Ten Keys to Building an Enduring Ruby Users Group

Intridea founded and sponsors the DC Ruby Users Group, which has been a great success. Our monthly meetings average around 30 attendees, but some have had twice as many.

While I would not be so bold as to claim I’ve found the secret to successfully organizing and running a local Ruby Users Group, there are some things I believe have contributed greatly to our group’s success:

  1. Be welcoming and inclusive. It’s a stereotype, but not one without some truth to it: a lot of techies tend to be introverted. At every meeting, I make it a point to ask who is at their first DCRUG event and welcome them. Furthermore, as responsibility-juggling allows, I also try to greet attendees at the door and introduce myself. Invariably, some folks will sit quietly, keep to themselves, and leave after the lectures — but I hope they leave with a desire to attend again, perhaps even as a presenter.
  2. Appeal to multiple levels of skill and experience. At recent meetings, a show of hands has indicated that about half the attendees are not experienced Rubyists, and are looking for a chance to learn introductory concepts. An advanced topic would be overwhelming. At the same time, our core group of Rubyists want to learn more about these advanced concepts. Our solution: make sure that each meeting has at least one talk that appeals to newbies (e.g. “Intro to Rails models”) and one that will interest experienced Ruby developers (e.g. “Background Jobs with Resque”).
  3. Cover a variety of subjects. Our talks on cutting-edge technologies like MongoDB and XMPP have been great, but not every talk needs to be software-related, or even technical. Two of our most popular presentations have been regarding legal issues that affect software companies and tips on how to give great presentations.
  4. Meet on a consistent basis. We hold our meetings on the second Thursday of every month (except when a record-setting blizzard makes travel impossible). This makes planning simpler and the predictable timing helps attendees leave room in their busy schedules.
  5. Don’t “reinvent the wheel”: use Meetup.com . Initially, we used a homebrewed system for scheduling DCRUG meetings, but then realized it would be more efficient to leverage the work Meetup has already done. They are completely focused on making it easy to organize gatherings and we’ve been quite happy with the service.
  6. Publicize through various channels. Don’t wait for them to come to you! Meetup now has a nice feature that lets attendees cross-post their RSVP to Facebook and/or Twitter. Additionally, DCRUG has its own Twitter account and we cross-promote to other groups nearby, such as the ones in Northern Virginia and Baltimore.
  7. Make yourself a checklist Seriously, even for an informal meeting, there are so many moving parts — lining up speakers, coordinating with the hosts, ordering food, publicizing the event, thanking the appropriate people, etc. — that you’ll invariably forget something. I create a bulleted list in Google Docs and, after each meeting, simply make a copy of that document for the next DCRUG, editing as appropriate.
  8. Location, location, location! We have been fortunate enough to have StreamSage allow us use of their sizeable and Metro-accessible space, for free. This, alas, is easier said than done, but not impossible. It is crucially important that you find a meeting space that is conveniently-located for your attendees, or they will be far less likely to attend.
  9. Follow up each meeting with a get-together Ruby user groups provide not just an educational opportunity, but a social one as well. After every meeting, we head to Post Pub, a bar located a block away. Many folks go with soda as their drink of choice, but this isn’t about getting a buzz. Rather, it’s a chance for attendees — presenters and audiences — to socialize in an informal environment and talk anything, Ruby-related or otherwise, with their peers.
  10. Free pizza and soda! It may sound silly, but is surprisingly effective. Our meetings start at 7pm, which means many attendees come straight from work and are hungry. Prior to the first presentation, the boxes of piping-hot Domino’s pizza and cold soda at the back of the room serve as a place for attendees to congregate and chat, instead of just sitting in their chairs, waiting for the meeting to begin.

For those of you looking to start a local Ruby Users Group, I hope this helps you kick it off successfully. For folks who are looking to improve an existing one, I hope you find this helpful. And I hope everyone will come by and check out a meeting of the DC Ruby Users Group.