Experiencing useR! as a newbie

As many of my blogs related to R, this one will be full of “firsts.” First time: at a useR!, at an R-Ladies picture with R-Ladies from all around the globe, moderating an R conference session in English, representing the work of many in the Latin American R community in front of an international audience, and initial steps IRL as R-Ladies Global Leadership. Also, first time helping organize the next useR! and contributing to open source with a programmer hat (rather than a community hat or a paid-wall applied statistician/data scientist hat).

You may be wondering how someone with so many firsts looks like having some roots in the R community. My path in R (and life), like yours, is unique and it does not conform with the stories that get a spotlight. Although R is a tool I sometimes use (since 2004), its international community rescued me from isolation and welcomed me when I started volunteering some of my time to it.

I’ve received so much back from the community already that there is a virtuous circle going. I feel the need to keep helping make the community stronger and giving back. I hope some of these reflections about my experience of useR! 2019 help you. That is the main goal of this post. Its readership is:

  • People pondering about attending useR! in the future. Short answer: yes, attend (or try to attend if you, like I, depend on a diversity scholarship to attend)!

  • Some of the take-home messages may also catch the eye of more seasonned useR! attendees, instructors, people looking into changing their careers to data science, and event organizers. Yeah, I am old enough to wear a lot of hats. Disclaimer: I am also very (maybe too) opinionated.

Secondary goals of this post are also being my memory dump of useR! 2019 (because I want to keep these wonderful memories) and keeping my word when I said in my diversity scholarship application that I would be blogging about useR!

It is a long post that made it only to include Monday and Tuesday, the two days before useR got officially started. I was foreseeing another part with memories from Wednesday to Friday, but life got in the way.

Monday and Tuesday: pre-useR! stuff

UseR! 2019 was Wednesday 10th to Friday 12th in Toulouse (France); however, there were a ton of very good tutorials (soooo difficult to chose only two!) on Tuesday 9th. There also were a number of activities on Monday 8th announced after acquiring my plane ticket.

  • First take home message: when possible, give yourself full well-rested days before and after useR activities (ie, starting at tutorials and ending at the last day of talks). Otherwise you may miss some cool stuff (or be way too tired to take full advantage of the experience). If you are travelling from far away and don’t get these opportunities too often, you will want to squeeze your trip at a maximum.


Tidyverse Developer Day

Tidyverse Developer Day started at 9 am (same time I landed in Toulouse from Buenos Aires). Luckily enough, by 11 am I made it to useR venue. I went with the objective of just saying hi to some fRiends and ended up contributing to open source documentation for the first time.

  • A really friendly coding environment and the right incentives can make a sleep-deprived newbie make their first contribution to open source.

As soon as I entered the Tidyverse Dev Day Temple (how else can you call a room where people were very focused and a gong went off from time to time?), it became clear saying hi properly could wait because there was a ton of coding, learning, teaching, and sharing happenning.

Thus, I proceeded to some succint “hi, I just got here”, Hadley handed me my Tidyverse Dev Day beautiful hexagonal souvenir and I immediately felt committed to get at least one small contribution done to actually deserve it.

I picked the simplest issue I could find, sat next to Alice and got started. Ildi came by actively seeking people who needed help. This was particularly helpful for me because being in a Temple can be intimidating for newbies like I. Ildi helped me make sure I was doing my git ok and shared the knowledge I needed to get me going with my issue. It was mostly stuff I would have googled (and found), but I had my concentration depleted that day due to long-distance travel.

After lunch, I finished working on my issue and Hannah helped me make sure I was pushing my work without messing anything up. Surely enough, a bit after that, Hadley merged my contribution and I got my gong. It was my first time having the feeling many others feel when doing this: I could keep going for another issue and this could easily become a new hobby. Gosh, why don’t days have 48 hours?

  • I wish there were more of these R-related dev days. Developing events that are friendly, diverse, and safe to advance not only the tidyverse. I see no downsides. Kuddos to the organizers.

I even had time to work further on getting my laptop ready for the next day (or so I believed) and having convos with new and old friends after my first contribution. More than anything, it felt great to contribute.

Diversity scholars gathering and useR newbie session

UseR organizers reserved a bit of time on Monday to make sure all diversity scholars got to know who the organizers were, how to reach them and, most importantly, how to get reimbursements for their conference expenses. They had a person dedicated to this and that was awesome! Everything was super smoothly!

Immediatelly after that, there was an hour-long session of several presentations about the R ecosystem for people for whom this was the first useR. Noa, David, Colin, Erin, Hannah (and likely others that I am forgetting, sorry) presented some basics about the R community such as:

  • There is not such thing as R vs Python divide. It is rather absurd and (to my satisfaction) this was a recurrent point throughout useR! David belongs to many open source communities. He told us that he came to R for the software and stayed for the community.

