Python Conference Chairman: Building a Programming Community, One Coder at a Time

Pycon Ireland is one of the conferences on the Python programming language that is held by their respective regional chapters around the world. These events are attended by Python enthusiasts, who come to learn more about Python by attending talks and engaging with each other.

I was fortunate to be selected as one of the speakers for Pycon Ireland. My presentation focused on the execution of Python programs, from the interpretation of the source code to its translation into CPU instructions.

While Pycon Ireland is usually held annually, the COVID pandemic forced the Python community in Ireland to be postponed, until they could hold it for the first one in three years in 2022. I had the chance to talk with the chairman of Python Ireland, who organized this conference during these difficult times of the pandemic.

As we entered the conference room for the interview, he remarked, “So you’re the crazy guy from Japan.” Indeed, my body had ached from the 20-hour flight across the continent, but the adrenaline from attending the conference temporarily alleviated the pain.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

Pycon Ireland Chairman Nicolas Laurance responded to this interview.

Growing a Programming Community

How did Pycon Ireland start?

We started as an informal user group. It grew steadily over the years from half a dozen people in a pub. After the first Pycon Ireland 13 years ago, we grew to a more organised gathering like the conference today.

As we grew, the user group became incorporated into a proper Limited Company. We are still non-profit, and nobody gets paid, except the professionals we hire for the event.

As you have discovered for yourself, we try to have a friendly event.

It’s an amazing community. How do you find these friendly people?

You don’t find them. We try to be genuinely nice without overplaying it. I hope we created a place that helped us grow by word of mouth.

What we want to do is create a community. We are not a teaching club. A conference talk is not a lecture. If you want a lecture, you go to university or take online courses. What we’re trying to provide here is the real human connection. Here we want to bring you connection and motivation, by broadening your horizons, and making you think about topics you never considered until you were exposed here.

By expanding your field of interest, you will follow them and dig down deeper into the rabbit hole. We computer scientists in general enjoy being in the zone. That’s why we try to provide you with that excitement.

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

What does the company spend money on? How do you raise money for that?

On the venue for sure. We also spend money on the T-shirts, the captionist, the videographer, the sound, and all these professionals. We have accountants who keep our books in order, as we are audited. In fact, this accounts for most of our expenses.

We operate in the 50,000 euros range for a year of turnover. That’s where the money comes from. This is a community event for the community. It means that I bought my ticket.

You’re the chairman and you still have to buy the ticket?

Yes, everyone pays, including speakers. In an ideal conference, everyone would be a speaker. That means nobody pays! Who’s going to foot the bill?

The only people receiving free tickets are those whose financial aid got approved. We have a financial aid programme for people who cannot afford to come, but have a strong motivation to be here.

We also have a corporate rate, who pay six times the general admission rate. They pay more because they can afford it. After all, they pay the corporate tax rate instead of the personal tax rate, which is 10 times higher here in Dublin. They also make money out of open source projects. Since these sponsors look for exposure in the Dublin community, we maintain long-term relationships with them.

Is the annual Pycon Ireland conference the only time your organization earns money?

Would you believe we have a second conference? We do Limerick as well. We did three editions of Limerick before it got disbanded for COVID. Pycon Ireland is the first in-person event since the pandemic, but Limerick will be back March 25th 2023.

We want to bring in everyone in Pycon Ireland. It’s not called Pycon Dublin after all. And Dublin is a big magnet because of the economy of Ireland. We want to engage with people from Limerick, Galway, Cork, Sligo area. People should travel west from Dublin, as the west of the country is magnificent and lovely for visiting. You should go there too.

(Unfortunately, this correspondent didn’t have enough days off from work to travel beyond Dublin.)

Limerick is the little brother of Pycon Ireland. We expect 150 people, which is way less than this event. It’s a regional one-day conference. As there might not be enough Python-centric people, we want also to accommodate related user groups. You don’t run Python out of the blue. It usually runs on Linux. That’s why we bring people from the Linux community for a few talks. We also have workshops on Kubernetes, as Python also exists in that ecosystem. Limerick is the opportunity to connect with other user groups.

Conferencing During the Pandemic

Attendees came from all over the world.

How did COVID affect your conference?

We had to face COVID just like any other company. Our goal is not to make money, but to promote the use of Python and showcase its advantages. We always have a monthly meetup.

When COVID struck, we skipped one. We didn’t know what to do. We realized that this situation is going to last, so we took a Zoom subscription. By moving online, we managed to attract not only local speakers, but those from the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, India, Canada, and the US. We have expanded our speaker base to worldwide, which was great.

