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Naomi Ceder Interview - 20 Years with Python (part 1)

Published 9/14/2020

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
How do you feel when you are 20 years into the job? In today's episode we talked with Naomi Ceder. We ask her exactly those questions. Naomi is the author of the Quick Python book and has also been the chairperson of the Python software foundation. I'm really excited. My name is Jonathan Cutrell listening to Developer Tea. My goal on the show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective and purpose in their careers. Let's get straight into the interview with Naomi Ceder. Naomi I'm so happy to have you on Developer Tea today. Welcome. Oh thank you. Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here. So for people who haven't encountered your work yet, for example my background before I came to Python actually. I was a Ruby developer. There's lots of JavaScript developers and plenty of other communities who listen to the show. Can you kind of introduce yourself and give just a little bit of background about the things that you care about and the work that you do? Well sure. I have been doing Python for nearly 20 years now. I actually learned Python from Gido Van Rossum, the creator at a Linux world in San Francisco in 2001 and have been active in the Python community ever since. I've been to all the PICONs, helped organize the PICONs, helped create things like poster session and Sprint seminars and education summit and most recently our Spanish language track and PICONs. So I've been doing all of that stuff for a while. So I've been involved with the Python software foundation from 2015 until the end of June, this past June. I was on the board of trustees for the Python software foundation and I was chair of the board the past three years. Since then I've stepped aside because I think it's very good for a volunteer based open organization to be able to transition leaders and that will only happen if people will step aside. So I've moved aside to do that and there is new leadership in place. I think that's going great. And it was just a good experience and all of that. And I've been speaking quite a bit over the past few years. I have improved my Spanish enough that I can now speak in Spanish. So between the Spanish talks and the English talks, I've been pretty busy talking both about community in the wild times of COVID-19 as well as some various things involving the ins and outs of the Python language. What else? By day I lead a small team of Developer That does pricing and competitive intelligence for Dick Blick Art materials. So if you're in the US and you or anyone you know does art, you probably buy things from us. That's a good thing. So I guess that's kind of where I'm at. I'm also, I guess, I should, since they brought us together, I should mention my publisher. I'm the author of the Quick Python book, which is now in its third edition, which is intended to help bring programmers from other languages. So all of those Ruby and JavaScript developers out there, if you need to go to Python, you can consider looking at the Quick Python book. How's that rolling? I think that's an excellent introduction and a hand reach out to those communities for sure. And you mentioned that you talk about community and that speaking and teaching is a huge part of what you do these days. I'm curious. Of course, you're still actively involved with leading a group of developers directly. But in a way, speaking is leading a larger community of developers, maybe not as directly. But in kind of an abstract sense, you're leading larger communities in that particular way. What do you think is most rewarding about that process, about speaking and teaching to other people? That's a good question. I started my professional life as a teacher, actually, weirdly enough. I have a PhD in classics. So I was actually a Latin and ancient Greek teacher. And then as I became more interested in technology, I switched, as I say, to other funny languages, rather than those funny languages, I switched to funny languages like Pascal and C and ultimately Python. But so I guess teaching has always been kind of part of what I do. And I think we all like to be able to have an effect on the world around us, be able have an effect on the people around us. And I think with teaching, you get that very directly. Sometimes it may take as it has like 10 or 15 years, but I have gotten messages from former students, say, from 15 years ago saying, thanks to you, I am now doing this thing, developing whatever. And I love it. And it's hard to describe the feeling you get from hearing those things, but also just in person when you see the light go on and people understand something in the moment, that's a powerful reward for me. And I think for a lot of people. So yeah, I guess I don't know. People have always made this kind of contrast. I know when I switched from teaching to being in more of the professional corporate environment, people would always sort of say, oh, but you're a teacher. And to me, I don't understand what that means. Leading my team is teaching. Yeah, that's interesting because it seems to me that some of the people that I kind of admire and want to be most like, they view teaching as just kind of a natural part of practice. It's all kind of the same ball of wax, if you will. And I aspire to that myself. I want to make teaching a regular part of my career and a part of my life. What would you recommend to somebody rewind yourself if you can back to 2001? Is someone who's that early in their career? And I guess that's probably a big career for you if you had already been learning C and Pascal and Latin and Greek for that matter. But what would you tell someone who's saying, I want to be more or less, I want to be like Naomi. I want to eventually be teaching people and speaking in front of people. But I don't know what the pathway is. When am I allowed to speak in front of