What is community?

A quick look at the Wikipedia defines community as “a group of interacting organisms sharing an environment” and I think that pretty much nails it. In this series, I’ll talk about the developer community as a whole and highlight some people, organizations and events I think you should check out.

In the previous (and first) installment of this series, I talked a bit about what you can expect when you visit a local user group or Code Camp. This month, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume you did so, possibly for the first time. I’m also going to assume that you are now so enamored with community that you want to run right out and start your own event. (See what happen when I start making assumptions?)

In the interest of keeping it simple, I’ll focus on what it takes to start and lead a user group this time, and next time I’ll dig into organizing and leading your first Code Camp or whatever you decide to call it.

So, You Want to Start Your Own User Group?

The first thing most people want to know about starting a Microsoft-focused user group is “where do I need to go or who do I need to talk to for approval to start the group?”

This is one of my favorite questions, because it’s so easy to answer. Simply put, you don’t. Nobody owns your user group but you. (Ok… technically, many folks would argue that nobody “owns” a user group at all, since it’s really a community, but it does need to be led by someone.)

If you want to start a user group, whether it’s a specialist group focusing on a particular technology or a group with a broader scope, such as .NET in general, I give you my blessing. Go for it.

Having said that, there are a few things you might wish to consider first:

Is there an active user group with a similar mission already operating in your area?If so, and you still feel the need to start your own group, take a moment and ask yourself why. Maybe you don’t like the format, or you aren’t impressed with the leadership of the existing group. Have you tried volunteering? Most (not all) user group leaders are more than happy to have someone step up and lighten the load a bit. Of course, if this doesn’t work… you still have your Plan B.

Do you have help? Because if you don’t, you’ll wish you did. Seriously, get help.You need help. No matter how much energy, devotion and free time you think you have right now, there will come a day that you can’t do it by yourself. Maybe your employer has to send you out of town for a day, maybe you get sick or maybe you get hit by a bus. If the show can’t go on without you, you’re doing it wrong (and it’s not a community, it’s a cult of personality).

Logistics can be a breeze, or they can be about as much fun as a root canal on Halloween.Usually, they fall into the second category. Unless you are lucky enough to work for a company that not only gets what you are doing and why, but can also support your efforts, you are going to need to find a place to meet and (optionally) a refreshments sponsor.Local technical colleges (and their professors) are often a great resource for a free place to meet. Recruiters and consulting companies are often willing to spring for refreshments in exchange for leaving a few fliers and business cards. It’s usually best to reach out to a few of these so you aren’t relying on the same one every month.

Manage your expectations, or prepare for disappointment.Some groups take off like a rocket and grow into huge, very active communities while others never go over 10-15 people per month. It might be a geographical issue, or you may have chosen a focus that just doesn’t appeal to the broader public. That’s ok. User group success is not measured by attendance. (Actually, here’s a secret: it’s not measured at all!) Keep this in mind: If the people who attend your group leave feeling like their time was well spent, then it’s a success.

Just because you build it, that doesn’t mean they’ll come. You need to promote it.Fortunately, this is one of those things that Microsoft and other organizations like INETA can really help with. Once you’ve got the first four things figured out, and maybe even had a meeting or two, it’s time for you to pay a visit to the INETA website (conveniently located at http://www.ineta.org) and register your user group. You’ll need a meeting address and a website in order to sign up, but once you do, you’ll be assigned a mentor to guide you through the rest of the process. Once you’re in, INETA offers an excellent Regional & National Speakers Bureau, which I encourage User Groups to take advantage of.After you’ve signed up with INETA, your next stop should be UGSS (User Group Support Services) located at the unfortunately long url http://www.usergroupsupportservices.com. Unlike INETA, this group is actually part of Microsoft and offers limited event funding, quarterly boxes of swag and (best of all) puts you in touch with your local Microsoft Developer Evangelism team (in case you weren’t already talking to them, you should be.)

Finding a speaker can be… challenging.INETA currently accepts requests to send up to one speaker, per group, per year at no expense to your group. It’s a sweet deal, but what do you do the rest of the year?Depending on where your group is located, you might be flooded with people offering to speak, or you might find yourself struggling to get people to come to your group. I strongly encourage you to cultivate local speakers from within your group whenever possible. Offer to pair novice speakers with a co-presenter or try a night of 5-10 minute “lightning talks” instead of a single 90 minute talk.Also, consider that not every meeting needs a speaker. Try having a discussion format meeting around a specific topic. People can ask and answer questions based on their own comfort level.

Once you’ve got some content lined up and you’re scheduling regular meetings, you’ll want to hit up Community Megaphone and list your events there. http://www.communitymegaphone.com.

If I haven’t scared you off at this point, then you’re probably ready to give running a user group a try. If you love it half as much as I do, before you know it, you’ll be thinking of setting up a Code Camp too.

In case that wasn’t enough foreshadowing, next month, I’ll be writing a bit about what is involved with setting up and running a Code Camp.

Table 1 lists some events coming up. Does your group have an event coming up that you’d like to see listed here? Drop me a line and tell me all about it.