Jason Haley

Ramblings from an Independent Consultant

Ways to get involved in the local tech community (3 of 5)

Volunteer to help organize a user group

It may not seem like it, but a lot of effort goes into organizing a regularly reoccurring user group.  The more people that effort can be spread across the less effort it is for everyone involved.
Once you find a user group you like and want to get to know the organizers better and really become part of the group – offer your assistance.  Here are some ideas on the sorts of things that need to happen for every meeting – if one of the items sticks out to you as something you could help with– talk with your user group organizers and see if you can help.  For most user groups there could be a person in charge of each of the following items – (though the room reservation and finding of speakers is a chicken and egg problem that you’ll have to deal with).

Room Reservations

The key to holding a group is to have a sponsor for the location that can be used for events every month.  If you are lucky enough to find a corporate sponsor (like Microsoft) that allows you to hold meetings on a regular basis, realize you still have to work with their schedule (especially if you are not paying them anything).  This means reserving a room often needs to be done ahead of time so you can get a speaker on the day you have a room reservation. 

Finding Speakers

Consistently finding enough qualified speakers who are willing to travel to your group’s location and present on the date you have a reserved room – can be challenging.  It is like a marathon – you have to pace yourself and constantly be checking in with people for their interest and availability so you can fill the schedule.  It has taken me years to figure this out.  The more focused the user group, the harder it can be to find a wide range of speakers in your area to convince to speak. 

Communications

Once a room is reserved and a speaker is lined up, you need to get the word out to get people to attend.  I may be dating myself here, but back when I was organizing the Beantown.Net user group, there was no meetup.com – so the group was mostly attended by “regulars” who knew the group consistently met on the first Thursday of the month downtown Boston at the regular place and time.  This also meant that people would be there no matter what the topic or speaker was that night (and that getting new people there was very difficult to achieve).
However, times have changed.  People tend to topic shop now – meetup.com allows people to lookup what is going on in their area and choose what they would like to go to any night of the week.  This is why communications is important.  Someone needs to keep meetup.com up to date and spread the word any way possible to get people aware of the group and the next meeting’s topic and date.

Finding Sponsors

Money is needed to pay for food and drink as well as any giveaways you would like to have at your event. 
There are many local companies that may be willing to donate some money for the food and drink – but you will need to ask them to find out … they usually do not come to you and offer to give you free money.

Catering (food and drinks)

User groups that meet after work hours are a better experience if you offer food and drink (ie. soda, water, etc).  Keep in mind people have dietary restrictions – though unless you ask ahead of time, this can be hard to get good at.  For example, I tend to order pizza for my user groups and I split the order between pizza with meat and pizza without meat.  In order to get more specific than that on dietary restrictions I need to know the attendees who are coming … or ask them ahead of time.
For each meeting, someone has to order the pizza and pay for it (and possibly pick it up – or at least schedule the delivery).
Also keep in mind – if you have special relations with local restaurants and can get a better deal – that can be a huge help for both sides of the equation (ie. pizza store on a slow week night AND user group getting a special deal not otherwise available).