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Spotlight on Community: Columbus Ruby Brigade

As part of the continuing spotlight on user groups in the open source community, I’d like to tell you a little about the Columbus Ruby Brigade. One of the group’s fearless leaders, Joe O’Brien, is also a good friend of mine. I had the pleasure of speaking at the group a while back, and got the chance to know some of the members. What a great group of people! Thanks go out to Joe who was kind enough to answer some questions for me about the group.

Columbus Ruby Brigade
Website: http://columbusrb.com/
Location: Columbus, Ohio, USA
Meets on: 3rd Monday of the month
Meeting location:
Quick Solutions HQ,
440 Polaris Parkway, Westerville, OH 43082
How did the group get started?

We started because I was tired of watching family and friends roll their eyes when I would try to show them something cool in Ruby. We started it back in 2005 when I finally tried and really discovered Ruby. I had seen it before and did not take it seriously. As I got into it more and more, I couldn’t get enough of it. During that time there was a site gaining popularity called 43 things. I found about a dozen people in the area who listed ‘learn Ruby’ or ‘learn Ruby on Rails’ as things they wanted to do. I reached out to them and setup our first meeting over lunch. After that we scheduled our first night time meeting. We have been meeting every single month ever since.

Amazingly enough, one of the original 6 that showed up to that first meeting is now my business partner at EdgeCase. Funny how life works out that way.

How many members do you have?

We now have 450 members on our mailing list. The group averages about 35-40 per meeting. We have gone as high as 90 (we brought in Uncle Bob to speak once) and our lows hover around 20-30 now (holiday weeks, etc).

What is a typical meeting like?

We now have two meetings a month. One meeting is an eyes-front lecture meeting and the other more of a code jam / hackfest. We have tried to balance long talks (30-45 minutes) with a few shorter 5 minute lightning talks. We have a couple people doing regular sessions each month called ‘method of the month’ where we go through some particular method from the standard library in detail. Pretty interesting really. Lately we have also had a person leading what he calls the CRB labs. These are more detailed lab exercises that help everyone learn more about Ruby by trying it.

Photo courtesy Aaron Christy

Photo courtesy Aaron Christy

Every few months we try and bring in a speaker from outside. We have had quite a few people come and talk to us about a wide-range of topics that all share a common theme: passion for technology. While we are a Ruby group, having people from the outside to talk about fear of failure or technical writing has helped us prevent typical tunnel vision that many groups experience.

Code Jams are pretty open format. Usually a couple people have things they want to work on and are looking for a pair. The others are along for the ride to either pair up, or find some kind of lab exercise to work on with someone. All of these encourage pairing and collaboration and learning from each other.

What are some obstacles you’ve had to overcome?

That is an interesting question. I would say they fall under a couple categories: consistency and helping beginners.

When we first formed we had trouble securing a venue on a permanent basis. We found that we would build a decent following (any more than 30 a meeting we were really excited about) and would then have to change venue or change the day. Every time we changed, it would introduce a massive dip in attendance. We now have a day that we will not compromise on (third monday of every month) and a very regular venue. When you first form though, these are the hardest things to nail down.

The other major problem that creeps up about every year or two is the problem with helping beginners. There is a tendency with user groups to forget that you have people that have not been using the language or framework as long as you have. You hesitate to recycle talks because people have talked about it already or seen it. So you inadvertently create a group of people who are advancing, while new members are left in the dust. We now strive to make sure we revisit certain talks, or topics. We try and balance beginning and advanced talks so that we can keep it interesting for our long time members, but also encourage new blood.

Photo courtesy Aaron Christy

Photo courtesy Aaron Christy

What are your plans for the future?

We have been migrating away from talks that are only about Ruby. The group has migrated into a group of those passionate about software development in general. Many of our talks lately have been focused on the craft of software and are not as technology specific. We will more than likely keep this up. We also have some national speakers who have agreed to come and speak this year, so we will have some very exciting meetings in the coming year.

Any advice for those running their own user groups?

Stay consistent in day. If possible, find a venue that you can continue using for a long time. Feed your users. A little bit of pizza goes a long way to making sure people attend. Don’t forget new users. User groups are for those curious about a language or platform to come and check it out. Make sure you have content they can understand and enjoy as well. Finally, make sure to have fun. User groups are for those that are looking for an outlet for their passions. Maintain that. Find a watering hole nearby your venue and adjourn there after the meeting is over. I’ve been to way too many user groups here in town that are stiff, lifeless and where everyone races for the door when the meeting is over.

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Thanks, Joe!
If you are a Ruby dev in the Columbus, Ohio, area, I encourage you to reach out to Joe and the group at http://columbusrb.com. I can personally attest to their level of awesome, and they clearly have some great stuff planned for the group in 2011!

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