This blog entry is cross-posted from my personal blog site.
I have been blogging about and involved in user groups for a long time. During this time, I have had the pleasure of seeing all kinds of things happen – some bad, but about 99% of the things were overwhelmingly good. Great, in fact. I want to talk about why and how the good comes about now.
Use groups can be traced back to the 1950’s, when mainframe computers were being used to do some pretty amazing things. Unlike today, information about information systems was difficult to come by. There weren’t publishers like Wrox supplying technical books, or magazines like Maximum PC to spread knowledge like there is today – much less gadgets such as the Kindle to make this easier than ever, from nearly anywhere in the world. Heck! The World Wide Web was almost literally a pipe dream at the time. The U.S. military had conceived of it at this time, but no one knew, and Tim Berners-Lee was still decades away from inventing it.
Upon the invention of the internet, knowledge and information would eventually flow into devices all around us, on-demand, as if by magic. However, before that could happen, and even still today, there’s something to be said for the true magic that can come from social networking.
Right about now, you’re probably thinking something like, “Okay… What is Will going to tell us about twitter now?” I might mention Twitter, but that’s not what this is about at all. Long before all of these tubes and pipes (a bad U.S. political joke) that make up the internet today existed, people used to meet face-to-face, and learn about the latest and greatest things that their peers had thought of, and shared ideas.
Believe it or not, that is still done today. This practice hasn’t changes much. Since the first known user group existed (SHARE is a user group that has been around since 1955), technology gurus and newbies alike continue to gather to learn and teach each other, often in a presentation format. This is still not completely what I want to talk about though.
There is a section of user group meetings and activities that is the most important time of each and every gathering. This is the time before the meeting, after the meeting, and during any planned or implied breaks. This is the time when the chatter begins amongst attendees, whether planned or not. During this time, you can hear exchanges of all kinds – from simple ideas, to full-fledged applications being discussed. These exchanges continue to happen over a beer or two, a slide of pizza, or even while exchanging a simple business card. This is actually social networking.
Social networking is simply the act of getting two or more people together that share something common, to discuss ideas. That’s it. What’s a user group, if not that?
Most people at this point will be wondering what the point really is – but oddly enough, that’s exactly the point. I have seen all kinds of things happen at user group gatherings, be it a user group meeting, a code camp, or other similar event. I have seen things happen such as the creation of:
The point is, that there are people that are actually making more money, and having a better quality of life, as the direct result of attending a user group meeting or two here and there. They met someone that they clicked with, and ideas began from there. However, this doesn’t just magically happen.
Allowing the Magic to Happen
It’s not enough to just go to a meeting, and show up. You need to allow yourself to be approachable. As geeks, we tend to be anti-social. I know, I know… That may have been a complete shocker to many of you – but it seems that in order to think in an analytical way, a side-effect is to be anti-social. However, I have found that this is actually NOT TRUE!
That’s right! You too, can go to a user group, eat a slice of pizza, and when someone says, “Hi,” to you, you can respond and maybe even squeeze in a smile. It’s easy. You can practice before you show up. Smiles are easy.
Come to the user group with your business cards in hand. Whenever you meet someone new, hand them one. It doesn’t matter if you’re happily employed, or at the bottom of the totem pole. You simply never know when you meet the person that’s going to have that next great opportunity for you.
Look like you’re friendly. Geeks tend to put up a transparent social shield around them. While this shield isn’t actually visible to anyone, it shows itself in the form of your body language, and eye movement. If someone walks towards you, don’t freeze up and turn away. Look them straight in the eye, and smile. In fact, put out your hand to shake theirs, and greet them. Tell them that it’s nice to meet them, and ask what they do. Give them one of your handy cards. You remembered them right? If you don’t have business cards, you can get them nearly anywhere for free, or close to it. Check out sites like VistaPrint.
Just look friendly, and be friendly. User group members are some of the most helpful people in the world, and the most valuable resources I have ever had. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to better yourself!
