Follow @RoyOsherove on Twitter

The Power of User Groups (and a request to Microsoft Israel)

The Event, The Card, and the amazing disappearing act
Almost a year ago, at some random event, (Teched Israel 2004?) Microsoft Israel held a special lunch for user group members and leaders. It was quite nice and all the user group leaders got up and talked to the microphone and introduced themselves while people were chewing away at their plates. Michal Geva (Who is heading most of the community and marketing operations at MS Israel is I'm not mistaken) was also there congratulating everyone and inviting everyone to attend more user group meetings. The General Manager of MS Israel, Arye Scope, also spoke of the importance of user groups for Microsoft. All was fine and dandy, and there was even a little surprise: Special "User Group Member" cards were handed out to attendees at the lunch. They look a lot like a MCP cards with an ID and everything only no names. They just say "Microsoft User Group Member" with a member ID.
Michal Geva then continued to say that in the very near future these cards will hold special benefits to their holders in the form of discounts on items, events and other swag of some sort.
I liked the Idea. MS Israel is trying to come to grips with the great technology community that is growing here in Israel right under their nose. Those cards were a tip of an iceberg that has been slowly coming out of the water ever since. In every occasion MS delegates are telling audiences about the benefits of user groups and what MVPs are all about (I have to say that most people I know from the industry still have no idea what a Microsoft MVP is  or a user groups is until I tell them, at which point the immediately forget all about it which is a shame, and don't get me started on Regional Directors, oh dear).
So the trend is continuing to this day but I still don't think its enough. In typical Israeli style where most jobs are done in a half assed manner, I still hold the user group member card in my wallet, but have not heard about it even once since that special occasion. In fact I am thinking of selling it on e-bay for a high bid since I don't know of a way anyone who has not been to that special lunch could receive it if they wanted to today. It wasn't mentioned in any user group meeting since then (and I attend most of them, in most of the developer groups), they haven't been mentioned by MS delegates in any other occasion, and frankly I think someone just forgot that they exist. And that's a shame.
User groups need to have their glory days.  Those cards were a great way to get there.
Before we continue
Before I continue I have to blurb a little about why user groups are so important and what user groups are anyway.
People just don't realize just how important a user group attendance really is to the average developer. Do you, oh dear reader of this blog, ever attend a user group? Have you even heard of user groups? If so, why didn't you go? Go find out about user groups you might be interested in right now.
What is a user group?
A user group is a group of people that meet, usually on a monthly basis, to hear a lecture about a specific technical issue. A meeting usually last around 3 hours with a break in the middle, and sometimes a little Q&A between the members of the group. Meetings are usually held at the Microsoft Israel facilities in Raanana (near Amdocs) and are totally free. The user groups managers are not Microsoft employees, but are developers just like you and me, who cared so much about what they do that they opened a group to talk about it and learn from each other. There are about 7 user groups devoted to Microsoft developer matters in Israel, most of them can be found on the site I mentioned above. There are also plenty of groups that talk about system administration and office solutions (as in Excel and Word and OneNote and so on). The presentations at each group are decided by the group leaders, not by Microsoft, and can vary in topics a lot. If you come to a .net user group you're likely to hear a lecture about anything from Reflection and Winforms data binding, to application architecture design or BizTalk integration. Anything goes and you can even suggest lectures of your own if you're up to it. Lecturers range from your everyday developers that have something they are passionate about, to world class presenters that lecture in Tech-Ed, DevDays, PDC and other well known conferences. And its all free. Think of it - free knowledge. Can you turn that down?
Bring back the card
Now - back to the membership card.User groups are great, but they need more attention. A membership card that makes your friends jealous is a great way to induce such a reaction. Only no one is doing anything about it. So, if anyone at MS Israel is reading this (and I'm almost sure at least one person does), you should -re-introduce the card. You should give benefits to card holders such as:
- 30% discount to purchase a MS press book at a conference booth
- 20% discount on conference tickets
- 50% discount on MCP exams
- A dedicated mailing list per user group with the ID as a user id
- free shirts at events
- I bet there are many more things
Bring back the card, or lose my respect on this issue, and of all those who actually believed you when you said you were going somewhere with this.
