A field, a tent, and a large amount of Polish food – the makings of a great conference.
DjangoCon and I have a long history. The very first DjangoCon, back in 2008, was also my very first conference – and I’ve achieved the slightly dubious honour of having attended every single one.
They are not, of course, the only conferences that I go to; these days I try to speak at a variety of events. I’ve seen a lot of venues and they’re all variations on a theme. That theme, of course, is large rooms full of chairs.
DjangoCon EU 2013, hosted last week in Warsaw, bucked that trend and was probably the best yet – and that’s not something I say lightly. Ola Sitarska and the rest of her team went for an inspired gamble that really paid off.
The stage, and Craig Kerstiens. From flickr.com/photos/patrick91
When I first heard of the plans to host this year’s DjangoCon EU in a circus tent, I was a little sceptical – after all, conference venues have evolved over many decades to serve the many needs of a large-scale event. Seating, airflow, power, networking, A/V, catering and toilets are all needs of a modern conference population.
The end result, however, was impressive. The circus tent had been outfitted with power, WiFi, lighting, a stage, projectors, audio and even chillers full of drinks, and beats many indoor venues I’ve spoken in. One entire side of the tent was open to the outside, providing easy airflow and access without making the inside too bright.
There were a couple of small niggles – the flight path of the nearby airport had changed the week before, meaning planes would occasionally interrupt talks, there wasn’t quite enough toilet capacity at peak times, and WiFi was sluggish – which is normal for tech conferences. These were all outweighed by the positives, though – and what positives there were.
One of my tweets describes the conference as "like a music festival", which gives some idea of the wonderful attitude everyone had. Hammocks, deckchairs and bean bags were some of the seating options, there was a plentiful supply of free popcorn, and in between talks you could wander down to the fountain, relax on picnic blankets under the trees or dip into an entire freezer of ice cream.
Everyone was in a very good mood, and very relaxed. DjangoCon has always gone for a laid back approach, and here it worked incredibly well. I mostly come to DjangoCon to socialise and meet new people, rather than to learn from the talks, and in that environment it worked very well.
Danny’s handstand lessons are almost a DjangoCon staple. From flickr.com/photos/patrick91
I’d like to highlight the catering in particular – it makes such a difference to have snacks and drinks available throughout the day rather than at set times. It was possible at any point in the afternoon to go and get some ice cream, fruit juice or even one of the sandwiches from breakfast.
Not only that, but the catering during the sprints wasn’t the usual case of just ordering pizza or sandwiches for everyone – there were proper hot meals, with desserts. Portion size suffered a little since the sprints were so popular, but it was still very tasty, and I’m pleased to see healthier food at a sprint event.
As a speaker, the slick execution of this conference began before I even arrived. As DjangoCon is a community-run conference, staffed entirely by volunteers, speakers are generally expected to pay their own way, sometimes including some of the ticket price. This time, however, not only was admission free but the organisers picked us up from the airport and sorted out the hotel.
Of course, it’s not that unusual for a conference to do this at all – I’ve experienced it many times before – but to do it while still keeping the prices low was impressive, and Ola and her team did it well, keeping us up to date and taking feedback into account very quickly.
One thing I wish more conferences did for their speakers is providing a local SIM card with data – this is especially useful in non-English-speaking countries, where getting one can be tricky. DjangoCon provided one right in the welcome basket, and I used it all week – a data connection is invaluable for navigating a foreign city.
Approaching the circus through the trees
I continue to be really impressed by the way the Django community evolves each year. DjangoCon EU itself gets more impressive every year – and previous years have set a high standard indeed.
Conferences are a very important part of bringing a community together and fostering the cohesion that really helps keep a project like Django going. I’m so glad that DjangoCon exists, and that each one helps push forward projects both old and new. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the tech scene is mostly governed by who you know, rather than what, but events like these offer a way to improve both at once.
I’m also amazed how each year another group of volunteers tirelessly steps up to host, and this year was no different – a team of French volunteers stepped up to host it in the French Rivera next year. I can’t wait – I wish them the best of luck.
I have many friends who I only ever see at conferences, and so the return of conference season each year is always a delight. It’s a privilege to be able to attend and enjoy all these events each year, and to the organisers – not only of DjangoCon EU but all similar events – I’d like to say one thing: dziękuję!