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pyArkansas 2012 recap - bigger and better than ever

Wednesday, December 05, 2012
pyArkansas photos on Flickr

This fall marked the fifth year for pyArkansas. It's hard to believe that it was only a little over five years ago that Greg Lindstrom and I crossed paths on a email thread about getting a Python user group together in Arkansas. Greg also had the idea for putting on a small Python conference. I think we would both admit that we've struggled at starting a user group, but we have been very successful with pyArkansas.

We never kept any attendance records (we probably never really saw a need to), so we don't know for sure how many people we've had over the years, but I think our first year in 2008, we had about 30 or so folks show up. That first year was very informal, our website was a wiki that Jeff Rush set up for us, and our budget was $1800 (which we thought was huge), funded completely by Novasys Health, and went almost completely to bringing in speakers. The University of Central Arkansas (UCA) Department of Computer Science graciously donated their space and staff for us to use, and have continued to ever since. Wingware gave us swag and Wing IDE licenses for prizes, O'Reilly Publishing sent us several boxes of books to giveaway.

Fast forward five years. Each year we have continued to grow. This year we had over 110 attendees, Jeff Rush was our keynote speaker, t-shirts were sponsored by New Relic, and we had an amazing lineup of sponsors including Novasys Health, the Python Software Foundation, Google, Heroku, Work for Pie, Mozilla, Enthought, the Django Software Foundation, and 10gen|MongoDB.

We also had a conference website running on Symposion from Eldarion and hosted for free on WebFaction, five tutorials, seventeen 30-minute talks, six lightning talks, and an amazing collection of swag and prizes including four Raspberry Pis and almost 30 books from O'Reilly, No Starch, and Manning. pyArkansas had grown up. Just thinking about it all still amazes me. I also am still a little surprised that we pulled it off again this year, not because we don't know what we are doing, but because it is just so much work - and not just for those of us planning the conference, but for those great folks that are willing to come (some from pretty far away) and present their work and projects.

Let's face it; we can set up a great conference, but without speakers, we got nothin'. Know what else amazes me? Sponsors. Getting sponsors is hard work. For every one you get, at least another one turns you down. Our sponsors ranged from small startups all the way up to the some of the largest tech and internet giants on the planet, and we are so grateful to each of them. These gracious sponsors allowed us to keep pyArkansas admission-free once again this year.

Growing up

Like I said earlier, pyArkansas grew up this year. After pyArkansas 2011, we targeted several areas that needed improvement, but three really stood out:
  1. We needed a larger venue. The Computer Science Department facilities at the University of Central Arkansas were great, but there wasn't a room where we could get everyone together for opening, closing, and keynote sessions.
  2. We needed to get non-profit status if we wanted to raise more funds; otherwise someone has to take on the financial burden and pay taxes on any funds we raise from sponsorships.
  3. We needed a real website that could help us get the word out and showcase our event, talks, and sponsors.

For our venue, we chose the Brewer-Hegeman Conference Center on the campus of UCA. This turned out to be a great decision, as it is a wonderful facility with a great staff that was there to help us every step of the way. At Brewer-Hegeman, we had a main hall that can seat 200, which allowed us to have the one and only Jeff Rush come and give a keynote talk on "What is Python, and why is it cool?" This was a great talk that covered some of the history of Python, how it works, and what you can do with it - great material for users of all experience levels.

Regarding non-profit status, in the summer of 2012, the Python Software Foundation approved a resolution allowing our conference organization to be a project of the PSF. Thanks again Kurt Kaiser, Van Lindberg, Jessica McKellar, Jesse Noller, and everyone else at the PSF for making this happen - it's working out great.

Our final need was for a conference website. The PyTexas group had a great site modeled after the PyCon conference site. Turns out, Eldarion designed the PyCon site and open-sourced it as Symposion, which is what PyTexas uses and what we quickly went with as well for pyArkansas. Symposion is a fantastic product and the guys at Eldarion were helpful in answering a few questions I had. Without the help of Wade Austin and Wayne Werner, two of our pyArkansas alums, I probably never would have gotten the pyArkansas site up, as that was my first experience with a Python web framework.