You're silly if you don't attend at least one user group meeting
Funnily - a lot of people actively choose not go there, simply because they don't don't how important it is to be there.
Most of the people I know that actively (and in a most silly fashion) choose not to go usually have reasons to do with priorities. That is - a job that can't wait or family responsibilities that can't wait. bulls**t.
A user group meets usually once a month. on a known date. If you really want to be there you can most certainly schedule your time to attend one a month from now. A scheduling speaker I once heard asked "If you had a funereal, would you still be too busy to attend? if not, than its just a matter of setting your priorities straight" and he was right. I treat user group meetings as a very serious and important matter. It is one of the best ways to grow, leave the cocoon that you live in inside you current development job and see the world through the eyes of other people, hear conflicting views, be able to ask other people tough questions and being able to share what you know with others who are just as passionate about what they do as you are, to hear great lectures from various people about subjects that you don't get a chance to touch on in your current position or may have never even heard of. 
I know more than a few people that I've literally had to drag into such a meeting, and are now attending 2 or 3 different user group meetings each month, and love every minute of it. One of them told me that she suddenly "discovered a world that she didn't know existed" after coming from a lecture about hardcore debugging. and that was a cool feeling.
Don't be scared of just showing up to a meeting. Anyone can attend and you don't even have to pre-register to get there. Just get there. it's not a big barbecue and you don't really have to talk to anybody if you don't want to.
How I got started with user groups
When I first came to a user group (it was the VB user group run by Jackie Goldstein) I was pretty spooked to come
in alone. but it was nice. I came in, saw other people not talking to anyone just as I was and other people talking with their friends, and a big room with chairs facing a small stage. So I just sat there and waited until the talk started, like many other folks, thinking to myself. It was pretty nice and there was a certain atmosphere of "buzz" in the air. People were coming there to actually learn new stuff, and it was fun to be with people who wanted the same as me. but I didn't talk to anyone on that first meeting. A few meetings later I started to greet some people that were starting to look familiar, nodding my head when walking in. some meetings later I started having conversations with people about the lectures, and started making friends. that's how I met Jackie, and Udi and many other people. (Will I meet you there too someday? Be sure to say hi when you come in!) I didn't have a blog at the time, but as my blog started, more and more people approached me saying hi and that was nice too. Today coming in to a user group meeting is a little like coming to a bar full of friends (but without the beer), geeky friends. Its fun and entertaining and even if the lecture of the days is not the greatest I still get to sit and talk with people and share stuff I've gone through during the past weeks.
The benefits of attending a user group are more than you think
So making geeky friends is part of why user groups are good for you, but again - the bigger part is learning about stuff you would never have found yourself. Also, networking is a good part and often is a great way to hear about new jobs opening up and maybe getting a recommendation from the friend you know at the group. Now that's gotta be a great incentive - go to a user group, find a job. Well, it's not that simple but its been known to happen.
Here's another important thing to keep in mind- if I interview two candidates with the same skills and knowledge, and one of them attends user groups regularly and the other does not, the one that goes to user groups will have a clear advantage to me. Why? because they've proved that they are serious about what they do, that they want to learn more, that they are involved, and that they know what's going on around them, and that they are more connected to the outside world. Connected people are more valuable than less connected people in our business. Connected people can pick up a phone or send an IM to their user group friend to help them solve that difficult problem they are facing and have no idea how to solve. Connected friends have more means to solve problems. And that, my friends, is one of the biggest benefits that user groups have - they widen your knowledge network thus giving you much much more edge over the competition. BTW, the same thing goes for blogs, and even in a bigger way, since the network can now be international, not just regional.
Think about these things the next time you decide that 3 hours of work are more important (yes yes, there are times and exceptions to a rule, but usually 3 hours at a user group are a much better investment long term,especially when you can return those "lost" 3 hours at work the next day if you need to).
See you there?

The blogs I read

Upcoming talks and webcasts I'm involved with