  • The speakers presented major players in the community such as the R Foundation, the R Consortium, the R Core Team, CRAN, industry, taskforces such as R-Forwards, communities such as general and R-Ladies RUGs, and their interactions.

And a lot more happenned in this session but by this time of the day that started aboard a red-eye transatlantic flight, I shut down. The rest of my memories are blur. Except for:

  • Aswerty keyboards and a non-English computer setup were a significant barrier for even the highest skilled R programmers in our community. This repeated over and over again until Friday. UseR! 2019 gave a great opportunity for a large part of the R community to reflect on how much more difficult everything is on a daily basis for people for whom English is a second language.


Tutorial time

YAY!! My first international R tutorials!

Notes about prep. It’s been a (fortunately) busy conf season, so I only got to read most of instructions related to useR! 2019 (e.g., conference, chairing, Tidyverse Day Dev, tutorial, and scholarship reimbursement instructions) at the airport when I was waiting to leave Buenos Aires. If possible, don’t do this to yourself.

  • Prepare ahead of time for the useR! experience and, by no means, minimize the time it will take you getting your computer ready for all pre-conf activities, particularly, the tutorials.

Mine offered office hours for checking the computer was ready for Tidyverse Dev Day and that made me be ready for Monday. Although my two tutorials provided clear instructions of what to install, I got to them too late and my prep was suboptimal for the tutorials.

  • It is likely you will understimate the time it will take you to get some stuff installed in your computer.

  • In some cases, if there is reliable internet (the case of useR! 2019), RStudio Cloud can be a life saver so you can concentrate on the work rather than the installations. It is a nifty solution to save instructors from the operating system diversity nightmare in the sense that different versions of Linux, Windows, and Mac can behave differently for getting stuff working.

In the morning, I took the H2O.ai tutorial which I thought I was well-prepared for, but not quite. Fortunately, Jo’s materials were very easy to follow so, while I used most of the time to get my computer the right versions of the h2o package and Java, I could still follow.

  • Got to recap on my h2o and learned about the DALEX package for interpretable machine learning and I can’t wait to get to the heart of the theory behind the methods implemented in DALEX.

A great perk of this tutorial was getting to seat next to Erin, master mind behind h2o.ai automl and one of the two persons I have heard about in the R community (“heard”” as in reading her PhD dissertation carefully) before joining R-Ladies (or knowing about its existence).

(The other person I knew from before joining the community was Luke as a Prof in my US-based alma mater, who was great to see at useR! 2019, too.)

The take-home messages from the afternoon tutorial were also awesome. Not only did I get to learn how reticulate works and wrote my first Python code ever, but also got to observe some mind-blowing teaching skills by Emma. Among others, she is an expert at engaging first-year Biology undergrads who don’t know yet how helpful it will be for them to learn to code with R and Python.

In addition to her helpful materials about reticulate here, a few of her teaching super powers:

  • Motivate your learners. We got gummy pythons and R hearts. Also minimalistic, but engaging slides (yes, they included emojis).

  • Know your audience. If you can’t do it in advance, you can always imbed a google form in your publicly available slides and ask your audience to fill this on the fly.

  • With a broad audience, have something for everyone. Emma included extra exercises clearly labeled for learners that advanced faster.

  • Use sticky notes to get a quick visual feeling of the room and help those that may be uncomfortable to talk, but not uncomfortable at putting a red sticky note on their laptops if they are lost.

  • Stir some live coding in the mix - it is great learners see live how you do it and that you also make mistakes (and show how you solve them).

Want more about UseR! 2019 tutorials? Check out this awesome compendium by Suthira Owlarn.

Off to the Mayor’s Reception

A Tuesday of learning, finished at La Mairie de Toulouse in an extremelly beautiful building that I would never would have gotten to visit otherwise. There was a long line to get to the building because of security checks. I didn’t mind because I got to finish some convos that started on Monday. For instance, I was able to give these points of views to someone seeking to advance her data science career:

  • You might not need another masters or a PhD degrees (you surely don’t need the costs some of those may entail). You definitively need a portfolio of projects to show what you know and how you do it. Degrees and papers that don’t show how people code won’t get you as far as you could go. (I learned this one the hard way, be smarter than I ;-) ).

  • Volunteering time to different communities is cheaper than degrees and will teach you a well-rounded set of necessary skills, sometimes by working side-by-side with R referents, and with very low preasure, risk, and stress. Well-rounded set of skills can go from improving your English writting skills, to mastering git, developing a package, learning leadership skills, or getting in the backstage of the organization of large events.

  • Community work comes with meaningful networking attached because people gets to know how it feels to work with you. It also brings countless opportunities your way. Being in the first few rows is always better than looking from afar. Get involved, be a team player (rather than a lone wolf)!

Thank you for reading until here, I hope it was worth your time.

Laura Acion
Adjunct Researcher