Do you also attend other kinds of conferences to get some inspiration for Pycon Ireland?

No I don’t, since my personal and family duties prevent me from doing that. But I do get feedback from many people like you who roam among conferences. We also send a satisfaction survey to every participant. We definitely onboard them into a post-mortem meeting to review what we can improve. We can only steer the ship slowly but we’re happy to evolve.

A Conference for Everyone by Everyone

Attendees were powered by adrenaline and coffee.

How can people help the community?

The best way you can help is by stepping up and offering to talk at the monthly meetups. They are the real essence of what we do every month as a dedicated core of the community that keeps gathering.

In order to help you help us, we have a coaching programme. It’s a full-day, eight-hour workshop with a professional coach training you to deliver speeches. In exchange, you would commit to give a talk at one of our meetups. It’s a win-win agreement.

We reach out to people creating a friendly and understanding environment where you can try new things. Some speakers have said that they don’t want to give a talk because they fear they might embarass themselves. We don’t want to do that. If we record your talk and it’s not good, it will not serve your career or your own interest. So, we will not publish it. We are not maniacs about publishing content.

How else can people help Pycon Ireland?

You can also join the committee. It’s an organisational job that needs no legal or technical capacities. We need community managers, social network people, designers, and other things we don’t know how to do. It is okay if you work on it only for an hour. We try to break down tasks into smaller ones.

We’re looking for more involvement from people that want to help us, at some stage, you know, we have to renew ourselves, our community and bring new people in. So soon we’ll open the doors for new committee members for a year of exciting adventures with us.

Some people expect their emails to get responses immediately. Let me tell you it will never come that fast! I attend these matters every Saturday morning, when I wake up earlier than usual and then start answering them. I identify these issues and delegate the tasks to my team. Then, I attend these matters again the next Saturday. We work in the long run. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Getting into the Limelight

Volunteers helped out the event, including this MC.

Can you tell us more about how you pick the speakers?

We are grateful to any submission we receive, including the poor ones. They show an interest, which is always good.

It’s a fine balance. Selecting speakers is very difficult. It’s easy to cut away poor submissions. They tend to be two-sentence submissions. They’re unclear, with only a confusing title and barely any description. That is not attractive at all.

Now we have to concentrate on the rest. A good submission would have an exciting title and a description that makes it believable. We can tell that you put a significant amount of work to make the talk engaging.

We want a variety of talks, some being technical topics for the experts and others being beginner-friendly. We need to provide for a variety of backgrounds, including Python beginners, data scientists, hardcore developers, and gamers. Talks about making video games with Python are so unusual. Write us a proposal!

We consider the quality of the talk and speaker’s commitment, engagement and experience. We don’t want first time speakers, because we give enough opportunities to become a first-time speaker elsewhere, like at our monthly meetups. We have a much stronger requirement for this national conference.

Who chooses the talks for the conference?

The problem is, I’m not comfortable with Python outside the web development ecosystem. I’m not a data scientist, so I cannot really evaluate what is a good data science talk. And data science is a huge part of Python nowadays.

That’s why we need data scientists in our community. Because we did not have enough of them inside, we vetted and onboarded external experts who agreed to review with some confidentiality. They helped score on all proposals, allowing us to boil down on our available slots.

Voters include committee members and external consultants, usually alums of Python Ireland or members of other Python organisations.

Now, does it work? I don’t know. Can we do better? I’m listening. We have to offer a well-balanced selection of talks. Having a committee with esteemed colleagues accumulates different biases that balance each other out. Hopefully we’ve been successful.

Are all the speakers you choose able to come to the conference?

Not always. Yesterday, a few hours before the time slot, one of the speakers informed us that his wife got COVID, so they weren’t able to come and speak. We called another speaker to step up and fill up that gap. That’s an extra commitment to the community, and we’re extremely grateful to them. One of the secrets of making our conference organization look smooth is to have a plan B for everything.

A Community’s Future

How do you see the future of Pycon Ireland?

In the near future, we have Limerick and the Pycon Ireland next year. I would love to find a successor. I’ve been running this for a few years now. I know it takes a few years to learn the ropes. Whoever is in charge of running the show in the future will need at least three years to learn. I’d be more than happy to train the next generation.

I’m sure there’s a lot to learn about organising a popular community. Hopefully this interview will help more people understand the aspirations of this community.

Some photos provided by PyCon Ireland

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Richard Rowland

Richard Rowland

Born in Tokyo in 1994. A mix of Japanese and Canadian. Currently enrolled at Keio University SFC.



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