PyCon 2012

Python is one of the main programming languages that we use at Odopod to build back-end systems for our web apps and websites. So I recently was really excited to attend Pycon, the annual Python conference. And I had a blast.

Photo credit: Orion Auld

This year’s Pycon was the largest yet. There were 2,500 attendees (twice as many as last year), 133 official sponsors and 127 talks divided in 5 parallel tracks. The fact that the conference took place in Santa Clara, right in the middle of the Silicon Valley, probably was a determining factor for the exceptionally large attendance, yet still these numbers undeniably demonstrate the increasing popularity of Python in the tech world.

It was impossible to physically attend all the talks that I was interested in. Fortunately all were video-recorded and published online so I could catch up later after the conference. In this post I’m going to present a short recap of the most notables things that I’ve learned and enjoyed.

The Conference

A conference isn’t totally cool until it has robots. And robots there were in plenty, all of which of course had their software written in Python: from complex, expensive robots that can recognize you and talk to you, such as Nao, to hand-built, open-source and lego-based robots that can play Angry Birds on the iPad and can potentially be used for the automated testing of mobile devices, such as BitbeamBot.

Another cool and funny instance of physical installations was with a water gun programmed to automatically spay squirrels attempting to eat fresh produce from the garden.

Besides these cool things, I’ve also learned a lot of practical tools and techniques during this conference. For instance, I’ve been inspired to use django-tastypie for programming web APIs to expose useful data from our web applications to the world. I’ve also found David Cramer’s talk on how the team at Disqus do continuous deployments really interesting; the infrastructure isn’t necessarily easy to set up but it can eventually be a huge time saver, and it may also allow to push code updates live much more frequently.

I’ve always been a strong advocate for writing automated tests. Here at Odopod, test-driven development methodologies are increasingly part of our process. So it was great to see so many talks on this topic at Pycon this year. I recommend in particular watching presentations by Gary Bernhardt, Erik Rose and both Augie Fackler and Nathaniel Manistas for some reflections on best practices in that domain. I’ve also really enjoyed Carl Meyer’s presentation of useful techniques for testing Django projects.

One common recommendation that came out of the test-oriented talks I attended was to keep the test suite’s execution time to a minimum. In particular, this is done by focusing more on small and fast unit tests and less on heavy and brittle functional tests. The idea is: the faster tests are to run, the more often developers will be inclined to run them.

I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed Zain Memon’s talk on making maps with Python. With front-end technologies such as OpenStreetMap, Leaflet and Mapbox there are now strong alternatives to Google Maps for making custom maps.

In fact, more and more high profile companies like Foursquare are making the switch. In the back-end, Python and Django Python also make it easy to store, query, and transform geographical data. All these technologies combined together really open up the opportunities for integrating interactive maps in web applications.

Finally, one interesting observation was that, currently, Django clearly is the most popular Python web framework. So much so that there was an entire track dedicated to it for a whole day and it was also repeatedly mentioned in several other Web-related talks. Django’s wide and growing popularity is great to see as we ourselves base more and more technical projects around that framework.

The Sprints

Following the four-day conference, some sprints took places for another four days, two of which I participated in. Sprints are an opportunity for people to gather in groups and work on the open-source projects that they are interested in. Sprints are also a great opportunity to meet the maintainers of those projects and learn from them through hands-on designing and programming work. Over 300 people attended the sprints and dozens of others joined online from all around the world to contribute to a wide range of different projects: continuous integration systems, web frameworks, Python interpreters, cloud computing platforms and many other Python tools and libraries.

Groups working on sprints

I am myself a Django core developer so naturally I joined the Django sprint. Core developers are responsible for maintaining Django’s codebase and leading the development of bug fixes and new features. They are also responsible for coordinating the Django community’s efforts, by providing mentorship and by helping others contribute. Our group worked hard to get the new version of Django (1.4) ready for release. This was a great achievement for everyone involved and a rewarding moment after having worked on this new version for nearly a year.

Closing Thoughts

Pycon was a fantastic experience. Throughout the week I deepened my knowledge of the Python language and met incredibly smart people. All the discussions I’ve had were hugely stimulating, mind-broadening and all-around inspiring. I will definitely aim to attend again next year and I hope to see you there!


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