Here's my thoughts regarding Pycon 2008.
Benefits of conference attending
- Face time with virtual friends - Some people/IT shops invest in established technology provided by big vendors. I've been somewhat disenchanted by the products (and underlying lockin/intentions) of many vendors. Yet open source (for the most part) has provided wonderful cutting edge solutions and tools. As you invest in these tools such as these, you enter this "onion of open source" (by onion I mean consider a sliced onion, where the layers correspond to moving deeper within a project, ie: lurker, downloader, user, mailing lister, bug reporter, patcher, ircer, committer, ...).
Just as you invest (money) in big companies for their tools, with open source, you invest time. But the paybacks for developers can be great. Rather than interacting with a huge faceless entity, oftentimes you can come mingle with the primary developers directly.
It's very nice to be able to say "Thanks for your excellent software, and your help" in person.
Get up to date - I don't have time to read blogs all day long, so sometimes it's nice to get a firehouse of cool stuff that people are doing, that may or may not be directly related to your work or interests. A conference such as Pycon or OSCON can provide this.
Network - I don't consider myself to be a good networker, but if you are interested in something (like say python), it's good to be in an environment surrounded by people who probably share some subsets of interests with you.
Get a job - Perhaps this is related to the previous (but since I'm not looking for a job, I'll separate it). Vendors come to hire, and they realize that people attending a conference are probably more "into" the subject of the conference than those who don't attend, so it's one way to get a "foot in the door". Though, the older I get the more I realize that good job opportunities will probably find me via my network, than less effective means (such as me spamming my resume).
Food quality went down this year. I guess the box lunches scale better, but the taste goes down. Also, previous years have had talks during lunch. This year lunch was the hallroom track. At least put vendor/lightning talks during that time.
Disclaimer: I gave a session and convinced my brother (who was a python newbie at the time) to submit a session (which he gave).
Having attended a few open source conferences (OSCON, PyCon, Foss.in, Mysqluc, OSBC, LinuxWorld, Mashupcamp, UTOSC) and user group meetings, I realize that sessions are a mixed bag. You've got vendors, who want to tell their story to any eyeballs they can. There's the community figureheads who want to get their point out. There's community members who think they've got something interesting to say. Then you consider the level of the talk: beginner, newbie, advanced, requires 3 PhDs to understand. There's also the nature of the talk itself, is it more breadth or depth oriented?
I can usually tell within the first five minutes whether the talk will be interesting or valuable. The value derived from a talk can come in different ways. Sometimes, a URL or two are the most important parts of the talk. Sometimes the whole talk is interesting. Other times the title sounds interesting, but the content is unrelated or presented at a level below or above what was indicated.
Regarding Vendor/Sponsor talks. I'm comfortable with them. What I'd actually prefer would be a lightning session dedicated to them. Ask the vendors to describe the work they are doing, and where they are located. Don't tell me how nice the office is, or the view, or the size of your monitors. If I'm interested in working with you (it will probably be because your work is interesting), and I'll come and find you and then you can try and sell me on the other benefits (monitor/office size etc). Or preferably if you know who I am and what benefits I can provide, you can contact me. (Perhaps the conference registration could allow job seekers to note their skills/blog/projects and if they are interested in being recruited).
Regarding keynotes. I think there are too many. Rather than two 20 minute talks and an hour talk, just give me one or the other. And then have another session or two, that would give some room for another 24 talks. (Which seem to have about the same hit/strike ration as the keynotes)
Regarding talk quality. That's a hard one. You want the good consistent speakers, but also don't want to exclude other's who might be good, just not known. Perhaps a preparation checklist for speakers might be nice. I try to practice at the local user group previously. Also, I like to state the level of the talk and what I'll be covering up front. That way if there are two talks you are split between (and strangely there seemed to be a few sessions where the tracks seemed to overlap quite a bit), and mine isn't what you really thought it would be you can skip out and try to make the other one.
Another thing that is useful (but is after the fact) is letting the speakers actually view they videos of themselves. Then they can see how they look to the audience. Personally I can say that it is a scary and humbling thing. But the only way to get better at speaking is to practice, and make note of what you do good and what you could do better.
Here's another hint: Don't read #pycon before you have to talk, its somewhat ruthless nature (towards speakers) can be quite intimidating ;)
Regarding talk level. If you want to grow the popularity of python (admittedly that is not the goal of everyone, some like to be exclusive with their tools), then you need to cater to all segments, beginner, intermediate and advanced. Perhaps some (good) beginner talks will recur year after year (or every other year) because they are timely, yet useful. Perhaps some advanced topics can span two sessions. For example, I've programmed in python since 2000, but have never ventured into the c guts. A session (or two) on how to do that might be nice (it could also help find new core contributers), and it could be useful year after year to a new crowd. I'm pretty sure an Intro to Twisted would be packed about every year....
Regarding talk content. I can and have spoken about many different python subjects. But when I apply to speak, I try to speak on something that I think is interesting or useful, but not necessarily what the audience thinks is useful. I think speakers like to speak on new or novel things (more academic). But there are talks at all levels that could be quite repetitive but still useful. Perhaps for a month or two previous to the call for speakers the organizers can publish what topics people want to see. Or perhaps there could be specific tracks (ie testing, web, scientific, gui, automation, etc).
Regarding open spaces. Some have suggested that pycon should be taken back to the community and become an unconference. I don't know that that scales to 1000+ people. (Or that it would attract that many people. It's a risky proposition to spend 3 days at a conference that could talk about anything). When I attended mashupcamp (a pure unconference) that was supposed to have the who's who (I was sitting in for one), I found 70% of the sessions extremely boring. It was probably worse than most conferences. But I guess with the Bofs/open space rooms available all day anyway, this could be/is done already. Note that I have found Bofs useful, I'm just not sure I want 100% Bofs.
** Vendor Swag
With ultimate (frisbee) leagues and conference attending, I have more than enough t-shirts. But I must say that the conference shirt and the Leapfrog Online shirts were quite funny. Good job.
It's always nice to get something the kids might like. But please, if your swag has the following warning:
Sonic Rocks are powerful magnets. Always keep them at a safe distance (at least 20 inches) from magnetic storage media ... such ... as ... hardisks ... and laptops.
Please tell me not to put it in a bag right next to my laptop. (There were quite a few laptop/presenter glitches this year .... possibly .... related???)
** Laptop/software thoughts
Apple appears to be the product of choice with about 2/3rds of the market here. The remaining third again split amoung linux/windows. Saw about 10 eee's, 2 macbook airs.
Most presentations were done in keynote or s5. S5's lack of image scaling is bothering me. Me thinks that clutter or bruce need needs an rst converter for slideshows....
Students (that I talked to) seem to be almost 90% on linux. Not sure if it is the geek factor, lack of windows fee (laptop already comes with windows so....), or they are just forward thinking/wishful.
Last year had 40% growth to 600. This year saw 1000+ in attendance. I'm not sure the venue will scale to next year. The halls were pretty crowded.
Saw DHH briefly in attendance on Saturday. Weird.
No conference is perfect, but I had a great time this year. I highly recommend PyCon for developers as well as companies that are using python (not to pitch us, but to interact with the community and to form a sybiotic relationship instead of leaching one).