholarships count), I’m going to get the PyDX logo (the snake at the top of this post!) as a tattoo. I was originally threatening to get that tattoo on my butt. However, since I want to be able to show it off without violating the code of conduct, I’m thinking my leg is a better bet. Last time I checked, we still needed to sell about 40 tickets for me to get that tattoo. Want to make it happen? Buy a ticket (use FRIENDOFPYDX for 10% off) or sponsor a scholarship (same payment form as before). You know you want to see me all inked up.