Jason Haley

Ramblings from an Independent Consultant

Ways to get involved in the local tech community (4 of 5)

Start your own user group

If you want to become a leader in the local tech community, the best way is to start your own group and help actively grow the local community.  There are many challenges you’ll need to face to start a group, but if you really want to be a leader – you will need to take on those challenges and make it happen.  I would say at half of running a group requires a skillset similar to event planning and the other half is constantly communicating with the community in order to get speakers and get people interested in attending the group. 

If you are new to what it takes to create a group, you’ll notice there is an order to the items below and some have a (suggested) time along with them. These are the things I find useful, results may vary.

Pick a topic

The very first thing you should do is come up with a topic the group should focus on.  The broader the topic, the more flexibility you will have when it comes to finding speakers.

Last year, I started an Azure user group to meet north of Boston.  I’d been attending Bill Wilder’s Azure group that meets downtown Boston for years (Boston Azure Cloud User Group) but I sometimes find it hard to make it into the city in the evenings to attend … which got me thinking that I was probably not the only person that would like to have an Azure user group meeting that was north of Boston. 

The point being – I picked Azure as the topic even though there was already an Azure user group downtown Boston, I guessed there would be enough people in the tech community north of Boston to grow a new Azure user group without cannibalizing the membership from Bill’s group.

Get a plan for the group communications

Once you have a topic for a group you want to get started – the next thing you will need is a way to communicate about the group’s events.  When it comes to social media, different people use different services … which means the more you can utilize to get your group communications out the more people will find your group.

  • meetup.com – I suggest starting a meetup.com account (I know an account is not cheap – but meetup really does help people find your group)
  • website – In the past, I’ve always gotten the group’s domain name and created a website – but at the moment I’ve just stuck with using meetup.com.  The website may work for you, but I still haven’t set one up for my new group.
  • twitter account – I use twitter to get the word out. I have a twitter account for the group but I also use my own account to broadcast news about the group’s events.
  • facebook – some people setup facebook sites for groups.  I don’t currently have one for my group, but it may work for yours.
  • github – github can be a good location to publish meeting files and provide another channel for people to discover your group
  • slack – some groups also use slack.  Slack provides a nice way to have conversations outside of the actual event … which can really add value to the community

Find a location

One of the biggest challenges for holding a group can be finding the location to hold it. 

If you work for a company that has meeting space that would be a good spot to hold your group – I would recommend asking your employer if you could hold the group at your company.

If you don’t work for a large company or maybe don’t work in the city you want to hold the meeting (for instance I live about 20 minutes away from where I hold my group due to more technology companies being in the Burlington area than the Salem area), I would suggest the following:

  • If your group is related to Microsoft technologies – and there is an office in the location you want to hold the group – I’d check there first.  In my experience, Microsoft is one of the companies in the Boston area that are the friendliest to user groups.
  • If your group is related to another company’s technology – check with their local office
  • If your group is general and you just need to find a location – look where other user groups in the area are meeting and see if one of those would work for you
  • Other options are: universities (though they may require insurance), shared office spaces (like WeWork), consulting firms that may be related to the technology. 

Warning – some people will charge your money for using their space.

Find sponsors

Unless you have corporate sponsorship or are independently wealthy, it is good to have some sponsors to help pick up the tab for things like pizza and soda. 

Find help

Unless you know people who already interested in helping you with the group, finding additional help may at first be a family and friends sort of help.  Once the group gets going, you will more likely find people to help you with the group.

Within 4 weeks of the first meeting

Once you pick a date for the first meeting, there are a few things you will need to do.

Find a speaker

You’ll need to find a speaker for the meeting … this of course could be you or some other expert that you know in the community.  If you want the group to start off with a bang, I would suggest getting someone who is already known in the local community to speak at the first meeting and ask them to help you get the word out about the event.

Reserve the room

Make sure you have a room big enough and ask for it to be setup in a manner that will work for your group. 

For example: round tables are NOT a good setup if there is going to be a person presenting in the front of the room.  Class room setup (with tables) is often the best for technology related user groups.

Don’t for get AV needs make sure there will be some sort of a podium or seat in front of the room for your presenter and a projector.  Sometimes an audio mic is good too – especially if sound doesn’t travel in the facility.

Get the word out about your group and the upcoming meeting

Use your communication channels to spread the word about the event and get people interested in attending.

Within 2 weeks of the first meeting

At the point of 2 weeks from the event - to save your sanity – it is best to do a status check in order to make sure things are going as planned.

Check in with speaker

Make sure there will still be a speaker there and see if there are any special needs that should be prepared for

Check in with facilities

Verify you still have the room reserved.  Things get messed up all the time, you want to know a couple of weeks out if you need to reschedule – you don’t want to show up to a locked building the night of your event.

Get the word out about your group and the upcoming meeting (repeat as needed)

Use your communication channels to spread the word about the event and get people interested in attending.

Within 24 hours of the first meeting

Now the day is finally here, you need a check list to make sure the event goes well.  Here are a few things, I’m sure you’ll find others.

Get a reminder communication out

Remind people of the event and to update their RSVPs so you will have an idea of how many to prepare for

Order food and drinks ahead of time

I typically order food around 1pm for a 6pm meeting, this helps the pizza place fit my order in and not have to hurry.

Don’t forget plates, cups, napkins, etc.when it comes to getting food for groups, it is easy to focus on ordering the food – but don’t forget the other things needed to eat that food!

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