User groups are the backbones of open source. They give us an opportunity to connect with and learn from each other, and they are great problem solving and creative resources. For those of us who work in small companies or out of our homes, they are invaluable sources of networking and human interaction with like-minded folks. This sense of community is something that makes open source great, and something we want to help promote. We will be highlighting different open source user groups here on the blog, so if your user group is doing something amazing, or even just getting started, please let me know. We’d love to help get the word out about your group.
This week, I reached out to my friends at the aptly named AtlantaPHP, a PHP users group in Atlanta, Georgia. Chris Spruck and Kevin Roberts are the current organizers of this group, and they were kind enough to answer a few questions for me.
In March 2004, Ben Ramsey and Matt Kern discussed forming a PHP user group and ultimately merged with a previous Meetup.com group that had had a few meetings. We had a few informal meetups and planning discussions with half a dozen people or so, and as word spread, things became a bit more organized. Based on mailing list archives, the first real meeting was in November 2004 and except for a few rare cases like a weather emergency, the group has met every month since then. Ben and Matt have since moved away from Atlanta, but we have a terrific core group and things are going strong. Special thanks to Ben Ramsey!
We average 30-35 people at our meetings, but we have 300 on our discussion list and just short of 500 people on Meetup.com.
We start by showing a quick set of slides that mentions some PHP community resources for new people like PHP news sites, IRC channels and so forth, as well as any upcoming events in our area and local, regional, or international conferences. We sometimes have a short session before our main speaker, such as demoing a PHP-friendly IDE or other useful tools or talking about some “quick tips”. We ask if anyone is hiring or looking for work, then after the preliminaries, we have the main speaker for an hour or so. We then go to a nearby restaurant for dinner, drinks and socializing – which many have said is better than the meeting!
I don’t think we’ve encountered anything we’d call an obstacle, but the toughest thing we have to do is find a speaker every month and try to balance things for all experience levels. We realize we can’t be all things to all people every month, so we do our best to mix things up. One funny blip in our history – we were meeting years ago at an IT training and testing center and when we arrived for a meeting, we found the place basically boarded up and shut down. Our contact had forgotten to let us know of the closure until right before the meeting time, so we went to the nearest pizza place and by the next month, we had a new location.
We’ve always wanted to help provide educational opportunities for our members and the technology community and we just had a free, member-led “Intro to the CodeIgniter Framework” half-day workshop, which was really successful, so we plan to continue to do more things like that. We take pride in that we’ve never charged members for dues or expenses, but we’ve realized that running a group on no budget or on the limited pockets of a few generous people can be restricting, so we’re gearing up for the ability to take donations and sponsorships to allow us a bit more freedom to provide resources to our community of members. We’d also like to work more with other local technology groups on special events, cross-training and so on.
Stick with it! If your group is new or small, it will still be a valuable resource to people and it will grow eventually. Don’t be discouraged – groups take time to develop and evolve, so give things a chance.
Delegate! Put together a few trusted people to help you. You can do everything yourself, but it’s easy to get bogged down and lose your enjoyment.
Experiment! Talk to your members and find out what they want from a user group. Try new things and different formats and see what works. Don’t be afraid to change it up. Caveat: try to keep a consistent meeting time and location. Make it easy for people to remember where and when you meet.
Network! Attend other similar groups and talk to other leaders to get ideas and see what works for them. Look for events specifically for user group leaders like http://neugls2010.pbworks.com/ or http://seugls.pbworks.com/ – or plan one yourself! (Disclaimer – I’m a co-organizer of SEUGLS.)
Thanks Chris and Kevin! If you’re a PHP developer in the Atlanta area, you are highly encouraged to check out this fun and welcoming group.