Changing the world one PyCon at a time

By Iqbal Abdullah in

Changing the world one PyCon at a time

As an engineer, programming languages are very important tools to solve the problems that you face. As an entrepreneur, they are also important tools to bring your imagination to life, to get that profit and making that difference.

Python is a magnificent programming language. Although first released in 1991, it arguably only started to become mainstream1 when Guido van Rossum, the creator of Python joined Google in 2005. That made many people start to notice how serious the tech giant was investing in Python. In the same year, the web framework Django which is written in Python was released, and that further pushed Python into the limelight.

Now, even our very much loved Instagram uses python to handle it's hundreds of millions of requests. Python are also used in scientific and academic fields

I have been using Python since 2002, and in many ways it has given me the intellectual challenge I craved, allowed me the freedom to bring my imagination to life, and through PyCon, has allowed me to meet wonderful people.

My First PyCon, APAC 2010 in Singapore

But a programming language is only as good as the people that uses it.

PyCon is in essence a conference centered around the Python programming language. It's roots started with the first PyCon in Washington D.C in 2003 and has expanded to many parts of the world, from Europe, Japan, China, India, HK, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and also Malaysia.

Up until 2010, before attending my first PyCon, I had been using python for fun and profit for 8 years. I find the language easy to use, has design that fits with my mind and how I believe coding should be, and most importantly I enjoyed using it to build stuff.

So when I saw the poster for the first PyCon APAC in Singapore in 2010, I decided to meet the people behind it:

PyCon APAC 2010 Singapore

I didn't know anyone there but I'd thought I'll just make new friends and see what other cool stuff everyone else was building. And made friends I did: I met up with three other participants from Japan: Manabu Terada (@terapyon), Yasuhi Masuda(@whosaysni) and Ian Lewis(@ianmlewis).

And as it turns out, the chairperson for the first PyCon APAC in Singapore was Liew Beng Keat (@bengkeatliew) a Malaysian from Kuala Lumpur. We have more in common than I thought!

Bringing PyCon to the region

It was then that Beng Keat was telling me the reason he wanted to organize a regional version of PyCon APAC: Beng Keat had the opportunity to attend PyCon in the United States, and although he enjoyed the conference and came back englightened, he also realized how prohibitive it is to travel from Asia to the United States and so he thought: If we can't go to PyCon in the US, we'll bring PyCon here. And since Singapore was such a small place, it makes more sense to make it a regional conference instead of just a local conference.

The concept of having a regional PyCon is in essence a very simple one, with a well defined purpose: We understand that nearly all of the advances made in technology by the programming language, new concepts and philosophy in thinking about the language and even how communities are organized towards a greater good for everyone at large originate mostly in the United States and Europe.

If we cannot be in the United States to meet and listen to the great minds that shape the programming language, its community and its future, lets have those minds here instead.

And at that first APAC PyCon in Singapore, one of the keynote speakers was Steve Holden, who was the chairman for PSF2, who later on was a pivotal figure for the growth of PyCon within APAC.

Building the Japan PyCon community, circa 2011

We invited Steve to come to Tokyo after APAC, and over dinner we talked about having an annual conference to get pythonistas from all over the country to come and share their work and discuss their ideas. Steve was instrumental in proding us, who had no experience at all running conferences, to actually take the idea seriously. Given also the fact that Python was still considered an obscure language in Japan as opposed to PHP, Java or Ruby, we were also sceptical that there will be any traction at all.

Steve Holden in Tokyo Dinner with Steve in Roppongi

Steve Holden in Tokyo With Masuda-san and Takizawa-san

Following that dinner with Steve, Terada-san, Masuda-san and myself met again on the 1st of July 2010 in an underground Turkish restaurant in Shibuya and over dinner decided to have our first stab at a PyCon in Japan. We agreed to start small, and host APAC when we are ready.

Email calling for the first PyCon meeting

We had our first mini PyCon JP on a cold January morning in 2011 at the Rakuten offices in Tokyo. I was involved as the program manager, choosing talks and deciding the contents of the conference. 130 people came for the mini conference, and we all had a great time listening to talks, learning and making new friends. The conference was free, and everyone had bento for lunch provided by our generous sponsors.

Encouraged by the turnout and how the first conferece went, we then decided to have a major PyCon JP for the first time in that summer of 2011.

PyCon JP have been held every year around summer since then, and in 2016 our attendees topped 700 people.

Back to 2012: An issue that we faced after the second PyCon in 2012 was that it was getting too big, and the left over money from sponsors was getting too much to handle out from an individual account. We also needed a face for the public, and a definate entity that will take responsibility for managing the annual conference in Japan.

Because of that, the non-profit PyCon JP was established in March 2013, which I am still currently serving as part of the board members.

To prepare to host APAC, since 2012 we needed to give an international flavour for the conference, and we made it a point to have at least one track which will be in English only. This has attracted participation from nearby countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan.

To also attract interest from the public, and due to the fact that our non-profit run on money gained from public interests, we also made it a point to have an open non-profit general meeting during the local PyCons. It is here where we met other people which are thinking or are interested in running their own PyCons.

