There's a controversy that just won't die, and it's obscuring the true merits of a great conference. PyCon was a fantastic, forward-thinking gathering that accomplished much in terms of disseminating technical knowledge, promoting diversity, and encouraging novice technologists from all backgrounds to hone their craft. It's a shame that this is all being overshadowed by divisiveness, backlash, and mutually assured destruction of reputations, businesses, and careers.
I'd like to tell my story about my experience with the PyCon organizers with respect to their code of conduct. My presentation was somewhat edgy, inasmuch as the content I was modeling was pretty provocative stuff. I wanted to make sure that I wasn't presenting anything that could be deemed as rude or culturally insensitive. I went so far as to look for a different domain for a language model, other than a hip hop gossip blog, but ended up deciding against it, because this was something I was passionate about and really enjoyed writing. I knew that that would come through in my presentation, but I thought it would be worth reaching out to the organizers anyway, in advance, to make sure that the content of the presentation conformed to the established code of conduct.
The organizing committee, particularly Jacob Kaplan-Moss and Yarko Tymciurak, were helpful and constructive. It was clear that they had done their homework, and had reviewed the code and blog post that the proposed talk was based off of. They let me know that they had discussed the presentation in the context of the code of conduct and were not worried. They offered up the helpful hint that I should issue a joking "parental advisory" on my talk. This was a creative solution, as it not only helped prepare the audience for what they were getting into, but actually contributed to the hip-hop aesthetic of the presentation.
I was initially worried that due to the highly publicized code of conduct, attendees at PyCon may be a little humorless. The organizing committee did a great job at making me feel quite the opposite -- that my audience, being welcoming, offbeat Pythonistas, would more likely really take to my talk. When I gave my presentation, I was very pleased to see that I had not ruffled anyone's feathers. I may have lost a few people on my Trinidad James reference, but I'm okay with that being my biggest problem.
In participating in PyCon, I managed to learn a great deal about things I didn't even know I could have an interest in, like hacking a Raspberry Pi or using PyGame as an interactive platform for embedded graphical UIs. I had the pleasure of meeting a lot of interesting people who shared my enthusiasm for machine learning and text processing. I even had a handful of people come up to me at the end of my talk who wanted to know where they could learn more about using Python for statistical natural language processing.
Walking around the exhibitor hall was a very refreshing experience. I spent a year and a half writing and supporting software onsite for major tech conferences, so I've been around some exhibitor halls. The atmosphere of many of them were indeed the horror story or worst-case scenario that served as the impetus for the PyCon code of conduct. I've supported conferences where female attendees number in the small single digit percentage of attendees. At those conferences, I've seen some of the more coarse gentlemen treat colleagues in their own profession like "exhibitor booth babes". I've seen tech companies try to use sex to sell the stupidest things. It was refreshing to be in a conference free of those sort of tactics. But to tell you the truth, these improprieties are more common in "enterprisey" conferences with a bigger "biz-dev" slant. So for instance, the ZendCon I attended in 2011 seemed roughly as laid-back and welcoming, if not as overt about their intention to ensure the comfort of all attendees.
I know that there's a small undercurrent of opinion that thinks that some parts of the PyCon code of conduct may have been draconian in nature, and that it allowed an opportunistic person to abuse it to her own end. But it's an evolving standard. The code of conduct has already accomplished a great deal in making all conference attendees feel comfortable and welcomed. These sorts of situations are opportunities to engage in constructive discourse, and continue growing. The fact that the code of conduct was revised to address this year's problems shows that progress is consistently being made. I think the problem is not with there being a code of conduct, or even with there being a code of conduct that skews towards promoting diversity, but that it was used as a weapon against a person, rather than as a method of protection. The problem was one individual grasping at straws for something to sensationalize, to further their own agenda.
I can tell you from my personal experience with the organizing committee that they are open, laid-back, and friendly. They trusted the attendees to follow a small set of heavily advertised guidelines, and had a very good attitude about it. They weren't using it to preemptively stifle anyone's freedom of expression; I can say that firsthand. When they were contacted for the incident that has made this PyCon infamous, they handled the problem discreetly and professionally. It was the circumvention of the code of conduct that caused any controversy in the first place.
The true shame of this whole event is that you can't support either side without attracting ire from the more extreme members of the opposition. As has already been said, no one really won anything from this incident. Two people lost their jobs, a company that many other companies depend on was temporarily crippled, and the discourse on improving diversity in tech slumped backwards in a way it will be hard to rebuild from.
So let's stop focusing on needless controversy. We can all admit that almost everyone makes off-color jokes. We can all admit that we can always do a better job getting more people from different backgrounds into tech. I don't think the solution is to dwell on mistakes people have made in the past, or to take a single complaint and treat it as representative of everyone's experience. I think we should save strict enforcement and generating cycles of controversy for real transgressions that would rightfully make a person feel uncomfortable or out of place. No one else has come forward with similar complaints about PyCon attendees. If anything we're seeing PyCon attendees -- male and female alike -- joining together to reaffirm that this was a positive experience for everyone involved.
"Donglegate", or whatever you'd like to call it, really only serves to keep someone's name on the tip of your tongue. So let's put it behind us, learn from it, and make more conferences as welcoming and educational as PyCon.