Monday, November 30, 2015

The Tutorial deadline is here!

Tutorial proposals for PyCon 2016 are due today. The submission form will close once it has passed midnight in every time zone. If you have dreamed of giving an in-depth 3-hour class to your fellow PyCon attendees, it is time to write up a description and get it submitted!

What is a Tutorial?
https://us.pycon.org/2016/speaking/tutorials/

The main CFP.
https://us.pycon.org/2016/speaking/

The “Submit a new proposal” button is on your dashboard.
https://us.pycon.org/2016/dashboard/

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tutorial proposals are due two weeks from today

There are only two weeks left before PyCon tutorial proposals are due! If you have ever dreamed about delivering a valuable 3-hour tutorial in front of dozens of fellow PyCon attendees, you can read more about the proposal process here:

https://us.pycon.org/2016/speaking/tutorials/

You might have been pondering a question as you finished reading my post last week. It celebrated PyCon 2016’s more aggressive schedule, which moves the proposal deadlines closer to the date of the conference. But you might have been puzzled that there are now two separate dates:

  • Tutorial proposals are due: 2015 November 30
  • Talk and poster proposals are due: 2016 January 3

The difference between the two dates is more than a month. Why aren’t talks and tutorial proposals simply due on the same day?

The answer is that the tutorial selection process is not as compressible as the process for talks. To understand the difference, first consider the task faced by the talk committee:

  • Talks are completely free for PyCon attendees. You can walk into a talk, decide that you might be more interested in the one next door, and (quietly!) slip out.
  • Most talks last 30 minutes — a few are given 45 minutes — so a reasonable amount of solid, well-organized material will usually be enough for a talk to make good use of its slot.
  • The primary problem that the talk committee faces is volume. Hundreds of talks are proposed for which there are only about 95 slots available. A large proportion of the proposals are very good ones, and would make great talks if admitted to the conference.

Each talk that the program committee selects is therefore going to be a relatively low-risk choice for the conference as a whole. They will be choosing from among the many proposals that look great, for a time slot that is only a small fraction of the whole conference, and that will not cost you anything if you pop into a talk for a few minutes but it winds up not meeting your expectations based on its description.

And so the talk program committee, equipped with new streamlined review software that replaces the grueling IRC meetings that the committee previously suffered, agreed to try tightening its schedule this year by nearly two months. I am going to do my best to support them!

The tutorials committee, by contrast, faces a quite different situation.

  • Each tutorial costs money for its attendees. Last year the cost was $150 per tutorial for those who signed up ahead of time, and $200 for those who sign up on-site. For many PyCon attendees this is a weighty expense, and therefore a severe blow if they pay for a tutorial but it winds up not meeting their needs.
  • A tutorial lasts a full 3 hours, split into two 1½-hour segments separated by a coffee break. Each tutorial’s material must use this full amount of time effectively, or attendees will feel cheated out of the full three hours of instruction that they were expecting.
  • Each tutorial proposal will cover roughly 6 times the material of a typical talk, which makes for slower reading even if the proposal summarizes their material more briefly.

The tutorial selection process therefore carries higher risk for the conference. Every tutorial needs to deliver something very close to what its description promises — there can’t be any over-the-top claims in the abstract that fail to be delivered in the tutorial itself.

This leads the tutorials committee, burdened as they are by this extra level of trust — PyCon attendees are going to pay for every tutorial they approve! — to adopt a slower and more careful process. One of the volunteer tutorial chairs this year, Ruben D. Orduz, explained it to me this way:
“The number of reviewers is not our bottleneck. The issue is that we don’t accept or deny tutorials outright unless they are truly unsalvageable or already perfect. Instead, we go through each of the proposals, carefully, and we reach out to the authors. The authors are given a week or two to fix things we think will make their proposal even better. Then we go back and re-review them.
“It’s a very time-consuming process, but it helps in selecting the best lineup while making sure every tutorial that had potential was given a fair chance. Compressing the timeline would mean only selecting from the top well-known proposers and forgetting the rest. That would be against our philosophy of giving chances to new instructors and increasing diversity.”
Given these differences in risk and process, I thanked the tutorials committee for being willing to shorten their process from 4 months to 3 months this year, and agreed that they should not try to compress their schedule any further. And so the result is that, for the first time, PyCon talk and tutorial proposals are due on different dates, each as close to the conference as the volunteers on each committee can safely manage.

I think that the difference in dates make sense overall. The January deadline for talks keeps us open for as long as possible to new technology and recent developments in the Python community. The earlier deadline for tutorials reminds us that the best tutorials are likely to be about well-established topics — the subjects that will make safe and productive tutorial topics for PyCon 2016, after all, will probably not depend on software or news that only emerges in December!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why proposals are due so many months before PyCon

“Why does PyCon make us submit proposals six whole months before the conference? They expect us to start thinking of topics for PyCon 2016 while it is still 2015!”

To be honest, I used to ask the same question about PyCon myself. Now that I am the conference chair, I have the privilege of working directly with the volunteers who make the conference possible! They have been generous with their time in bringing me up to speed on how each of their committees operate, helping me see the big picture of how the conference schedule is negotiated each year.

And better yet, they have proved willing to accept a challenge: we have made the schedule more aggressive this year, to close some of the gap between the close of the Call for Proposals and the start of the conference itself! I am excited about the results of their hard work:

  • Tutorial proposals are due on 2015 November 30, which is 25 days closer to the conference than the same deadline last year.
  • Talk proposals are due on 2016 January 3, which is 59 days closer to the conference than last year — an improvement of nearly two months!

It would have been less risky to simply repeat the PyCon 2015 schedule over again, so I thank the volunteer chairs for their boldness here. In an upcoming post I will share more details about their process, and about how you can volunteer on their committees to help them achieve this year’s more ambitious schedule!

But, for now, let me introduce the whole subject by answering the question I posed — why does the CFP close so many months before the conference?

Imagine a speaker from another country who wants to give a talk at PyCon. Their salary is low by United States standards. They might have a hard time obtaining a visa. If the Python Software Foundation wants its flagship international conference to be able to welcome speakers from all over the world, what constraints does that place upon the schedule?

Unless we are going to ask speakers to undertake personal financial risk for the mere chance of getting to attend and speak, PyCon will operate under three constraints:

  1. International speakers are one of the constituencies we try to serve through our Financial Aid program, so after we announce PyCon’s schedule of accepted talks, tutorials, and posters, the speaker will need time to turn around and apply for Financial Aid.
  2. We will then need time to complete our Financial Aid process and make award decisions before we expect an applicant to spend money applying for a visa.
  3. It can take more than a month for the government to rule on a visa. Only once a speaker has received a visa — instead of a rejection — can they risk purchasing an airline ticket and making the other financial commitments involved in arranging travel.

If you imagine that each of these three steps takes roughly a month, then you understand why talk and poster proposals are due on 3 January 2015. January and February belong to the program committee process that chooses talks and posters. March is when the financial aid committee receives applications and decides on awards. In April the government will process and (hopefully) accept the speaker’s visa application. If all goes well, that will leave an international speaker with only a bit more than a month to purchase an airplane ticket and travel to the conference!

So the long lead time between the CFP and the conference arises from the PSF’s goal of making PyCon a conference not just for North America, but for the entire world. We make it the one event each year where the Python community sets the stretch goal of not just welcoming people from a single region or continent, but of welcoming everyone. That means we have to close our CFP earlier than any other Python conference — but we believe it’s worth it.