a group? And I think I know at least part of the answer to that particular question. What would you tell somebody who's in that seat right now if they aspire to teach more? Well, I think there are plenty of opportunities and I think you can pretty much start at any time with what you know. I think people who are good at teaching are well aware of the things that they don't know and they don't try to teach more than they know, if you know what I mean. So I know that some people maybe feel, well, I need to have this amount of knowledge or I need to have degree X or I need to have this thing. And I think really the sincere desire to help people is one of the big things there. If you feel that you want to do it then by all means do it. It's the same as with writing, it's the same as with a lot of things. The best way to get started is to get started. Maybe small, maybe it's helping out at a community event. Maybe it's answering questions in an online community. Maybe it's volunteering to assist in a meet up or something. There are lots of ways that you can get started as long as you're neither too precious about what the title is. People want to help but maybe they're not going to say, oh, so and so is the wonderful teacher, whatever. You need to jump in and do it. That's good advice. I think one of the things I've learned and I've observed with people that I've encountered that have become really great teachers when I talk to them in person, a lot of the time what they'll tell me is I barely knew the thing I was teaching or I just learned the thing that I taught. It wasn't something that I had some extraordinary amount of experience with. I learned it as I was writing the lesson more or less. I think that's a misconception. A common misconception is that teachers are teaching something like 20% of their capacity. When really they might be at the edge of their capacity and they're teaching you as they are learning. They're saying, hey, look, I just forged this pathway for myself. You can follow the same pathway. People who have just learned are usually in some ways better able to teach people who are just starting in the same place. For somebody who's been doing, for example, Python, but anything for 10 years, they have a much harder time remembering what the pitfalls were. For me, I've done Python for 20 years. I can offset that by the fact that I did have 20 years teaching experience. I do know the kinds of things that people will struggle with. In terms of remembering my struggles, then when I started, I can remember that I struggled. I cannot remember exactly the things that made it suddenly become clear. That's something that is too far in the past. A lot of people who are experienced will actually have a harder time teaching beginners. Then somebody who has just gotten through it. That's a really interesting distinction you just made there. You can remember that you struggled. You have an emotional empathy, but you don't necessarily have a tactical empathy for the specific struggle. There may well be people who have conveniently forgotten they struggled at all. I think those would probably be horrible at teaching beginners. Or people who have the distorted view that they didn't struggle at all. Yes. Yes. That's great. Python for 20 years, it's a long time to invest in a singular direction. It seems very focused. I have a couple of questions about that. Of course, you can't predict the future. You can do your best to say I think this has a promising future. If you're picking a language in 2001, Python is still relatively young. I think it was probably six years old at the time. Is that right? It's about six years old. It would have been about 10 years old then. It was very tiny. It was very tiny. It was very tiny. Linux World where I went to Gido's workshops. I think there were 11,000 people at Linux World that year. I know the more experienced established Python types wondered if there'd be enough of them to make it worth going out for a beer. It was not very popular. Of course, it's exploded in popularity for a variety of reasons. I'm more interested in what made you buy in number one. Number two, is it accurate to say that you stayed fully focused on Python? Would it be more accurate to say that Python was the central hub and you may have had spokes to other types of technologies, other languages? Right. Well, so I've thought a little bit about this general question. To be honest, I do recall thinking after I'd done Python for a few years that it was really likely that something else was going to come along that was better, more interesting, more whatever. I would probably switch to another language and it never happened. Only there are other things that you do along the way. For example, database technologies have evolved and emerged. So there are different flavors of things that you can do with databases. That's one thing you can do. Web, managing things in the cloud. There are lots of different areas around that. I think part of it was that Python was flexible enough to do all of the things I wanted to do. But I think also it's just that through a series of happy accidents, I think I would say Python has continued to kind of move and in effect, I don't want to say keep up with me. I suppose. It's always kind of been there for the next thing that I was interested in doing. When I switched to being a developer full-time, we started using AWS and it was a great way to help automate the management of that. By then, Django was maturing and I was working in an e-commerce platform that was based on Django so we can do that. Those things just kind of happened and then now of course with the rise of data science and I do a certain amount of not data science but data engineering, all of the things that data science needs in order to do their things. That has been part of the reason why that's happened, I think. Python really has just kind of seemed to catch one way after another and having been involved a little bit in the leadership