User Group Startup -- Running with the Right Crowd

Once you’ve decided that you are going to start a user group and you’re going about it with passion and conviction it’s time to get together a leadership team. I want to emphasis the word team here. The local user group that I attended before helping to found Edmug was run by two people. One of the things that we noticed, and voiced while planning our new group, was that the two leaders of the previous group were stretched very thin. Let this be fair warning to you. Starting and running a user group well will take up a significant number of hours each month. You can not expect to show up for the meetings and have everything fall into place. Good meetings take time and planning. The more people you delegate work to, the easier it will be on you.

When we were first starting out we decided very early on that we wanted to everything that we could to make sure that no one person was doing so much work that they would become burnt out or disinterested. Essentially we decided to protect the passion (I’ll get to passion a little later on). To try to stop this from happening we went with the INETA recommendation for a user group board: President, Vice President, Membership Director, Program Director and Treasurer. The main reasons behind this decision is that we could see each role having a very distinct responsibility and the number of roles would spread the workload out nicely.

Roles need people to perform them. Unconsciously we did not attempt to fill the roles, instead we fit the roles to people. We put the roles out on the table and let people choose which they wanted. I can hear people asking the question “Shouldn’t we put the person with the most applicable skills or experience into that role?”. Based on my experience, I say no. Again it boils down to passion. If you have passionate people, they will search out the roles that they want and the combinations that you initially make you wonder will surprise you. People with passion see no skill, comfort or prejudicial boundaries. Leaders with passion will instinctively help their peers without thinking. All of these things are a part of what can make a user group successful.

One of the first things that happened with our group was the resignation, for personal reasons, of our initial President. One of the great things about having a leadership that consists of five members is that, although we’d lost a valued member, we had a small amount of succession built in base solely on volume of bodies left in the leadership group. When you have numbers in your leadership, replacing a person does not become a scrambling situation. Instead you are able to sit back, evaluate what your needs are, listen to suggested names of people that are already involved in community, talk to other community members about their interest. Like selection to any team, you need to be concerned about team cohesiveness and passion. Take your time and promote internally if desired or nominate a temporary role holder. One of the ideas that we had, which we did not specifically act on, was to bring in a person for an “intern” styled trial. We backed away from these ideas because we felt is was very pretentious of us, a month old user group, to be interviewing for roles.

Without going into extensive details about the duties for each role I’d like to touch on the topic. One of the key things to remember about the leadership of your user group is that these people are volunteers. If you can assign duties to people based on their proximity to a location or their ability to travel easily you will see better results. As an example, two members of our leadership work very close to our meeting location while the others work a number of blocks away. The guys that are furthest from the meeting location will either walk or drive by the donut shop so they are tasked with bringing the donuts. The two people who are located close to the meeting rooms are partly responsible for being at the meetings early to perform setup.

As you can tell I’m a big fan of having multiple leaders on the board for a user group. That said, it might not be all the people resources you need. One of the primary focuses of any user group should be to reach out to the local community and inform, welcome and educate all people no matter their dedication to the group. We’ve batted around a number of ideas for this within our user group leadership. One of the great ideas is that we should start an Evangelist program. Evangelists could take many forms, but at the core they are an extra tool for our user group to reach out to the community through. We’ve thought about having blog evangelists and corporate evangelists as we see these two areas as having significant exposure to the mass of the developer community with the city and surrounding area. The idea of an evangelist is good, but we need to offer something to these people that sets them apart. As we essentially are a non-profit group, we can’t offer much to these people. What we’ve thought of are two things: advance knowledge of upcoming events and some influence over the content that we try to acquire for the events.

User Groups live and die by the direction, passion and commitment that it’s leadership brings to the table. That said, the volunteer leaders need to have consideration shown for their situations. Because of personal commitments no one user group leader can be Mr.Do-It-All and should look for help from within and use it’s membership to help when and where possible. In the end, user groups are people working for people. Pay attention to the people and you will be one step closer to succeeding.