What we did right this year

This was the biggest and best pyArkansas yet: the most talks, the most attendees, the most sponsors, and the most prizes. Here are a few things that went especially well.
  • We used the Symposion framework for capturing talk submissions. Wow, was this awesome. Taking talk abstract submissions by email is no fun at all. Symposion has the ability to allow speakers to register on the site, create a speaker bio, and submit one or more talks. Speakers can also go back in and edit their submisssions as well. If you've submitted a talk proposal to PyCon, it's the same as that, and it totally rocks.
  • We used the Symposion framework for managing and showcasing sponsors. Logos, contacts, and company descriptions are all stored in the database and easily presentable on the site with a little bit of Django hacking. Symposion really lets you give your sponsors the recognition they deserve, which is super important, people!
  • We used EventBrite for registration. Our event was free, so using EventBrite was free. In the past, we have used a Google Spreadsheet - never again will we do that. I for one am hooked on EventBrite; it easily integrates into your site, has a great administrative interface, nice reporting tools, and great attendee management like automated, scheduled emails that go out to all of your registered attendees. One thing we didn't do was using the EventBrite event page to check people in (we used a printed sheet), that would have helped with our record keeping.
  • We sought sponsors early. I'll say it again, getting sponsors is a lot of hard work. Many companies plan their sponsorships 10-12 months in advance, so if you wait too long, they are not going to be able to sponsor your event. Also crucial to seeking sponsorships is having a sponsor prospectus, a document telling potential sponsors what your event is and what they would get out of sponsoring it. Like much of the pyArkansas website content, our sponsor prospectus was heavily borrowed from the official PyCon sponsor prospectus.
  • We finally had t-shirts. Since year one, we have wanted to have t-shirts for attendees, but since we have kept pyArkansas admission-free, our budget never allowed it. This year, we decided to seek a dedicated t-shirt sponsor, and New Relic quickly answered the call. Our shirts were nothing fancy, but we think they turned out nicely; they were purple, one of the colors of UCA, and included the logos of our t-shirt, gold, silver, and bronze sponsors.
  • We used Twitter. This is the first year we had a Twitter account for the conference (@pyarkansas), and it allowed us post updates, respond to questions, and also to reach out to a previously untapped group of users not too far down Interstate 40 in Memphis, Tennessee.
  • We had a conference hotel with a reduced rate. The Conway Chamber of Commerce worked hard to get us a rate at a local hotel that saved $20 per night off the regular rate.
  • We had real nametags and lanyards. Katie and Larry Hale spearheaded the namebadge effort and secured neck lanyards and badge holders and stayed up late the night before printing and assembling nametags and lanyards. We also used badge ribbons from PC Nametag to recognize speakers, sponsors and organizers, among others. These people all worked hard to make the conference happen, and they deserve the recognition.

Things we need to improve on for 2013


  • Allow for more time for registration first thing in the morning. We had 30 minutes this year, it probably needs to be an hour.
  • Seek sponsors earlier. Yeah, I know I said we did this right earlier, but honestly, you can't start this process early enough.
  • Coordinate volunteers, session moderators in particular, earlier. In the registration process, attendees could denote if they wanted to help out, but I didn't do a good job of assigning rooms and communicating with the moderators. I thought I could do it the day of the show, but I was soooo wrong.
  • Record the tutorials and talks. For the first time, we had video recording lined up, but it fell through literally days before the conference. For 2013, we will get multiple quotes on recording and seek out a dedicated sponsor for recording. Again, this is something to do very early.
  • Get the Call for Proposals (CFP) out earlier. This year the CFP went out mid-August, and for an end of October conference, it should go out a few months earlier, like late spring.

How we got it all done

So how is it that all of this is possible? I'll tell you how: community. Events like pyArkansas are a true testament to the power and commitment of the Python community; conference organizers, sponsors, and attendees all giving their time and resources so 100 or so people can get together under one roof, share ideas and knowledge, and get to know one another. Several people deserve to be thanked directly.

Organizers

  • Greg Lindstrom - without Greg, pyArkansas wouldn't exist. Period. Greg had the idea and has been and continues to be a driving force behind pyArkansas.
  • Katie and Larry Hale - our registration experts and purveyors of fine swag materials for many years now. Katie and Larry stayed up practically all night before the conference printing out and assembling nametags and registration materials.
  • Dr. Chenyi Hu, UCA - Dr. Hu has been a huge supporter of pyArkansas since our humble beginnings five years ago, always offering his teaching facilities and staff in any way he can. Thank you for everything you have done and continue to do, Chenyi.
  • Wade Austin and Wayne Werner - Wade and Wayne helped to get our new Django site up and running, which allowed us to put out our CFP and showcase our sponsors.

Sponsors

We had an amazing group of sponsors this year. Thank you very much to you all.

Speakers

We can plan a conference all we want, but without speakers, we really have nuthin'. Speakers and their talks really are the heart of any conference. For 2012 we had seventeen talks by thirteen speakers and five tutorials by four instructors. Morning tutorials covered topics such as Intro to Python, GeoDjango, Python in Blender and notable features of Python. Afternoon talks covered topics such as Flask, MongoDB, Heroku, wxPython, Salt, test driven development, GIS, Django, scientific Python, and dunders.

This was definitely one of our most diverse talk and tutorial lineups yet. Thanks go out to all of our great speakers; thanks for preparing your talks, traveling to Arkansas (many of you), and for taking the time to make pyArkansas a reality.

  • Adam Fast
  • Wayne Werner
  • Gordon Fisher
  • V. James Powell
  • Kenneth Reitz
  • Greg Lindstrom
  • Chenyi Hu
  • Luke Crouch
  • Jason Tullis
  • Jeff Bauer
  • Jason Myers
  • Jeff Rush
  • Gabriel Grant
  • Luke Lee

Attendees

Last, but certainly not least, a big thank you goes out to our attendees. Like speakers, conferences cannot happen without attendees. Over the course of the day, I met many of our attendees, I would have liked to had a chance to talk to many more. 2012 was the first year we broke 100 attendees; quite a milestone for us. From what I can gather, our attendees are quite a diverse bunch, so hopefully pyArkansas 2012 had something for all of the them.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we feel that pyArkansas 2012 was a huge success. We set new highs in attendees, speakers, and sponsors. We graduated to larger facilities, which allowed us to have a morning keynote session and an afternoon closing/giveaways session. Planning for 2013 has already begun, and it too, will be bigger and better. Hope to see you there.

pyArkansas photos on Flickr

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