of Python. I wish I could claim credit for this but I don't think even Gido would claim credit for this. It's just been, it's a good language certainly but there are other good languages. It just seems to have been capable and picked up at the right time to pick the next wave. I think that's part of it. I think the other thing that has helped keep me around too though has been the continuing development of Python's community. It's something that from Gido on to everybody else involved with Python, everybody values and is intentional about fostering community and not all open source communities have that going for them all the time. I think that's been a plus. It's interesting. I agree with the community aspect although I haven't been a part of the Python community for long enough to make an authoritative comment so I'm leaning a bit on your experience and the stories that I've heard from others. Most of the people I talk to who buy into a language, they quickly move past the idiosyncrasies of the language. I always find this interesting because it's very clear that the decisions we make about the technology we use often are only very, maybe not very, but maybe half of those decisions are about the implementation detail. The other half is something else entirely. It's the community that's light on top of that or maybe it's like you said, the adoption in particular practices and that kind of thing. It's always interesting to me because I think our perception is that it's something like 90% of the implementation is what we think intuitively that we're going to care about. We go and we look at samples of the code and we think, could I imagine kind of living in this world every day in my editor, but really the things that end up mattering for people who buy in go beyond that. Yeah, I think that's true. Can you do with it what you need to do? I think the other thing too is having a community of practice, I guess I would say. Clearly you could do pretty much any kind of function with pretty much any computer language. But doing it with something that is completely unusual is probably not going to make much sense. You will have no one else to go to for help problem solving. Of course, if you are a professional, then you have experience that doesn't mean anything to most other places of my work. So I think those things matter quite a bit. It depends upon the person, of course, but yeah. The obscure expert. It is definitely a phenomenon that I think a lot of engineers are familiar with because we'll have something that we're really good at that nobody around us at least cares about. Not that they don't care about us or that they don't care about our story, but that it just doesn't translate to authority to them. It doesn't matter in a practical sense to what they're doing. So I'd like to ask you a question about maybe your pathway, your career, and specifically, this is maybe a more personal question. I'd like for you to share with us an important inflection point or two in your career. A moment where you thought, okay, this is like a turning point. Maybe the moment that you decided to switch from teaching Greek and Latin and learn the other strange languages, right? But what is a moment that you would say this is a turning point and inflection point in my career? Well, I think that's probably one of them. Actually I was teaching at an Anglo-American school in Athens, Greece when I really started learning programming. That was in Apple Soft Basic and then 6502 Assembler. When I found the ability to make the computer do things and whatever, it was just both an intriguing puzzle and also sort of enabling and interesting and something that I wanted to do. Then shortly after that I ended up at a school in Indiana where I was teaching Latin. He had the teachers had to fill out for report cards for layer NCR forms and you would peel off one layer per quarter until you got to the bottom and that was the final grade. Of course, you couldn't read the first quarter's information anymore and it was just a royal pain to do those. I ended up coming up with a system where I could basically put my comments into what we're in process or do a mail merge and then print them out and the other teachers thought this was so cool that I soon had. I don't know. It was like 6, 7, 8 users who were using this thing as well and I was also fixing the computers as the Latin teacher because it was just interesting that you could do this and you could figure things out. Yeah, eventually the headmaster told me, you know, really we could probably find another Latin teacher but you're doing some other stuff that is really more valuable. So why don't you just do that full time? I think that was when I switched my mindset from this is something I do in addition to this is something that I really want to do and I spent a lot more time studying it and you know sort of extending what I could do then I wrote that school student information system back in 2002 I guess and I believe it ran until 2015 even though I'd left a few years before so I figured that's not a bad run. So that was important. I think the other key point for me is something that presumably well maybe not be as familiar to most of your users or to listeners but that's when in the process started around 2010 but that's when I decided to deal with being transgender and to transition and that was pretty frightening in that pretty much the standard wisdom is that you are likely to lose everything if you were to do something so foolish. And time even right? Yes yes yes I mean this was I think I beat like I beat Caitlyn Jenner I mean whatever I mean no I didn't it wasn't really much of a thing then. That actually I think was what led to as I look back on it what led to me being more active and more visible because when I decided to do that I decided there was no way I was going to lie about it there's no way I was going to hide about it I was going to meet it head on and go out in the public and if people hated me fine. And