Improving Your Local Tech Group

Acting Locally

There are hundreds of User Groups across North America and around the world. These groups are primarily socially based or hacker groups who gather regularly to work on group or individual “toy” projects. Most groups will remain small and insular. It's easy to stick with what is familiar and keep recycling the same format every month. Unfortunately, this leads to stagnation and apathy by group members. People will eventually stop showing up and the group will either suffer along or just cease to exist.

What if a group started to break out of that insular shell and look into other parts of the community?

The first steps always seem the hardest, but are necessary to capture the momentum needed to get things moving in the right direction. What are the best first steps?

  • Diversify Responsibilities
    • Giving people something to do to help with group outreach and visibility keeps everyone involved. Assign folks to various responsibilities
      • Blog writer - previewing upcoming events and reviewing past meetups and speakers
      • Twitter Handler - someone to announce upcoming meetups and look over followers so responses can be made when inquiries come in
      • P.O.C. - having a single point of contact that can distribute group information on a one-on-one basis and also take any questions to the group, should they come up

  • Have a coordinator for “outside of our group” activities

    • Getting someone to be a point person for any given activity relieves stress from the main organizer's shoulders.
      • Part of making the group better is to reach out to other organizations. Having a an Outreach Coordinator helps with those activities.

  • Start with the people who seem most motivated

    • There are usually a few people in the group who are energized, but rarely jump in on a project or give a talk at the meetup. If they are motivated to be part of the group but reluctant to take the spotlight, get them involved in helping out behind the scenes.

Communication is Key

The importance of social media for meetup groups cannot be stressed enough. Getting the local group well organized is the first step to getting people involved, but it can't just be a mention here and there just before meetings. Communicating what group members are up to between meetups is a great way to get more people interested.

  • Meetup.com
    • a scheduling and group email tool to organize the meetings

  • Twitter

    • the never ending stream that will help people interested in your subject get involved

  • Blogs

    • A way to preview upcoming meetups and review past speakers and activities so everyone is in the know

The whole point of having a meetup or hackfest is to include as many people as possible. ALL OF THE PEOPLE!! Young or old, n00b or 1337 hacker, student or trained professional, woman or man, brogrammer or nogrammer, none of this matters: everyone should be in the group. If you don't include fresh people, new to programming or your preferred technology, the group will get repetitive and could become cliquey to the point of disagreements breaking out within the group.

Some things to do to keep the group groovy on the local level...Get the local CS students out an interested. Our job is to train the people (or robots, machines, aliens...) who will replace us as we move upward to being more awesome, whatever that may entail. Student participation is a great way to see what the next generation is doing to handle the constant flux of programming and technology.

At the same time, it's necessary to grab folks who have been programming for years and have them talk about their journey. Experience is important, without a lot of “look at how awesome my code is”.

Thinking Globally

Technology being what it is, there is no reason why a local Ruby group needs to be so local.

A few people may ask, “why bother trying to break out of the local? We are happy here”. Just like contributing code to an open source project or creating a gem or module that helps you and may help others, being a part of the global tech community is a good way to give back.

There are lots of ways to get the worldwide community to your group meeting. Use github to start a project related to the group then invite another group to help out and fork the repo. Set up a picnic or drink-up with a group that is nearby and meet in the middle to hang out. Invite speakers from other meetups to come to town. Anyone can be anywhere with skype or google hangout and they can therefore present to your group at little or no charge (technical difficulty may vary).

A great way to go global is to think beyond your own technology. Try getting in touch with other local programming groups. If you are in a PHP group, reach out to local Ruby group and join up for some talks or coding nights. Compare notes. There is already a base of shared interest there. Use a joint meetup to meet new people and get new perspectives. Start it socially then move on to shared meetups and maybe even hacking challenges or barcamps.

If debates arise, keep it friendly. Remember, it's not about the tools we use, it's about the problems we solve. While participating in the NomadPHP meetup, there was a lot of interesting crossover between the Zend framework and some of the things done in Rails, making it easily understandable across platforms. If the focus is on solving problems, everyone should be involved and jump in.

Another great example of going global is Open Hack. Open Hack is a language agnostic meet-up...all over the world! If your area doesn't have an Open Hack yet, start one! It's easy, fun, and will bring fresh perspectives to all the people in your meetup circles.

Sponsorships

Get sponsors involved in your meetup. This is a two way street. Most sponsors will be willing to send schwag in exchange for something. Some are just happy to send you t-shirts or pens. Either way, offer to give back.

Many bigger companies in the global community like to give podcasts or blog posts and need people that are involved in their community. So get involved with sponsors that can promote you as you promote them. And it's easy to get started...just ask. The answer is always no if you don't reach out and ask.

Keep Moving Forward

As David Coallier has been known to say, “Momentum is everything. If you get it, make damn sure you keep it for as long as you can and enjoy compounding velocity” - The more things improve the easier it is to improve more things.

The point of having of tech group is to make the group experience better, the local groups and the tech groups around it, for all individuals involved and to share it with others, to grow a local group and become a member of the community so everyone can benefit, locally and globally. If we keep moving forward, we can all become better global tech community citizens. And that benefits everyone. For more information on help with getting a meetup group started in your area, meetup sponsorship, or rebooting an existing meetup group, contact PJ Hagerty or take a look at our Community Packet

About PJ Hagerty

Developer, writer, speaker, musician, and Team Lead of an elite band known as the Engine Yard Community Team, PJ is known to travel the world speaking about programming and the way people think and interact. He is also known for wearing hats.