I have been attending monthly meetings at my local PowerShell user group in the Raleigh area regularly for the last year. I also had the opportunity to visit a SQL users group in the area recently when they were discussing a Powershell specific topic. I thought I would share my experiences so far and maybe encourage you to participate in your own local user groups.
- So what the heck is a user group?
- What happens at these meetings?
- What's their purpose?
What the heck is a user group?
User groups are run by one or handful of people that want to get together with like-minded people to discuss a particular topic and share ideas. The user groups I have attended are pretty casual and are made up of a mix of people of various backgrounds and skillsets. You can find user groups on sites like Meetup or on social sites like Twitter and Facebook. There are user groups for basically any topic you can think of. Most groups meet at least once a month and some (like fitness clubs) meet weekly or at least multiple times a month.
As you can see above, the user groups in my area are very diverse and there is something for everyone.
What happens at these meetings?
Each user group runs their get-togethers differently: there is no "correct" format or right way but most follow some kind of "meeting" format. Most groups choose a topic for each get-together and discuss/participate in that topic amongst themselves or have a speaker come in to present a topic. However, rather than just present a topic, most user groups' meetings are interactive and spontaneous with audience members just asking questions or making suggestions as they go.
What is the purpose?
The obvious answer here is that people who love something feel inclined to share their knowledge or participate with other like-minded people. Here's where I am going to get very specific about my experiences. What I didn't expect to find though was was a community. For example, one group I attended started their meetings with simple questions:
- Is there anyone who is looking for a new role or job?
- Does anyone have any openings at their company they're looking to fill?
- Does anyone have a challenge at work they need help solving?
Think about that for a second. This group was taking care of its members. It wasn't just a fluffy presentation and then leave. They had food, there were casual conversations, contact information exchanged, tips were shared. Ultimately, there is a lot to gain at these meetings. Which leads me to one important topic...
The hardest part is starting
By far the hardest part of participating in a user group is showing up the first time. But it's not hard because there are some prerequisites you need to meet. Rather, it's hard because most people assume people are going to judge them and many feel like it might be hard to fit it. Honestly, that's not the case at all. If you can get over your initial fears of showing up to a new place, I think you'll find that most user groups will be happy to have you there.
My personal experience has been that most user groups let me attend and then said Hello towards the end of the meeting. They gave me a chance to blend in and absorb what was going on first before approaching me. But in all cases, what found was a bunch people who were very welcoming and easy to talk with as well as share ideas. Now, I attend regularly and I have started helping my local group organize meetings and plan discussions topics. The best part by far is sharing ideas. I usually leave with a notepad of ideas to research and tips that I can use right away.
I also should point out that these groups are not just for experts. In reality, these groups are supposed to be for ANYONE to attend and most groups want a mix of people and skillsets so that they can keep ideas fresh and interesting.
I have really had a great time attending local user groups in my area. I have gained a lot of knowledge and more importantly, made a lot of local contacts in my field. The discussions we have shared have pushed me to learn more and share with others. I would hope that my experience would give you enough inspiration to look up a user group in your area and see what they're about. If you do, leave me a comment and let me how it went. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.