in fact the vast vast vast majority of people were were quite kind and supportive in fact and I think that liberation of being able to think about the things that interested me rather than having to struggle with this dual identity thing which is for somebody who hasn't been there it's next to impossible to explain but I think that sort of led to a I don't know a burst of energy or something that I think is sort of what eventually led to me on being on the board of the PSF and doing lots lots of other things. I think once you make it through that you don't have a whole hell of a lot of fear left I guess maybe I would say that. You face probably the scariest dragon that you would face in kind of figuring out how to navigate that dual that internal right I would imagine it feels like a battle I obviously I haven't been there myself but I think it's so interesting that this is such an you know and I think your journey is an example that really underscores the idea that our identities are so much a part of our work. Absolutely. And they interchange with our work they can either serve us or they can when I say our identity our identity if we can accept ourselves it can serve our work but if we're struggling to accept our own experience or if we're struggling to resolve those internal issues then that's going to absolutely display in the external and I think that's so interesting I love the idea that you kind of used these forcing functions in a way to say you know what I'm going to schedule you know a bunch of talks and here I am you know and there's a moment where you are saying well either I'm going to do these talks and everybody's going to be okay with me or they're not but I'm going to do the talks either way right is that kind of how it felt that I think is fair yeah. That's such an such an encouraging story I know there are people who are listening to this show who are probably struggling with something similar. Well something similar but what I found actually because I've talked about this in various things quite a bit I've found that there are people it may not be that issue exactly but the issue of some aspect of of identity as you say yeah it does seem to resonate with with people right I'm a sort of surprise that you know you're clearly not transgender why are you but no there are many many ways in which you can look at that and say well no that's actually something that does have a bearing. Absolutely I mean I think you know there's it's anything really where we have some expectation of who we are that is either put on to us or maybe an expectation that we put on ourselves maybe earlier in life for example and I didn't be that we that we were more willing to accept earlier but not so much later. These simple examples of this might be changing our you know belief structure religious belief political belief whatever they could be and coming to terms with those kinds of changes can even cause this internal struggle. Absolutely or maybe deciding that a previous career direction is not really what you want to do after all you know it's it's scary to reinvent yourself even even on that scale you know and but yet it can be an enormous and enormous burden if you're if you're doing something that you don't really think is you and then that's it's just very tiring. Yeah it's amazing and I don't think that the average person would think oh this is going to have these grand implications on my career or on my you know professional growth that's all sideline it's all parallel to these other things I don't I just don't buy that I don't think that's true. Yeah no I mean I think in LGBT circles they they have this phrase of bringing your whole self to work which has almost become kind of a truism but the the the kernel of truth there is is really significant if you're not worrying about those other things and you can truly get into whatever it is that you're you're getting into it it does make a huge difference. I agree I mean there's there's some interesting research even at the most kind of superficial layer on on this kind of thing for example if you have a place in your house right that it is cluttered. You know that your closet has has closed all of it on the floor and obviously this varies from one person to the next because some people don't see that as cluttered but if you are uncomfortable with that place for some reason you want it to be cleaner but you haven't had the time or whatever the research that super like I said superficial research shows that you're not as able to focus until you go and get that done right and so it's kind of this it's it's kind of an interesting signifier that our minds are working on things beyond what we're cutting you know cognitively aware of of course they are right of course we have some branches and all these things but if that's true on a large scale imagine how much more your brain is doing double duty right here you're not able to really put like you said put your whole self into it because your your mind is still dealing with this massive conflict that you're sitting right in the middle of every day right. A huge thank you to Naomi for joining me on today's episode of Developer Tea and you can catch the second part of this interview by just subscribing and whatever podcasting up you're currently using thank you so much for listening to this show this show wouldn't exist if you weren't here listening to it and one of the best ways you can help us continue doing what we do here is by leaving a review in iTunes or in whatever platform you use this helps other engineers like you find the show and decide to listen to it but it also helps us know what kinds of content are resonating best with this community thank you so much for listening this episode and every other episode of Developer Teacan be can be found on spec.fm as well as on any platform or podcasting app that you currently use today's episode was produced by Sarah Jackson my name is Jonathan Cutrello and until next time enjoy your tea.