Over the weekend I attended PyCon Australia. This was my first time at a purely tech conference and I couldn’t help but compare it to my previous experiences at scientific conferences.

DISCLAIMER: Like I said this was my first tech conference and my scientific conference experience is also fairly limited so some of the comments I make might be generalisations that don’t always apply.

PyCon started with miniconfs on Friday and continued coding sprints on Monday and Tuesday. I didn’t attend any of these so my experience was only of the main conference on Saturday and Sunday. Here are some of the highlights for me in terms of presentations:

(Full schedules for Saturday and Sunday and links to videos are available on the PyCon website)

Overall I was really impressed by the quality of the talks. There were a couple that I thought could be improved a bit or where I wasn’t that interested in the content but there were no flat-out bad talks like you often see in the scientific context. It was clear that the presenters had put a lot of effort into planning what they were going to say and how to make that interesting and engaging for an audience that might be new to the topic. I don’t think I saw any slides that were walls of text or full of multiple plots. On the other had there was lots of code in slides, including live snippets. I’m not usually a fan of this but in the context it makes sense, particularly as you can assume that everyone has a basic grasp of Python. There were also lots of live demos, some of which were pretty impressive, and I don’t think I saw any fail.

What struck me as being the biggest differences at PyCon compared to a scientific conference was the sense of a community and awareness of wider social issues. There was a big effort to be inclusive to all genders, sexualities, ethnic groups etc. and several of the talks touched on ethical issues or the speaker’s own experience in the community. While I would hope that a scientific gathering wouldn’t be discriminatory I can’t see diversity being embraced in the same way, but hopefully that will continue to improve. There was a sense of everyone being in it together and it was common for speakers to praise work that they hadn’t been involved in, but thought was interesting or useful. I didn’t see anyone described using their titles and it seemed that someone who had learned Python in the last year was as valued as someone who had been a major contributor for the last 10 years (although there may had been power dynamics that I wasn’t aware of).

I think that a lot of the differences come from the work/volunteer divide. While PyCon was an opportunity to network or advertise your work the focus seemed to be on contributing to the community and the speakers were enthusiastic and keen to present. In contrast a scientific conference is a professional opportunity. As a scientist you are judged on your ability to get a talk which means more competition and sometimes speakers who aren’t interested in presenting. Every talk is a demonstration of your worth which makes it hard to present unfinished work and encourages people to try and fit to much in. It would be great for scientific conferences to spend more time discussing issues around the communities they represent but to do so they might have to sacrifice opportunities. For example it would be great to see a talk about mental health issues like Jackson Fairchild’s but that would mean taking away a spot from someone that might need it to progress their career. Personally I think we could maybe do with less talks from whichever well known person is doing the rounds in favour of some outside experts.

Overall I enjoyed my time at PyCon. It was a bit different to a scientific conference and I think there are probably things they can learn from each other. Congratulations to all the speakers and everyone involved in organising. Given that it is in Melbourne again I hope to be back next year.