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Community Collaboration: Host a "Super" User Group Meeting

By  Jun 26, 2013

Topics: Programming

Need ideas for putting IT in your communITy group? We're chatting with bright minds from all technical disciplines and backgrounds to share how they're spreading the spirit of leaning with unique member activities, events, philanthropy, and more.

Thomas Langston is a software developer working with .NET by day and leading the MemphisJava User Group by night.  He is also some of the brain power behind the biannual cross-community Memphis Super User Group Meeting. Connect with him at @thomaslangston or @memphisjug.

Pearson User Group Program: Can you describe a Super User Group Meeting in 5 words or less?

Thomas: Short platform agnostic development talks.

Pearson User Group Program: Great answer. Where did the idea start for your first gathering?

Thomas: Memphis is lucky enough to have multiple software development user groups, each focused on a different technology stack. In the past, few developers took the time to visit groups outside their own area of expertise. I wanted to see developers cross those boundaries, both to broaden our community's technical expertise and to widen the social circle.

Pearson User Group Program: What is the typical format of the event? How often are they scheduled? 

Thomas: An event is composed of six to eight 20 minute platform agnostic software development talks. The presentations are meant to be attractive to a developer whether they're programming in Python, PHP, Ruby, Java, or .NET. Popular topics include software development processes such as SCRUM, tools such as Git, and cross-stack tech like JavaScript libraries and NoSQL databases. In some ways it is similar to a lightning talk night, but the longer length lets speakers go a bit deeper into a topic and we screen talks to ensure they will appeal to the whole audience.

We are currently holding the Super User Group meetings twice a year, in June and November. Most of the user groups attend this meeting in lieu of a normal platform specific meeting for that month. The Java User Group hosts the June meeting, while the local .NET group led by Brian Swanson hosts the November meeting.

Pearson User Group Program: Why do you think community collaboration is important in learning?

Thomas: For me, it is a question about motivation. I spend a lot of time learning basically on my own during work on a narrower set of technologies. The social aspect of a user group meeting helps raise my enthusiasm for broader learning. I expect like a lot of developers, I grew up an introvert. When I got to a collegiate setting, I discovered I was actually an extrovert. I just didn't know many people who were into computers before then. User groups meetings really help capture that energy in the group dynamic and focus it for me.

For others, I think having multiple points of view is a big factor. The interplay between audience members and speaker often reveals tangents about a topic that really fill in the gaps of knowledge we all have. Whereas an online resource traditionally has all the comments at the bottom, a talk can have feedback 'inline', which can be really illuminating. As a speaker I think you get even more benefits because you are forced to put your understanding of a topic into visual and audible formats. The process changes how you conceptualize an idea and helps you see it from more perspectives.

Pearson User Group Program: Have any tips for first-time hosts or leaders?

Thomas: Your biggest resource is the other community leaders already in your area. You should be developing those relationships. Not only will you meet amazing people, but it will help you get leads for space, speakers, and sponsorships. You should be attending other events and inviting the leaders and their groups to your own meetings. If you want to host a big cross-community event you need to build trust and honor it by keeping in mind your larger audience. Our biggest hurdle for the Super User Group has always been turning down speakers whose topic isn't broad enough (e.g. a tool that works in Java and C# shops, but is useless for a Python developer).

Pearson User Group Program: Great advice. Finally, who is your tech hero or IT community mentor? 

Thomas: Patrick McKenzie of kalzumeus.com is my tech hero. He's been able to provide value to customers from elementary school teachers to large enterprises through software. He has blogged extensively about his transition from salaryman to consultant and entrepreneur. I think a lot of programmers would like to make a similar journey from a desk job to having more freedom, variety, and financial incentives in their work.

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For more information on the Pearson User Group Program, visit informit.com/usergroups. Active leaders are invited to register their group to receive special offers, free review copies, and more.

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