As those of you who follow me on Twitter may know, I was in LA on a work assignment for most of the past month. It was a busy few weeks, but I took time out on Sunday, May 15th to do something really cool. I attended the PyLadies’ first-ever “Intro to Python” workshop. And it was great.
How I Discovered the “Intro to Python” Workshop
I’m not from LA, and I don’t know anyone in the city. Further, I’m not a part of the tech community (though I’m a definite wannabe) – so how did I even hear about an event like this? Thank goodness for blogs. I added Women 2.0 to my reader a little while ago, and it was their “Community Events”sidebar that alerted me to the Intro to Python workshop in LA – conveniently scheduled for a time I was in town! After discovering the event, it took me about four days to decide to actually register. First, I wasn’t sure how I would get there (it was in Pasadena, and I was staying in Westwood), and then I had to get over my fear that this was something I wouldn’t be good at. At one point, it was looking like I might have to take public transportation, so I emailed Audrey Roy (one of the lead organizers) to get her advice. She replied to me with such a wonderfully helpful and caring email that the decision was made – I was going to the workshop. I’d find a way!
What It Was Like
Luckily, I ended up borrowing a car, so the trek out to Pasadena wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. The workshop was held in a really cool venue – the state-of-the-art building that houses the Southern California Public Radio. As for registrants, there were 27 women (and two men) in total – which is a pretty amazing turnout considering that this was the first event of its kind. I enjoyed meeting everyone, including the organizers (Audrey Roy, Katharaine Jarmul, Christine Cheung, Esther Nam, Jessica Stanton, Sandy Strong and Sophia Viklund). Because I tend to spend a lot of time with other business school graduates, I found it sort of refreshing to be around people who spend their days in a completely different way. I feel like I gained a little perspective.
The day was really well-organized. As a group, after introductions and some set-up (like downloading a good text editor), we went through more than half of the exercises from “Learn Python The Hard Way” by Zed Shaw. (I just discovered that you can now take a four-week course with him via udemy, for $250, if that is of interest to you.) It was awesome having people there to answer your questions and give you tips as we went through the exercises – the PyLadies walked around the whole time and would help anyone who needed it (including me when I had a Syntax Error on Exercise 1 – jeez).
By lunchtime, I felt a bit like my brain was frying, but spending an hour or so chatting with some of the PyLadies about what we were learning and what the next steps were, as well as the sorts of things they were getting up to in their careers did the trick. During the lunch break, a bunch of people went on a tour of the radio station, but I was enjoying the conversation too much to take a break. Seriously, there is something really special about women getting together to help other women – and really caring about it.
After lunch, we re-arranged the room and separated into breakout sessions. I chose to attend the one led by Katharine about using Python to scrape the web (or, as she subtitled her talk, “How I Use Python to Get Daily Happy Hour Deals Delivered to my Inbox” or something to that effect). Pretty cool stuff. We learned how to scrape the HTML of web pages for certain words, the first ten characters, to find out quickly if there are images on pages, etc. And the Katharine shared with us the program she wrote to accomplish her talk’s subtitle. Esther, who co-led this session, has done something pretty cool with web-scraping too. She created a Twitter list with all the food trucks that drive around her area in LA. (We don’t really have these in Toronto, but do you know what I’m talking about? These trucks drive around LA and let people know where they are via Twitter…I first heard about this over two years ago, I think, and apparently it’s still a huge deal.) Using Twitter’s API she built a program that tells her when trucks are nearby – so she doesn’t have to read a long list of tweets to figure it out. Understanding how this works is still about 400 Python-learning hours away for me (and if I got it wrong, Esther, I apologize!) but it drove the point home – you can do cool stuff once you learn how to scrape the web.
The day finished off with Lightning Talks – each of the organizers took a few minutes to tell us about a topic they’re passionate about. A few of them were probably way over most people’s heads (there was something about how “=” and “is” in Python both mean equal, but they’re different types of equal???), but a few were really great. (The one about ergonomics inspired my last post.) We also spoke a bit about equality/diversity in technology, which I find to be a pretty interesting topic. I find it even more interesting, though, when people do more than just talk about the issue…I like when people take action, and that’s exactly what the PyLadies have done here.
Above anything else, what really sticks out for me about this experience was how much the women wanted us to learn and succeed and have fun. Everyone was so, so genuine. They worked hard to make sure it was a non-intimidating environment, and you could tell it worked because people weren’t shy about asking questions. This was my very first experience with computer programming (other than HTML and CSS) and the PyLadies did an amazing job of ensuring that it won’t be my last – I learned a lot, gained some confidence, found out that this is something I can do, and had fun at the same time! It may actually have been the highlight of my LA trip!
(Audrey shared with me that she got the inspiration for forming the PyLadies from a talk given by Asheesh Laroia at PyCon 2011. I had a chance to watch the whole thing tonight and I highly recommend checking it out. There are a lot of tips on managing communities that can apply to groups outside of open source.)
Thanks to all of the PyLadies and the other volunteers that helped make the day such a success – you guys are doing great stuff, and it is appreciated.
Live in Toronto? Here’s the Call-to-Action…
So – for people living in Toronto, here’s the call to action, if you’ve stuck with me this far. Toronto needs a group like this. It doesn’t have to be Python. I literally don’t know enough to know what it should be. But I can tell you for a fact that if my freshman year Computer Science course had been anything (anything!) like the PyLadies “Intro to Python” workshop, I’d probably be in a different career right now. Something is stopping women from developing these technical skill sets the way men do (just look at the numbers), and we’d be better off if we did something about it.
If you know anyone living in Toronto who might like to begin to learn to code, please give them my email address and have them reach out to me. Over the next couple months, I’m going to try and get together a handful of ladies (guys can come, but they have to be the guest of a lady – a model that started with the Ruby group in San Francisco) and see if we can start a learning group. We’ll take it from there.
My email address? heather [at] heatherpayne [dot ca]. Thanks in advance for spreading the word – I really appreciate it!
PS. Three weeks in LA, and all I got was this (awesome) t-shirt: http://bit.ly/ldBxJd
Photo source: Pyladies’ Flickr Stream