Making the Magic Happen
Now that we’ve coached the user group member, it’s time for you – my friend, the user group leader. The responsibilities of a user group leader never seems to end, and this is no exception. Even if you’re doing everything else on your own, this is one area that you cannot afford to slack on!
You, as the leader, must learn when and how to facilitate in-face social networking. You need to create and nurture an environment where newbies feel welcome, and veterans can be down-to-earth. This is crucial. These events need to be so friendly to a new person that they will feel comfortable immediately, otherwise you will never see them again. Similarly, your veterans needs to be mentored in a way that makes them understand that they are no better than a newbie and can learn from them too. Most often, I find that the most talented people realize this, but this isn’t always the case.
So, how do you make this happen?
First, create a board for the user group to make sure that decisions and responsibilities can be split up amongst multiple people. This frees you up to do a few things – not the least of which is to walk around and mingle specifically with new people. It’s your job as the leader to know every single person in the room. You need to know who works where, uses which technologies, and has what hobbies. This allows you to lead a new member into unfamiliar territory, and match them up with someone that they feel comfortable talking to. Such a thing makes it easier for them to blend in and feel at ease. You should also ask the veteran to introduce the newbie to someone else specific when they’re done. This is you, leading by example, and through a simple unobtrusive persuasion, training your user group members to do the same thing. Before you know it, they will be doing this without any intervention on your part.
Depending on the size of the group, introduce the new members to the group at the beginning of a meeting. Do not ask them to stand up and introduce themselves though. Basically, just say something like, “I want to welcome John Dough. This is his first meeting. He writes VB for Acme Medical Supply, and loves to play paintball. Make sure you tell him ‘hi’ later.” This will make the new person feel special, without putting them completely on the spot. After all, they’re there to see a presentation, not give one.
At the end of the meeting make sure you circle back to talk to the newbies again. Make it a point to find out what they liked and disliked about the meeting. This will make them feel special again. You are asking them for their opinion on how the meeting went, and what they would do to make it better. This will give them an inherited sense of ownership, leading them to feel more inclined to return.
Doing these few things are the bare minimum that you can do in order to facilitate social networking at your user group – but it has an added benefit. Believe it or not, these kind of attention-to-detail activities will also lead to growing your user group as well – not to mention further the cause of the user group. The better you handle newbies, the more likely they are to bring a friend next time, or blog about how great the meeting is, or more.
Also, you can incorporate digital social networking to encourage in-face or analog social networking. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Make sure you find out who the other members are on Twitter, for example. Cross-promote them in your tweets. A way to do this might be to tweet, “Just spoke to @JohnDough at the user group meeting. He’s building a really cool app for @AcmeSupply.” Share these tweets or other items with your members while at the meeting. Show the tweet to John Dough right after you tweet it. Better yet, include a pic! And furthermore, make sure that everyone at the meeting knows the user groups social media outlets. It allows them to do the same thing that you just did on their own.
Finally, regularly hold a gathering at a restaurant or bar after the meetings. It doesn’t matter if it’s just you and 2 other people. This gathering (which I call after party) will begin to grow. At the next meeting, mention to people that didn’t show up to the after party about how fun it was, and something interesting that they missed. This kind of interaction will further facilitate in-face social networking, even if those people never come to the after party. They will automatically feel more at ease and want to share things, because just having something like that as an option creates an atmosphere at the meetings.
I know this post ran long. I have a habit of doing that sometimes. (That sentence doesn’t make sense. A habit means more than sometimes, right? Hmmm…)
I cannot tell you enough how important it is to not just hold a user group meeting. You also have to make it easy for your members to talk to each other, and share with each other. They need to be able to do more than just show up, listen to someone for an hour, and then run out the door. There is no value in that. You will be lucky if they ever come back. On the contrary though, if they show up, eat some pizza, have some great conversations with interesting people, and then leave, they will be back, and they will tell a co-worker. They might not even be showing up for the speakers at that point. I know this is true of numerous people in the user groups I have been a part of. Who knows… In time, they may even want to give back by being on your board, or presenting as a speaker. The possibilities are endless – it could be your next business partner! :)