Thursday, January 03, 2008


Creating Successful User Groups

Last night, I got a ping from an OWASP Chapter leader on the left coast who inquired about why our user group has so much more participation than his. Here is what I shared...

First and foremost, the main failing of most user groups is the folks that run them. Consider for a moment that the vast majority of IT professionals in the United States tend to be employed by large enterprises. Generally speaking, we are suspect whenever we get invitations to attend events in that we have been conditioned to expect thinly veiled chock-a-block eye candy Powerpoint presentations that lack any substance. Software vendors are attempting to pitch to us while consulting firms abstract out all of the cool details under the guise of NDA.

Consider the fact that if the user group was ran by a member of a large enterprise, many of these concerns disappear. Folks aren't worried about me attempting to talk about secure coding and sneak it pitches regarding annuities or auto insurance. Likewise, if I am talking about it then they can understand exactly who is doing what. It would be silly for me to say that I work for a Fortune 200 Financial Services Firm headquarted in New England especially if the meeting is being held in our own facilities.

The second consideration is the simple fact that pretty much any employee of any large Fortune enterprise has a better distribution list in order to invite folks to participate than any outsider could ever have. It would take an outsider an eternity to figure out how to send an invite to all the IT employees of my employer, yet for me it is a single distribution list in which I can do via point and click. Viola, I just invited 3000 folks to participate.

The third consideration is that user groups need to do a better job of networking with the enterprise architect types as this demographic usually exists in large enterprises. By the way, we all happen to know each other. In my situation, I happen to periodically connect to other Enterprise Architects at United Healthcare, Cigna, UBS, Aetna, Travelers, UTC, MassMutual, Lincoln, GE and so on each of which has at least the same amount of access to distribution lists to invite their 3000+ IT folks to also participate.

The forth consideration is that enterprisey folks are lazy and silly little human beings that need to be told what to do. Here is where I make fun of myself for a minute. Do you know how many times I have gotten an email that contained a meeting invite where I forgot to put it on my calendar? Likewise, if you happen to send me an Outlook calendar invite with all the details in it, I also habitually blindly accept it. Many of us enterprisey types carry around Crackberries that tell us exactly where we need to be. Leverage this fact.

The fifth and final consideration is when inviting folks to participate in user group meetings, you have to acknowledge that even our enterprisey distribution lists are inadequate and on the decline. If we were to rewind ten years ago, I pretty much could reach 90% of all IT employees in my geographic area based solely on what I have outlined where today it is at best 40%. Have you acknowledged the fact that IT outsourcing to places such as India has caused turbulence in distribution lists?

Think for a moment about how many transient IT professionals there may be for any of the Fortune enterprises I mentioned they may work for Wipro, Accenture, Cognizant, TCS, Satyam, Infosys and so on. They come and go yet it is useful to have them attend your user groups. Usually in this model, many of them have onsite coordinators that are more permanent. Have you ensured that not only they are invited but encouraged to forward the message?

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