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Calling All PyCon Rejects!

03.02.2012
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I recently received a very polite email from the PyCon program chair telling me what I already knew: my talk proposal didn't get accepted. My talk was rejected.

Let me explain how I already knew, why being rejected is not a bad thing, and why I'm challenging you to put your rejection to good use both personally and for the Python community.

This year is going to be my first PyCon. I'm signed up for the conference and taking a couple of tutorials as well. I'm really looking forwards to attending and decided that not only would I attend I would propose a talk.

I knew from the start that my talk proposal probably wouldn't be accepted but I had no idea just how low the odds in fact were.

I'm a good presenter - in my new job as a technical instructor I usually have no trouble connecting with my students, thinking on my feet and keeping the material interesting. I recently had a middle-aged engineer taking my Python Fundamentals class tell me "you're the best technical presenter I've ever heard."

I haven't done very much conference style presenting outside of a few talks at Baypiggies but I'm not afraid of public speaking, I'm organized, and like to think that I have a decent sense of technical aesthetics - what I find interesting and informative usually strikes other geeks the same way too.

Why Didn't I Get to Speak at PyCon?

In addition to proposing a talk I also volunteered to serve on the PyCon review board. I have to admit that I mostly lurked - the review board uses a web interface to rate the talks, IRC meetings to initially screen the talks, and then after similar talks are lumped together in groups further IRC meetings are held to approve or reject talks in various categories until enough talks have been accepted.

I realized after a few reviews that not only wasn't I qualified to speak at PyCon I probably wasn't qualified to review talks for PyCon. I've never been to a technical conference - even a smaller regional one - and I don't know the Python community outside the Bay Area at all. Because I've never been to a conference I wasn't thinking of the success of the conference when I proposed my talk - I was just thinking about me and what I would have fun playing with and talking about.

Two things stood out to me in the review process. First - given the number of talks submitted (~400) and the number accepted (~100) there is no reason for a talk to be accepted without multiple reviewers saying "I've heard this submitter before and can vouch for his or her presenting skills". This is absolutely relevant because it also affects conference-goers decisions. It certainly affects mine - I signed up for the IPython tutorial because Fernando Perez is teaching it. I've never heard Fernando talk but I can't imagine that the creator of IPython won't have something interesting to say about it. I don't know if it would have caught my eye if it was taught by a name I didn't recognize.

Second - the topic needs to attract a broad set of attendees. I proposed a talk on a package that is little known in a niche area. I remain absolutely confident that I could put together an interesting presentation - but would anyone come? If neither the name of the presenter nor the topic inherently draw a broad base of interest then the talk won't be competitive. Uncompetitive talks aren't good for a conference.

The Benefits of Rejection

I can see the benefits of my rejection. For instance I am grateful that I was not accepted only to end up speaking to an empty room. Rejection is always better than public suckage! More specifically I now know what I need to do to (hopefully) eventually speak at PyCon and it turns out that its something that will be good for me and for the Python community. Here, of course, is where you come in as well.

I remain confident that my proposal would make a good informative and entertaining talk. I also now understand that without a track record of conference presentation skills (or a role with a popular Python tool or program) I won't be speaking at PyCon. to get to my goal I need to do a couple of things.

First I should go ahead and do my talk - and you should too, fellow rejectees. As one of the organizers of a Python UG I know that it is sometimes difficult to find and schedule interesting talks. Your local area Python group is probably no different. I'll be finishing my talk and pitching it to Baypiggies next year and I'd like to encourage you to do the same wherever you are.

This will be good for me - I can practice my presentation-fu and polish my talk. It will also be good for my immediate Python community if my talk is as interesting and informative as I think it can be.

I'm hoping to go one step further, however, and you if you have no local Python UG you might have to proceed immediately to step two. Take a look at the python.org list of conferences. I'm just guessing but I bet the competition to present at PyOhio or PyTexas would be considerable less rigorous than at PyCon. There are also other conferences that are not specifically oriented towards Python but would accept Python talks. How great for the Python community would it be if in 2012 local Python conferences had lots of great talks to choose from and other more diverse conferences benefited from strong Python tracks?

tl;dr

If your proposal didn't get accepted for PyCon take your talk to your local Python UG and polish your skills - this will be good for them and good for you. Propose the talk to a regional Python or Open Source conference in 2012; you've already got the proposal written! If you weren't brave enough to propose a talk this year but would like to present at PyCon "someday" start preparing now by participating in the larger Python community. When you write your PyCon proposal next year perhaps your additional success and exposure will mean that your proposal makes it past the initial screening.




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