PyCon APAC in Japan, 2013

Singapore had been organizing the APAC conference for 3 years in a row since 2010, and following the model of PyCon US of moving the venue to different cities every two year, for 2013 they approached us in Japan to take over APAC and organize it in Japan.

We have been preparing for this since 2011, so we agreed. Our Taiwan counterpart was also keen on running APAC, but after discussions they agreed to bid for 2014 instead.

This was good for us in the region on 2 accounts:

  • The regional conference APAC has finally moved away from Singapore to a different city
  • We have another host decided for 2014.

So in August 2013, we organized PyCon APAC in Shinjuku, Tokyo, and that is where we met all the many people that will spread PyCon across the region.

The Asia Pacific Connection

Regionally, we have a loosely knit community that drives PyCon APAC (Asia Pacific). Ideally, PyCon APAC is a regional conference that rotates between cities within the APAC region, and aims to be an international and bigger conference giving the opportunity to the regional python community to come together at a more accessible and affordable location compared to having to travel to the United States or Europe.

After the APAC conference in Tokyo in 2013, there was consensus from the regional community representatives such as Singapore and South Korea which we managed to get in touch with when they came to APAC in Tokyo, to move the APAC conference to Taipei.

Since there was no other community which has shown interest to host APAC for 2015, the conference stayed in Taipi until 2015.

PyCon APAC dinner in Taipei With Van Lindberg, Chairperson for the PSF, Beng Keat, and our friends and staff organizing PyCon APAC TW in 2015.

The South Korean community, after having their first local PyCon in 2015 stepped up to the plate to host APAC in 2016, and was succesful with over 1000 attendees.

PyCon APAC meeting in Seoul 2016 A community meeting of representatives from the different countries in APAC during the 2016 APAC conference: KR, JP, VN, TW, PH, MY, HK and SG was present

PyCon APAC meeting in Seoul 2016 Group picture after the community meeting

The regional communities have done a wonderful job to boost their local PyCon conferences to be a well known annual event to gather and share knowledge among their Python users. The regional APAC conferences has also proved to be a platform where new community leaders from neighbouring countries come to connect and learn how to organize their own local PyCons.

We make it a point to reach out to fellow community members from countries which up until now have no representation in our loose group, like Myanmar or Vietnam. I've seen fellow pythonistas who came to a PyCon APAC for the first time, and their eyes light up and they smile and say now they want to start something in their city and their community after experiencing the conference.

PyCon APAC dinner in Taipei Meeting up with Dylan Jay in Bangkok. Dylan is the former lead for the Sydney Python Users Group

The collective knowledge of all of us help to remove some anxiety and help guide them on what are the points that they'll need to keep in mind to start something for their own city, from organizing know-how to even getting sponsorship funding. The PSF in this regard have been supportive in providing grants and also speakers to the APAC conferences.

Connecting pythonistas in Malaysia

After helping out with running PyCon in Japan, I realized that all the PyCons that we had in the APAC region has all been on the north-eastern part of Asia Pacific, with the exception of Singapore, but all of them were either cost or time prohibitive to the rest of Asia Pacific.

And that begin my next project: To kickstart an annual PyCon in Malaysia grown for the locals, from the locals, and bring APAC and the rest of the world to Kuala Lumpur.

My aim is to have an APAC conference here in Kuala Lumpur as I believe, compared to the north-east of Asia Pacific, a conference here will be more accessible to much more people.

If we can't go to PyCon, we'll get PyCon here.

In Malaysia, the history of PyCon started in 2014 where we had our first mini PyCon (1 day, single track and 70 people attended) and continued with PyCon MY 2015 (2 days, 2 tracks and around 140 people attended) and PyCon MY 2016 (2 days, 2 track and around 100 people attended). I was involved as the co-chair and finance person for the mini PyCon 2014, the chair for PyCon MY 2015, and co-chair again in 2016.

You can read more on us at https://pycon.my/

But before we start running an international conference like the APAC, we need to know how to at least run a conference. Having local experienced people to organizing conferences will also allow us to convince the other regional members that we are up to the job.

In 2014 there was already a loose group of Python users, who had meetups once every 2 or 3 months mainly around the Kuala Lumpur area, usually attended by more or less 10 people. As is common for any non-profit, grass-roots volunteer driven small meetups with no monetary or marketing support from commercial entities, these meetups were mostly attended by the same group of people and before long you'll have organizers burning out, running out of steam and also things to talk about.

The de-facto organizer for these meetups then was Swee Meng, and I met him the first time at one of Singapore's PyCon. When I suggested to him an annual PyCon for Malaysia, he was sceptical at first, given his bitter experience with user meetups. He was not convinced that people will come, but I told him that that is beside the point. If only 10 or 20 people come, so be it. That will be our Malaysian PyCon. Either way it goes, that will be our learning experience, and we'll see where that leads us.

