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Running a Computer User Group (part 2)

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In my last post on "Running a Computer User Group" I mentioned that in part 2 I would discuss VANTUG's activities and plans. However, before I start I want to discuss some philosophical issues. I suspect that many people, if asked, would think of UG's like VANTUG as a place to perhaps network and further their technical knowledge. That is certainly true but in today's world I strongly believe that UG's like VANTUG need to begin to align with professional development in a wider sense. Many times in the IT Managers' Blog the IT industries changing requirements for personnel has been mentioned and discussed. For example, Stephen Ibaraki has explained very well, and at length, the importance of the 'versatilist'. At this juncture VANTUG has a long way to go to begin to contribute to these sorts of changes but I would like to think that in the fullness of time we can align ourselves to the future needs of the industry.

When I first became involved with VANTUG we typically had General Meetings (GM's) 5 - 6 times per year. A GM is a meeting where an invited speaker presents on a specific topic to all members who wish to attend. We would try and pick topics of interest to as many people as possible. Meetings were of a technical nature and probably at about a level 100 - 200 in Microsoft terms with the occasional level 300. I should also point out that VANTUG's origins are in the IT Pro side of things but have gradually moved to about 50/50 developer and IT Pro, a combination which is not unique but not very common. By all accounts our members when asked like it that way (we carried out a survey about 12 months ago - note: a really short one with a total of 3 questions). Depending upon the topic we get the same people attending both types of meetings.

The situation today is that we have 10 - 12 GM's per year. From a management standpoint having a mixed group does add some extra challenges; we have to try and keep everybody happy! However, I personally believe that the extra work is worth it because we are helping to foster a better connection between the developer and IT Pro communities; two groups who haven't traditionally communicated too well! Another change over the past 3 years is the establishment of other Microsoft centric UG's in the Vancouver area. The reasons for that are not germane here. However, suffice it to say that we all aim to work with each other to serve the community and in fact have joint meetings from time to time, where it clearly makes the most sense. After all we are all bound by the same guiding principles of serving the community, and territorial issues have absolutely no place or value. Another example of a joint UG initiative was the first Vancouver Code Camp, which I blogged about here. In that case VANTUG partnered with .netBC and one of the local MVP's.

I mentioned that GM's is only one component. The VANTUG Board firmly believes that the ultimate strength and popularity of a UG is founded in having a wide range of attractions. Special Interest Groups (SIGs) add an element that appeals to those who wish to delve into a subject in more depth; perhaps level 300 to 400 in Microsoft terms. The challenge often is not in creating membership interest but finding and keeping people with the right energy and commitment to keep the SIGs going. From a Board point of view this is one of the biggest challenges.

To return to my earlier point about providing "professional" rather just "technical" development, we have made a particular effort to introduce non-technical SIG topics. For example, we are currently running a Project Management SIG and about to start a Public Speaking SIG. The average "techie" is notoriously bad at public speaking and yet the ability to present both oneself and your message effectively is vital to your career, and will become more so. As far as PM goes I fervently believe that everybody involved in a project environment should be versed to some degree in the process. Better understanding can only lead to better involvement and contribution. As time goes on we hope to try and introduce more non-technical activities as and when we can find the right people to run the activities. A successful broader program can only attract more members and a wider range of members, all adding to the "ethnic" mix.

The same principle applies to our GM's. We are trying to have more meetings which have topics of general industry appeal, Sarbane-Oxley for example. More "community" only meetings are desirable. A community only meeting is where VANTUG members present to VANTUG members, perhaps 4 or 5 short presentations. These would be a great opportunity for members to practice their hopefully new found Public Speaking skills. When you think about it there is a huge untapped collective knowledge and experience within the group itself. What is mostly lacking is the belief in people that others want to hear it (and they certainly do) and the confidence to stand up and do it. Unfortunately, to satisfy all our wish list we would probably need 2 meetings per month, which is practically not feasible and would probably dilute the attendance at each event. So like all "businesses" we must choose carefully how to apply our limited resources for the best overall return.

Certification is another area which has grown in importance, and increasingly in demand from employers. Thanks to generous Microsoft support in the form of training materials we have been running an MCAD study group for about a year now and we are about to start a study group for Windows Server 2003. Clearly, Microsoft attaches a lot of importance to certification in their technologies and our members are grateful for their support in helping them to achieve their goals. I was also pleased to see recently Microsoft widening its audience for the "official" beta test programs (Vista and SBS R2 for example) and offering the opportunity for UG members to be more closely involved. Based upon my feedback this is something that has been well received.

The VANTUG Board is not necessarily short of ideas about new things that we might want to try to add membership appeal and value but like most volunteer organizations we are limited by resources; after all we are supposed to have "day" jobs. It is also important for us to remember the sector of the IT community, which is our typical demographic. There is no real point into trying to totally re-invent ourselves and compete with a group like CIPS for example. It makes far more sense to see how we can complement each other. Tackled properly the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts!

I do wonder sometimes if VANTUG is my real job (I am told that they are tripling my salary next year) and that work is an unfortunate distraction! Regardless of all of the additional demands over the past 2 years, I wouldn't change a thing. There is no greater reward than to know that you helped others in whatever way you are able, and to hear that occasionally via appreciative emails.

Please consider getting involved with your local UG's and think about how you can contribute to their success. All good help is gratefully and enthusiastically received, especially if it involves some form of sponsorship. Sponsorship doesn't have to mean hard dollars. Sponsorship in kind is quite common, eg. hosting a website, providing free meeting space, etc. Remember by helping the UG's you are actually helping yourself!!!

  • Part 1
    Part 2

  • Graham,

    A useful piece about user groups. A very nice contribution to the Canadian IT Managers (CIM)forum. This is a topic that you have been interviewed on before in the media and I can see why.

    Thank you for taking the time to put together such thoughtful blogs.

    Stephen Ibaraki

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