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Learning to code == Learning about community

It’s June 1, 2016, and the day after returning from PyCon 2016. Now seems like a good day to officially declare to myself, and the abyss of the internet, that I am learning Python.

Here’s the backstory.

I like languages, I like people, and I am interested and moved by humans, being.

Why is this relevant and how are these three separate interests connected? I’d like to share the answer with you in a short story about my initial experiences of Python, and Pycon 2016. This is simultaneously the story of that technical deep dive, and a thank you letter to my fiancé and the python community.

1. I like languages, I like people, and humans move me

With a Jewish father and a Vietnamese mother, I have always been surrounded by different languages, nuances and expressions. Everyday conversation was, and is, peppered with Vietnamese and Yiddish words. These life lessons contributed to my belief that communication is complex, multi-faceted, dynamic and in flux.

During five years of travel, the beliefs forged during my childhood were reinforced. I was challenged by new languages, cultures and traditions. I learnt many things, one of them being the potency of communication, and that communication has many faces: verbal and non-verbal. I love people, and for me, this means that I need to make the effort to learn their mother tongue, and the different ways that they communicate: food, gestures, body language…

This temporary nomadism was also a forceful reminder of the importance of family and being part of a community.

So, when my fiancé introduced me to Python, I was intrigued. Python seemed to embody communication, community and transnationalism. I had never thought of learning a computer language, but why not? What made this method of communication any different to spoken languages?

2. Lessons from my fiancé: Python is so much more than a snake

When my fiancé, Matt, and I first started dating, I knew that he used his beautiful brain to code (whatever that meant), and engineer software. Beyond that, I found it hard to explain what he did — communicate with computers? After overhearing some of his work calls, I realised that lambs (AWS lambda), snakes (python) and vegetables (celery) were a recurring theme — so perhaps he was a software-engineer-cum-vegetable-and-animal-enthusiast? As a vegan, that interpretation worked for me.

The more questions I asked, the more I learned (i.e. that python was so much more than a snake), and the more curious I became. I realized that the way that I felt about Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Isaan, Spanish and French, was how Matt felt about his work. Watching him write code became pretty magical. Whilst what Matt typed into his terminal was unintelligible to me, I knew that his fingers were producing invisible bricks and mortar.

With guidance from Matt, I dipped my toes into the coding pool, taking Codecademy’s courses on HTML, CSS and Python, and attending tech Meetups with Matt. When people asked me what I did, I either joked that I was Guido, or wrote PEP 8, which left people either baffled or laughing nervously. What started as an effort to better understand Matt’s world, ultimately became a new hobby that was not only interesting, but pretty awesome.

3. PyCon 2016: Community

Fast forward quite a few months, and I was attending PyCon 2016 with Matt.

I kicked off the conference by attending a Django Girls workshop which was such a great opportunity. For every two attendees, there was one coach, volunteering their time and sharing what they knew. My coach, Irish Medina, metaphorically held my hand as I attempted to build my own blog. She survived my torrent of questions (“what is the command line?”) and helped me birth a baby blog.

Walking into the Oregon Convention Centre, I wasn’t sure what was in store, but I expected to be out of my depth. Whilst a lot of what I heard definitely went over my head, I was surprised by how many chance meetings (discussing knitting with Anna Raven), conversations (e.g. talking to Lars Lohn about native American reservations), experiences (e.g. juggling open space with Ned Batchelder) and talks (e.g. Adrienne Friend) really made sense and resonated with me. Rather than feeling discouraged by the overwhelming wealth of information and talent in the PyCon community, I felt welcomed and supported by it.

However, what stood out most for me was the sense of community that Python and PyCon fostered. My experience was that for the most part, the community was not only humble and accepting, but also increasingly self-aware and developing. I was impressed by the way that keynote speakers blended into the crowd, sharing stories and anecdotes with people that looked up to them; support for women; gender neutral bathrooms and LGBTQ open spaces.

4. Why Python excites me (at this early stage)

At this early stage, I feel like technical languages, such as Python, have the potential to transcend linguistic borders and limitations. I’m not sure what comes next, but I am really excited to foster this baby snake, in the hopes that it grows into a fully fledged Python.

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