Two Years of PyCon: Thank You

I remember little from the first year I attended PyCon but what followed through a thread to where I am today: a handful of people and organizations that changed the course of my life, and for whom I want to give thanks.

Lynn Root, Selena Deckelmann, Flora Worley, and PyLadies

Selena founded my city’s branch of PyLadies (PDX). They were how I knew about PyCon and financial aid, they encouraged me to apply for it though I was such a beginner (and still a college student). They and Lynn were why I attended the PyLadies lunch that year, where I met countless women who told me they also feel like interlopers sometimes, that it’s okay to fail (again and again), and that it doesn’t hurt to ask (whether for help or for raises). I was curious about Lynn as an organizer and too intimidated to speak much, but I hope I thanked her for the lunch.

Jeff Spies and The Center for Open Science

I met up with Jeff because I was working with COS my senior year in college; I studied neuroscience, but the ultimate goal of my thesis was to work on their Reproducibility Project. I chased him around for a t-shirt and attended his open science Birds of a Feather session, where I met people whose backgrounds had also been in science, but whose work used Python on a spectrum from data analysis in academic work to outright web development.

I worked for the Center for Open Science immediately after college, where I got the in-depth experience with Python I needed to decide whether programming was indeed something I wanted to do with my life. That was where I started a lesson I’m still wading through: so much of being successful does not derive from some innate talent or brilliance, but through a convergence of opportunities (education, the chance to learn at work or few enough jobs that you can teach yourself on your own time, etc.) and persisting through failure many times over. I benefited from advice both technical and personal, thanks to people like Joshua Carp and Lyndsy Simon.

Jessica McKellar, Peter Kropf, and PyCon Financial Aid

How the Internet Works” was my favorite talk that year. It was one of my first experiences with technical material where the topics discussed felt comprehensible, if not right away. It was also the first of many talks I’d eventually see that made apparent how creative programming is (she hacked her home network to propose to her future husband). I went in part because the talk looked interesting, and in part because I was curious about her as co-chair for financial aid that year. I hadn’t been in contact with her directly, but the other co-chair Peter Kropf walked me through the financial aid process through many an anxious email exchange. I couldn’t have gone without that assistance.

Allen Downey and O’Reilly

I visited the O’Reilly booth because I saw it was offering books on Python and statistics. Someone working at the booth suggested I come by later for an author signing and free copy of a book I hadn’t heard of yet: Think Python. Leafing through it made clear that the author didn’t expect the reader to start with a background in the language, so I waited. When I met the author he engaged in earnest with my questions and what I was doing even in undergraduate research.

It’s thanks to reading his book in concert with working through Codecademy and generally flailing around with projects that I’ve stuck to Python the last two years. I have an appreciation not just for how I can use the language to accomplish data analysis and munging tasks, but also for how this can be done the Pythonic way. This year I was able to attend a tutorial of his on statistical inference and followed it comfortably! It felt like such a victory after knowing nothing of it the last time I’d seen him.

Matt Davis and IPython

When I showed up to the IPython booth I was too shy to talk. I stood behind people for a long time trying to understand by overhearing, because I didn’t even know how to ask questions about the project. A person in the booth made eye contact with me and though I don’t recall what he said, I wound up sitting at that booth longer than I did anything else that whole conference. His name was Matt Davis, and he walked me through IPython Notebook and Python package management. He told me about Anaconda, which was a much easier way to get started with scientific Python then and which I continue to evangelize today. He never made me feel stupid, and he had a great intuition for when it was best to walk me through and when to ask to drive (the keyboard). We kept in touch over Twitter and he remains one of my favorite internet friends today!

When I was moving back to Portland after COS I was looking for housing, and he introduced me to his friend Rob Story. It was thanks to this I started learning more about data visualization with Python in earnest. It’s also why I learned about the job I have today, as a data scientist at Simple. Their support for professional development is incredibly galvanizing, and drove me to attend PyCon this year.

The Python Community

It’s thanks to the values that so many in the Python community hold that I was given these chances: financial aid, learning materials, mentorship, and role models. These are the tools people need even beyond college to find work where we can learn, find fulfillment, and — as one of my dear friends puts it — achieve escape velocity.

My professional life started with dropping out of high school (eventually getting a state certificate instead) and working three part-time jobs at minimum wage. After many years of saving and attending community college, I transferred to a BA program, but my studies there weren’t enough without a PhD. I considered programs but was warned in the lab where I worked at the time that the grants were drying up and I risked many years of postdoc work or adjunct professorship. You probably are or know someone for whom this is a familiar story. I was fortunate to find a place to unite those skills, and find many of my friends in science are interested in doing the same. The Python community makes that transition easier, I think.

This year I saw and spoke with incredibly many people who were as passionate about people as they were about technology, who knew their work doesn’t just exist in a vacuum, and I want to thank them for that. They are doing for their circles as the people above have done for me, and the birds-eye view of that is PyCon itself.

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