by Brandon Rhodes • Home

Example PyCon talk proposals

Date: 2 August 2013
Tags:Python

It was exactly one month ago that the PyCon site swung back into action for another exciting year. Talk submissions for Montréal 2014 are by now piling up quickly.

You can now view the Call For Proposals announcement on our blog at http://t.co/kt7P2PinIY

— @pycon July 2, 2013

This year, several people have asked me what a real PyCon talk proposal actually looks like — including a few students at the Hacker School in New York, where I served as a resident last month. While the official PyCon Proposal Advice page is excellent, some people learn better by example.

So I am making public my PyCon talk proposals from several past years!

I include both 3 successes and 3 failures, along with a few thoughts about each. Remember that these only reflect how I myself tend to write proposals, and that many factors vary from year to year — including the interests and skill levels of selection committee members, the number of talks competing in a given subject area, and what fraction of talks can be accepted overall.

“The Mighty Dictionary” (2010)Accepted proposalVideo and slides

By the time I finish a proposal, I feel about halfway done writing the talk. That feeling is always hilariously inaccurate, but it hopefully signals the point at which I have gotten enough detail into the proposal for the committee to imagine what the talk will be like.

I tend to outline each talk in 5-minute chunks, without worrying about anything more detailed. If each chunk can plausibly fill five minutes without taking more than five minutes to cover, then five chunks are enough to fill a 30-minute slot while leaving 5 minutes for questions at the end.

I consider the Mighty Dictionary to be an especially strong proposal because, at each step, it describes a problem that then becomes the motivation for the material that follows. List lookup is too slow? Then we will index by hash! The dictionary will gradually fill? Then we will allocate more space! This pattern keeps listeners engaged, and helps them understand the emerging design.

“Learning Hosting Best Practices From WebFaction” (2010)Accepted proposalVideo and slides

I cannot imagine this talk being accepted today, in the age of containerized deployment solutions like Heroku. Also, the PyCon committee is more cautious every year about talks that mention a specific company or service. But in 2010, tips and techniques for deploying Python apps to a plain old shell account earned me a PyCon slot.

I at least had the sense to suggest that each Webfaction feature was really a general technique, that could be taken and used elsewhere. And, wow, does anyone else remember mod_wsgi? Crazy, crazy times.

“Satchmo and GetPaid: sharing code between Django and Plone” (2010)Declined proposal

Ouch. Do you remember my disastrous Satchmo-and-GetPaid talk from PyCon 2010? No? Then please remember to thank the PyCon program committee!

“I am now preparing to prototype some code.” The proposal rolls over and dies right there: this is pure talk-proposal Kryptonite. The committee knows immediately that the talk is not about something that I have done (note the perfect tense!), but about something that I believe that I will learn between now and PyCon. Whether the talk will have any content or not is entirely contingent upon code that has yet to be written.

And, as the committee might have quietly been guessing, it turns out that the project never happened: the GetPaid code was simply not in a state that made me confident that I could move it forward, and a disheartening sprint report helped convince me to put my energies elsewhere in the Python ecosystem.

“Tree Rings in the Standard Library” (2011)Declined proposal

While I was able to contribute to PyCon 2011 through my Sphinx tutorial and by moderating the WSGI panel, my one talk proposal was rejected.

It is interesting to re-read this proposal now, three years later, because I can see several ideas that wound up being part of subsequent talks. I attempted a screed against the Standard Library’s object orientation, for example, in my PyOhio 2011 talk “httplib, urllib2, and Their Discontents” while my interest in Python design patterns generated a Design Patterns talk at PyOhio 2012.

But my biggest surprise, upon re-reading, is how incurably vague the proposal is! No wonder it got rejected. The proposal is essentially a series of promises about the kind of examples that I am going to go find in the Standard Library once the talk is approved — without offering a single, actual, fleshed-out example. It promises content without actually enumerating that content, which is probably why it fails to follow my usual habit of actually outlining each 5-minute segment of the talk. It fails to outline the actual content for the simple reason that the content does not yet exist.

My verdict? This is a research proposal, not a talk proposal.

“The Solar System in 5 Lines of Python” (2013)Declined proposal

This proposal seemed solidly technical but was declined, while my speculative, theoretical, hand-wavy Naming-of-Ducks talk was accepted (see below). Neither proposal is detailed enough — neither includes any actual outline demonstrating that I was going to use 30 minutes effectively.

Not only does the proposal fail to offer any source code showing what a 5-line orrery might look like, but it promises to cover many facts about the Solar System that are simply not Python-specific. And one usually combines the IPython Notebook and matplotlib so that real-world, messy data can be loaded into a Pandas data frame and then sifted for real information. Planetary paths are, instead, sheer curves through empty space, and would not have highlighted any of the real strengths of Python’s scientific tools.

Finally, we must remember that no proposal is made in a vacuum: several other scientific Python talks were on the table in 2013, most of them by scientists, who in many cases were the actual authors of the software in question. Fernando Perez, Travis Oliphant, and Titus Brown were among the names that wound up on the schedule. The committee had plenty of science-talk proposals to choose from.

“The Naming of Ducks: Where Dynamic Types Meet Smart Conventions” (2013)Accepted proposalVideo and slides

The program committee must simply have gotten a good vibe from this proposal, because it lacks any detailed outline on which they could have based their judgement. It is, instead, more of a sales pitch for ideas that had clearly not yet been reduced to actual talking points.

Their wager paid off, but just barely! While the talk seems to have been a success — netting me an invitation to present it again at the RuPy 2013 conference this autumn, among other positive reactions — the proposal’s ideas were almost too vague to work with, and I was finally able to write up some slides only a handful of days before the talk itself.

Getting caught at the last minute without enough material is always a danger when I do not go ahead and write a detailed enough outline into the proposal itself!


So, there you have it!

I myself am surprised at how my quality seems to have declined over the years — nothing subsequent seems to quite equal the glorious detail of my Mighty Dictionary talk proposal! Re-reading it, in fact, has convinced me to be more concrete in each of the proposals that I make this year.

I hope that these real-world examples give those of you who are aspiring speakers some ideas about formatting your own proposals, as well as pointing out some errors to avoid. Good luck!

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