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CENTERPIECE: Bringing tech to downtown

One part of being a successful computer programmer is having a knack for solving complex problems, by taking traditional, outmoded approaches and recasting them in bold, imaginative new ways. The same goes for organizing a major computer conference in a town not normally associated with the programming industry.

To that end, two local programmers, Christopher Neugebaur and Josh Simmons, have taken their professional enthusiasm for the computer language known as Python, and combined it with their personal love of Petaluma. The result is this weekend’s North Bay Python, uncoiling at the Mystic Theatre on Saturday and Sunday. The two-day-long event has attracted impressive corporate sponsorship, will feature prominent experts and speakers from around the world, and is expected to bring over 200 people to Petaluma, making it the largest developer conference in Sonoma County history.

“I guess that bar is easier to reach because there haven’t been that many developer conferences in Sonoma County,” allows Simmons, a program manager for Google Open Source, working on the outreach team. “After this, we’re kind of hoping that might change.”

For those not well-versed in the intricacies of computer programming, Python is a widely-used, high-level computer programming language designed in the late 1980s by Guido Van Rossum. Its users regularly hold conferences to deepen their understanding and application of the language. Those conferences, whimsically enough, are commonly called PyCons.

“Python is unique among computer languages in that it is designed to be easier to use, and much more elegant,” explains Neugebauer, a software engineer working on search ranking at Shutterstock. A resource for users of photography, video, music and other digital information, Shutterstock uses Python to develop innovative search technologies, to assist customers in quickly finding the media needed for their projects.

“Fifteen years ago, or so,” Neugebauer continues, “Python began to be picked up more and more by people in web development, scientific computing, and a few other areas. The Python community is now quite broad.”

“It’s easier to pick up than a lot of other languages,” says Simmons, “while also being harder to shoot yourself in the foot with. Python is actually very enjoyable to use.”

So what, exactly, do users of Python do at conferences such as North Bay Python?

“Well, there’s a lot of value in developers meeting the people who actually use the frameworks that they write,” explains Neugebauer, who moved to Petaluma about a year ago from Tazmania.

He goes on to say that the idea for North Bay Python sprung to life at PyCon U.S., a big international Python Conference that’s taken place the last two years in Portland, Oregon. The initial thought was to create a smaller event in the San Francisco Bay Area, but not necessarily in Petaluma.

“PyCon U.S. has gotten as big as it wants to get,” says Simmons. “So there have been a proliferation of little regional, community-run Python conferences, where people who can’t afford to get to the big, national conference can still have access to the some of the same knowledge, networking and industry connections as they would at the national level.”

“We mentioned the idea to a few people, and it was well-received,” continues Neugebauer. “So Josh and I decided to look into seeing what it would take to organize it. And two months later, we were committed to running the thing.”

The other members of the organizing team are Sam Kitajima-Kimbrel, of Oakland, and Andrew Godwin, originally from London.

As to why the North Bay Python team ultimately decided to hold the conference in Petaluma, Neugebauer says that running it here is more affordable for the attendees than if it were held in San Francisco.

“We’ve constructed the conference in such a way that we can afford to make the fees very low, and to waive them completely when there’s a need to do so,” he says.

Not only is bringing the conference to town good for the attendees, adds Simmons. It’s good for Petaluma.

“Something like 42 of Hotel Petaluma’s 49 rooms will be North Bay Python guests,” he says. “Early on, we reached out to the Petaluma Visitors Center, and they’ve been incredibly helpful in making warm introductions for us to local vendors and hotels.”

Neugebauer and Simmons, who met at a developer conference and are now engaged, say they hope that North Bay Python 2017 is the first of many. They are already planning a North Bay Python 2018, and have a hunch that other tech-based conferences will have their eyes opened to the advantages of holding other such events in Petaluma.

Part of that appeal, Neugebauer believes, will be the Mystic Theatre itself, now working on upgrading its technical infrastructure to attract more events of this kind.

“It’s such a great place,” he says of the hundred year old theater. “In the big cities, these kinds of venues are being knocked down. I don’t know that anyone has ever even considered using the Mystic as a conference venue for tech before we did. But we saw immediately how it could be done.”

Adds Neugebauer, “The vast majority of our attendees have never been to Petaluma, and several have never heard of it. That’s part of the draw, as we’ve presented it to them. Being dropped off in the middle of a downtown area they don’t know - that’s a good thing. And it is a good thing, because Petaluma is amazing.”

(Contact David at dvid.templeton@arguscourier.com)

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