How we do it in Boston

Sunday 7 August 2011

I’m an organizer of the Boston Python Meetup, and in the last six months Jessica McKellar and Asheesh Laroia came on board, and we’ve ramped up the activity in the group. We’re also starting to talk more with other Python user groups elsewhere, so I thought it would be useful to describe how we ccurrently run ours. Of course, if you are in the Boston area, I heartily encourage you to join us!

We have three types of events we’ve been doing since the spring: a monthly presentation series, a monthly project night, and a weekend workshop series.

Presentation series

The monthly presentation series is what we’ve been doing for years now, though we’ve added to it: the third Wednesday of the month (usually), we have a speaker or two for a traditional “sit down and listen” presentation. The speakers are from the local community, and need not be huge experts. Anyone with enough interest in a topic to talk about it is welcome.

You can look over our previous meetups to see some past topics. Sometimes a speaker will volunteer, but more often I have to cajole people into presenting. A few of the topics have simply been things that I wanted to know more about, or that I thought other members would want to know more about, and I ask around to find someone willing to learn enough about it to present it. Other times, people are doing something interesting, and I ask them to talk about their work.

We’ve tried to keep a good mix of beginner and advanced topics, though I think we average around the intermediate-to-advanced level.

A great source for speakers is PyCon. Often you have knowledgable speakers with presentations ready to go right in your neighborhood, but you have to root them out because they don’t know your user group exists. For example, every year, in January and February, we run meetup nights with the upcoming Boston-area PyCon presenters rehearsing their talks. Last year we had nine presenters to schedule!

Following Yannick’s advice, we’ve recently added two new components to the presentation nights: lightning talks and beers afterwards. Lightning talks are a good way to get more people talking, though we’ve only just started, and I haven’t figured out how to keep a steady stream of them going. People don’t think they have anything to say, but as I put it recently,

Everyone has two things in them: a novel and a lightning talk. We don’t have time for your novel, but we’d love to hear your lightning talk.

We don’t follow strict PyCon lightning talk rules, for example, they need not fit strictly in five minutes. Anything up to 10 or 15 minutes is fine. I’d like to do a night of only lightning talks soon.

Beers are easy: find a bar near your meetup location, and decide to go there. At the beginning of the meetup, announce that you will go there, then afterward, go there. Even better is if you can get a sponsor for the beers. These days, the Python hiring market is very hot, so it has not been difficult for us to get sponsors to pay for a round of drinks. Adding the word “free” to “beer” really seems to pique people’s interest!

Attendance at presentation nights varies for all sorts of reasons, but we typically have about 60-90 attendees, and a sponsored beer afterward will get 20-30 people.

Our next presentation night is Alternate Pythons: PyPy, Jython, IronPython, plus lightning talks and beers on August 17th.

Project night

Project nights are informal gatherings for people to just hang out and work on whatever they want. Often there is more chatting than working, which is also great. There is virutally no structure to a project night, just a lot of Pythonistas getting together in one place to see what happens. We have a brief period at the beginning when people can stand up and make an announcement to clump together by interest. For example, “I’m working through the tutorial, if any other beginners want to work with me,” or, “I’m trying to debug a C extension that leaks, if anyone knows anything about that,” or, “I want to contribute to a project but need some ideas,” and so on. Depending on how many people you have, this only takes 5-10 minutes. The rest of the evening is just people working and talking.

Some people come to the project night expecting that we’ll be sprinting on Python, or will have chosen a project to work on as a group. We’ve never tried either of these, though other groups have had success with them.

Lately, we’ve been running the Project Nights regularly every month, and have been getting about 50 people each night.

Our next project night is August 11th.

Weekend workshops

We’ve run three weekend workshops to introduce beginners to Python. All of them so far have been specifically targetted at women, but the intent is to open it up to other demographics eventually. Jessica has written an extensive set of notes about the workshops, so I’ll let those speak for themselves.

One of the reasons we’ve been running the Project Nights so regularly is to give the workshop attendees a supported place to continue their learning.

Other ideas?

Those are the events we’ve been running in Boston. Judging from the growth in the group, they work well to build community. It’s been really great meeting new members, and seeing their interest in the group.

We have some other ideas for events, and they may be realized in the fall. Other people do things differently, I’d love to hear what works for you.


Nice piece, Ned. Don't forget to ask the pub where you go if they would like to become one of your sponsor. It really creates a good ambiance when you say "we go to this brew pub because they support Python".

Add a comment:

Ignore this:
Leave this empty:
Name is required. Either email or web are required. Email won't be displayed and I won't spam you. Your web site won't be indexed by search engines.
Don't put anything here:
Leave this empty:
Comment text is Markdown.