How to Organize Your Own Tech Conference: Lessons From PyCon Africa 2019

I was honored to facilitate a workshop at the first-ever pan-African python programmers’ community conference - PyCon Africa - that was hosted in Accra, Ghana.Accra is not only a beautiful city to visit, do some shopping and also take pretty pictures in; it also has the most interesting people that I have ever interacted with outside of Uganda. Tourists often say that a country has nice people, perhaps because they do not have any other noteworthy memories to share about their visit, but Ghanaians are actually nice people! So much so that Billa, who Ubered me to my hotel one evening after the day’s events, invited me to share a meal cooked by his wife, who also happens to be his favorite cook, just because I quizzed him a bit about local Ghanian cuisine as an icebreaker during the trip.The venue was a conference hall in the University of Ghana which is oddly named The Bank of Ghana Auditorium. The conference was chaired by the tranquil Marlene Mhangami, who also sits on the board of the Python Software Foundation (PSF). Keynotes were delivered by African big shots within the python community, like Anna Makarudze, the Vice President of the Django Software Foundation (DSF); and also others who use python regularly to do world-changing and groundbreaking work, like Moustapha Cisse the Head of Google’s AI Center in Accra. The hall provided an auditorium for keynotes, talks, and main announcements; two breakout spaces for workshops, tutorials and more talks; and a large cafeteria area for selfies, sprints, networking, and meals.The talks touched themes like community - with the majority of speakers sharing their experience on how they built communities back home, Data and AI - with some speakers sharing major technical breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence for solving African problems, Programing Day-To-Day - with talks focusing on best practices, testing, etc, and The Human Behind The Programmer - with talks about the health of the programmer on subjects like burnout.Now that you are all caught up on the event, here are some of the lessons - including highlights for you who want to host PyCon (or any other tech event) for your local programming community.

1. A successful event does not have to be a huge one with a massive guestlist:

PyCon African hosted less than 300 people, most of whom were students at the University of Ghana. The workshop I facilitated on Using Pandas To Makes Sense of Data was attended by less than 20 participants. It is because of these manageable numbers that I was not only able to approach and interact with all the speakers who picked my brain, but I was also able to individually assist each participant in the workshop to keep at pace.

2. Budget, Sponsors, and Funding:

Money makes the world go round, and it also makes organizing conferences easy. PyCon Africa managed to attract sponsorships from other well-wishing organizations and communities like PSF, DSF, and major Python and Django communities around the world. More importantly, PyCon managed to attract corporate sponsors like BriteCore and Andela because it managed to position itself as a source for talent which these companies could find valuable. PyCon Africa also sold tickets at different prices for different participants as a way to raise money. All speakers at the conference including the organizers were expected to purchase a ticket to participate in the conference.

3. Planning for Venue, Talks, Workshops and the Audience:

It is very important to anticipate the kind of Audience when making plans for the venue, talks, and workshops. Depending on the level of expertise you expect within the audience, it is important to balance the kind of talks between beginners, intermediate, and experts. Also, you have to try to choose a venue that is most befitting for the conference, based on the target audience. A University hall may be perfect for a student audience but may not be appropriate for an audience made up of businesspeople.Some of the topics to consider when planning your talks could include but not limited to; Programming Talks, Data Talks, Community Talks, Social Impact Talks and Product Pitches.

4. Scheduling and Time Keeping:

It is obviously important to have a pre-planned schedule beforehand, but it is even more important to have an alternate plan, at least, which will allow you to be flexible. Speakers cancel, breakfast can delay, electricity and other electronic issues can arise. Things change! You have to be in a position to adjust with as little pain as possible radiated off to your guests.One of the things that PyCon Africa did not do well was to stamp the title of the talk happening in each room on the door. That made it slightly harder for participants to identify what room they wanted to be part of. It is possible to build a simple application that manages all the scheduling for you. This makes it easier for people to be informed when events change or even notified when they subscribe to events during the conference.

5. Guarantee of respect for diverse people:

In order to be able to score any sponsorship from the PSF, you need to have a written Code of Conduct. This is a document that guarantees that all people regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, etc shall be treated with kindness and respect, but shall also be expected to respect and treat others with kindness. I'd still recommend that you have a similar document even if you’re not planning to score any sponsorship from the PSF; because this kind of guarantee gives your audience the confidence to express themselves and interact freely during the conference.Best of luck as you plan towards organizing your next (or first) tech conference in your community!

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