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DjangoCon: What the web, a family-owned newspaper and a silent D have in common

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 14, 2017

At DjangoCon Spokane 2017, Django developers listen to a presentation by Derik Pell called “Functional Programming in an Imperative World, Maybe,” on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, at the Hotel RL by Red Lion Spokane at the Park. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
At DjangoCon Spokane 2017, Django developers listen to a presentation by Derik Pell called “Functional Programming in an Imperative World, Maybe,” on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, at the Hotel RL by Red Lion Spokane at the Park. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

It didn’t look like a tech conference. Or sound like one.

And, being completely honest, it didn’t smell like one, either.

It felt more like one of those cool picnics you sometimes see – and almost always wish you were a part of – at the Forestry Shelter out at Riverfront Park. There was lots of laughing, a few dogs just wanting to be petted, a Frisbee or two being tossed and people chatting about data infrastructure and information architecture. Served with some tasty pulled pork cooked in homemade blueberry barbecue sauce.

It was Monday evening’s opening reception for the DjangoCon conference, which opened in Spokane this week at the Hotel RL, and runs through Friday.

DjangoCon?

Wait.

Wasn’t that a movie from the ’90s starring Nicholas Cage that was directed by that guy who did “Pulp Fiction”?

Nope.

It’s an annual get-together of internet developers who use the Django “open-source” web framework. (“Open source” is nerd-speak for free software that’s maintained by a “community,” working together to improve and maintain it.)

They’ve come from all over the nation – the world, actually – to hang out in Spokane for a week while they learn new things, work together on something they love and kind of just geek out.

Django? Why the weird name?

Well, let your Uncle Rob tell you a little story.

Though I’ve wanted to be a journalist since the third grade, I also have a little bit of nerd in me … a quarter on my mom’s side, according to ancestry.com.

By 1996, I started getting involved in newspaper websites. Only we didn’t call it that. Back then, we didn’t even call it online journalism.

We called it “new media” – and that always bothered me, because my first love was newspapers, and I thought what we were doing should be called something cool that at least sounded like it was involved with newspapers, maybe like Digital Muckrakers. Or at least a name that could be mistaken for an indoor football team.

Back in the Wild, Wild West days of digital newspapering, there was no real game plan or blueprints to follow. We were pixel pioneers trying out all sorts of new things with little-to-no adult supervision.

The next thing you know, some of the newspaper websites that I was lucky enough to be a part of started getting all sorts of recognition, even being named the best news sites in the world. There were moves to bigger companies and bigger jobs, but I was really just a small-town kid from Kansas who was more than a little homesick.

That eventual trip home in the early 2000s landed me at the Lawrence Journal-World, working at this cool, family-owned newspaper that wasn’t afraid to dream big. Really big.

During that era, the Journal-World hired all of these amazingly talented tech people who really shouldn’t have been working at such a small news organization – world-class developers like Adrian Holovaty, Dan Cox, Simon Willison and Jacob Kaplan-Moss. None of us were paid anywhere near what we would have made in Silicon Valley, but we were overpaid in freedom, and that’s what we all really wanted at that exact moment in our lives.

That was where and when Django was invented.

Our developers couldn’t find the tools to do all of the things we wanted to do, and certainly couldn’t find the tools to do any of it as quickly as we wanted to get things done. So they made their own tools.

It was this crazy, creative time where nothing seemed out of reach.

Even though we were a tiny newspaper that was basically a quarter of the size of The Spokesman-Review, we didn’t act like it on the interwebs. We won every award we could win, then started entering contests in the large-market categories against the Washington Posts and New York Times of the world. And we beat them, too.

Using Django.

Fast-forward 15 years. I’m back at a family-owned newspaper. In a community I love. And we use Django to build our website, too.

After I walked from our 126-year-old building to Riverfront Park on Monday night to visit the picnic, one of the people from the convention stopped me to ask why we called it Django.

Well, that was easy. Our lead developer loved music. And he really loved the gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. So, that’s what he named it.

And it was perfect. The only thing that could have made the night better was if I had tried some of that blueberry barbecue pulled pork.

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