ChiPy: Python, Snake Charming, and Civic Tech

ChiPy (pronounced ‘chi,’ as in “chip,” ‘pee’) is a Chicago-based Python user group. Opening their doors to members of all-levels, ChiPy is a supportive space where novice programmers like me can sharpen their skills in a non-judgmental community. I was thrilled to be part of a small group selected to participate in ChiPy’s sixth iteration of of its nationally acclaimed Mentorship Program.

Upon embarking on this 12-week journey into the world of computer programming (which turns 70 today), I was fascinated with the magic of technology. Learning Python, to me, was akin to charming snakes. The earliest records of snake charming can be traced back to ancient Egypt where charmers acted as mystical healers and consultants to their clients. Using their magical ability to charm snakes, snake charming grew into a venerable and respected profession in the ancient world.

Fast forward to modern times, and I find myself enamored with the power of computing. As a full-time bureaucrat and millennial by birth, I find these components of my identity at odds. Why am I struggling day in, day out to use labor-intensive, manual processes on geriatric computer systems when, as Code for America’s Chicago Brigade Leader, Christopher Whitaker writes in his book, we have the power of a 1950s supercomputer in our pockets? As I was completing a weekly manual review of thousands of lines of XML containing addresses and order numbers, and comparing two CSVs side-by-side in Excel, I couldn’t help but think: there has to be a better way.

But how?

As a digital marketer by profession in the public service industry, I’ve been a regular attendee of Chi Hack Night, a weekly civic technology hackathon. Notably I supported the Chicago Nursing Home Search project by translating marketing graphics into Spanish for their launch. I also document the pre-hack meetings for the Chicago chapter of Young Government Leaders. While using my talents to support the civic tech movement is rewarding, I couldn’t help but notice all these cool applications changing the face of how social services and the public good can intersect with modern innovation in the digital age.

Yet I barely had the skills to create a basic HTML website from another developer’s template. Reenter ChiPy.

I am simultaneously humbled and floored to be working with my mentor Chris Foresman, a senior developer with Sprout Social, Ars Technica contributor, former indie record producer, dad, and all-round badass.

In the three weeks that we have been working together, I have used the Python CSV library to automate what was once a tedious, manual process in my day job. Chris’s Purdue computer science background really adds an interesting level of theoretical depth on how each line of code is parsed by the operating system and executed by the computer’s hardware. I find that my mentor’s formal education combined with a successful career as a technology writer and over six years of professional experience as a developer makes for an incredible learning experience. The patience and wisdom that come from having a three-year-old son at home also aren’t lost on me and greatly appreciated.

Next up, Chris and I plan to use Beautiful Soup and Requests to build an app that calculates the cost of meetings conducted by federal employees. Another tool I hope will encourage attention to transparency, efficiency, and efficacy in my line of work.

Image result for requests http for humans

Towards the end of the 12-week experience, I hope to have time left to pick Chris’s brain about APIs.