Since our first mini PyCon in 2014, many people have helped us, especially the kind generosity of venue providers, like iTrain, University Malaya and International University of Malaya-Wales. Nearly all the time we've had help from the academic staff of the universities who do use Python as a learning tool and wanted their own students to get involved in academic conferences like PyCon.

mini PyCon MY 2014 Our keynote for mini PyCon MY, Eric Holscher giving his talk. Eric was in Kuala Lumpur for vacation and also decided to contribute.

PyCon APAC dinner in Taipei Members of PyCon JP coming in to support our first PyCon MY in University Malaya

PyCon MY 2015 Kicking off PyCon MY 2015.

PyCon MY 2015 A group picture at the end of PyCon MY 2015.

PyCon MY 2016 And the group picture at the end of PyCon MY 2016.

As if coming to a full circle, one of the keynote speaker for the first APAC in Singapore in 2010 (Steve Holden), and another keynote speaker for the first PyCon JP in 2011 (Tarek Ziadé, who works remotely in the bushes of Dijon, for Mozilla) was our keynote speakers in 2016.

I am happy to report that Tarek enjoyed his first ever durian here in Kuala Lumpur when keynoting for us.

Following the model that we did in Japan, we have also setup a partnership in Malaysia to facilitate managing funds and also as a public-facing entity to be responsible for managing PyCon in Malaysia.

The local sponsors

Our local sponsors who have supported us until now are mostly small companies with personal relations to one of the member of the staff, that uses Python in their products or day-to-day operations. These companies are the most generous. They do not sponsor large amounts, but they are always ready to give a helping hand. I believe they are the ones who truly understand and appreciate how difficult it is to organize such a conference, and the value that it will bring to them and to the community.

For our 1st local PyCon we did have big name companies that sponsored us, like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Braintree a subsidiary of PayPal. But the young and still inexperienced Python crowd in Malaysia might not be a compelling reason yet for them to continue sponsoring.

PyCon APAC in Kuala Lumpur

For 2017, after making a proposal to the APAC community, we have been selected to hold the responsibility of having PyCon APAC 2017 in Kuala Lumpur, which will be held in August.

What I would like to take the opportunity to highlight here is the wonderful work the community has done to bring PyCon APAC 2017, from universities, student volunteers, local companies and most of all the people that make up the community itself.

Personally in the Malaysian context, I believe we need more makers or programmers in our ecosystem. I feel that we focus too much on the business side of things, with "business focused" conferences like match-making or raising venture capital. But these are all moot without the actual people and know-how to build what we want to sell. PyCon MY is that small ripple we're making to have a positive contribution to the overall builders and programming ecosystem.

With the title of being a regional conference, we now have the clout to invite successful technology practicioners from overseas to give talks and share their insights and ideas with the local crowd. This will hopefully spark interest and motivate them to further improve their skills and knowledge.

Changing the world one PyCon at a time

Through PyCon, the community also tries to practice common ground principles based on universally accepted ideas and ideals. All regional or local PyCons which requests grants from the PSF are required to have a Code Of Conduct that governs how they organizers manage the conference, and also how the attendess behave and interact with one another during the conference.

These Code Of Conducts reflect the values of the community and what they think is important. Not all talks during PyCons are about programming, web frameworks or libraries: Some of them are about the experiences of the speaker walking the path to become a female developer in an industry widely regarded as male dominated, or the need to have more diversity and how it's achieved through free community training programs.

Focused groups like PyLadies (python group focused on women), DjangoCon (Conference focused on the Django framework) and SciPy (Conference for the users of python in the academics and science fields) also all contribute to these same ideas and ideals while adding more spice to the already vibrant python community. In all this PyCon is the general conference that tries to cover many usages of Python.

Following the spirit of the community at large and the values and ideals that we try to have, for APAC this year and for the first time in the history of PyCon in Malaysia, we are trying a few new things, such as

  • Financial Aid
  • Tie up with Women Who Code (WHC)
  • Having the conference at a commercial conference venue
  • Reducing waste
  • Subsidized ticketing

The Financial Aid, tie up with WHC and subsidized ticketing all aims to increase participation from under represented groups who could not have attended the conference due to financial reasons, or also from female tech communities, which historically have little participation in tech conferences locally.

So in a way, PyCons are not only just a technical conference that you might expect from practicioners of a certain technology: It's also sort of a social movement. Although in PyCons you do have booths for companies the commercial aspects are very much watered down (as opposed to RISE or Web Summit).

With the PyCon and it's culture blooming in this part of the world, I hope it will continue to be a place pythonistas regardless of experience continue to meet, exchange ideas, interact and grow.

In essence, the aim of a conference like a PyCon, similar to the experience museums or art galleries offer is to enlighten you and transform you to a different person intellectually from that person that you were before attending the conference. In the context of conferences, this is mostly achieved from the human interaction that you've achieved listening to and discussing about talks and interacting with other attendees. These transformations does not have to be huge leaps. Knowledge transfers take time and require us to work on the new information many times in our minds before we can fully appreciate and understand them.

Changing the world starts here, by us, one good idea at a time and through one PyCon at a time.