Depending on their sizes and traditions, user groups offer different settings. From formal and relatively stiff presentation settings to relaxed meetings in restaurants, there’s something for everyone. Meetings often include:
- BOFs (birds of a feather) sessions are typically ad hoc, last-minute-scheduled discussions, addressing topics of interest to a few or many attendees.
- Bulletin boards (paper or electronic) facilitate posting questions and answers, requests for help, and inquiries about shared experiences.
- Post-meeting social settings offer a place to unwind and chat, often with refreshments and tables designated for different interest groups.
While a crowd of people who are seemingly old and close friends may be daunting to a first-timer, user groups are friendly, welcoming settings. It’s easy to start a conversation; the common setting indicates common interests. Surely, the latest product release or apparent vendor outrage can serve to break the ice.
User Groups Help Vendors
User groups don’t just benefit end users and computer-using organizations. Technology entrepreneurs, overwhelmed by infinite to-do lists, can use Archimedes’ long-enough lever to move their world and achieve their goals by letting others help. The underutilized tool at hand is a user group. User groups now accommodate and support everyone from hobbyists and amateurs to experienced IT professionals; they’re an efficient way for vendors to reach customers and prospects, offering a setting for technical and product presentations, often accompanied by technology expositions.
Technology exposititions allow for installing and demonstrating products in realistic settings, and responding to questions by showing, rather than describing. Similarly, attendees get immediate answers to what-if questions that reflect their real-world requirements.
Finding User Groups
While user groups don’t operate covertly, they’re also not listed in the Yellow Pages. So it’s easy to be figuratively next door to one without knowing about it. The easiest way to start seeking a group is to ask colleagues and peers at other companies. Local newspapers often list local groups. The Washington, DC area has more than 100, ranging from Amiga and Osborne to mainframes, from Baltimore to Virginia.
Mainstream newspapers often list meeting schedules. Technology reporters may also know about local groups.
Web search engines and directories catalog everything. Searching Google for user group for industry terms yielded the results in Figure 1. Each hit isn’t a distinct user group, but refining the search with more detailed keywords such as geographic location and specialty sought will likely return resources within reach. Sites such as http://easyrsvp.com/ugotw/ and http://apcug.org/ (click user groups and then UG directory) offer structured searching.
Participation , Exploiting
Most people begin user group participation by simply attending. That usually returns value in the form of information received, but it’s just getting the barest value available.
The next step is often presenting. This provides personal and organizational exposure, and allows for polishing presentation skills. It provides a setting for sharing information and unobtrusively bragging, and — at least as important — elicits feedback from fellow attendees.
A further step is chairing sessions. This requires some pre-meeting preparation and some understanding of conference logistics. If management approval is obtained in advance for this, it can prevent last-minute denial of permission for attending. Session chairs work in close contact with speakers, often chatting before and after the conference. So judicious selection of sessions to chair can build a valuable network of experts.
Groups blossom and fade as technology changes and the industry booms and busts. It’s a lot of work keeping a volunteer group running, and it’s sometimes hard for volunteers to agree on what to do. Many local groups have folded when they lost critical mass. In some cases, vendors and their sponsored meetings have replaced user groups.
Industry convergence affects more than combining technologies, it also results in broader-based organizations such as SHARE. From its single-technology focus, SHARE has evolved to address non-IBM networks, hardware, software, and services in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Similarly, other user groups are addressing mainframes, as their technology fields of interest expand to include them. Both sides win when there’s improved mutual awareness and understanding.
The user group phenomenon’s bottom line is pleasant for technical folk, their managers, and corporate bean counters. For a reasonable investment, staffers network with communities relevant to their organizations, in settings where anyone from junior to senior level is welcome, and can both contribute and benefit. While participation requires investing time and perhaps money for travel and conference costs, it’s easy to measure the value received. As is true in other contexts, the more one invests in user groups, the bigger the personal, professional, and organizational payoff. Z