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“Hallway Track” User Groups

Last year, we told you a bit about Intridea's experience with founding the DC Ruby Users Group, and shared some tips for organizing a group of your own. For many developers, and a lot of our remote Intrideans, being in a smaller area doesn't mean you can't get involved.

Introducing the "Hallway Track" Ruby User Group

If founding a Ruby User Group sounds impractical — think again! From my own personal experience, one of the best reasons to travel to regional conferences is not necessarily the talks (though they are certainly phenomenal), but rather, the "hallway track". With the Eau Claire Ruby User Group, there are many similarities:

  1. Hacking on Projects: Put enough monkeys in a room — they'll eventually write Shakespeare. Put enough Ruby developers in a room — well, you end up with the Rails Rumble. Even if everyone comes into a group with their own project in mind, the ability to shoot ideas off of each other, and even pair program, can be just as fulfilling as a great talk.
  2. Learning a New Skill: ECRuby has fairly relaxed meetings, but on occasion we do have folks present; often on a topic asked for at the last meeting. Low-key talks don't need to be as formal. Toss out the slides and take us through an example of how to set up a VPS, or show us some handy tricks with VIM. The laid-back meeting style puts less pressure on the speaker and guarantees we always have material.
  3. Comparing Toolchains: Having the opportunity to meet up with other developers allows you to see just what tools they're working with in their own projects. Often at ECRuby, we may discover a gem or library that we hadn't considered using but fits perfectly within our own project.
  4. Socializing: Finally, developers (especially Ruby developers) are an interesting breed. It never hurts to meet others of our own kind.

The key to a hallway track user group is not bringing in speakers and maintaining a formal environment, but rather, creating a space where developers enjoy picking up new snippets of information, and have the opportunity to learn and grow naturally from each other.

Here are a few tips from our experience with ECRuby:

  • Make the meetings worthwhile for all sizes. At a few of the ECRuby meetings when we were first getting started, our attendance was around 3-4 developers. On the flip side, we've had several meetings where we've had nearly 30. The key, however, is that both of those extremes can be worthwhile meetings. While you want to try and get a feel for attendance for logistical planning, don't simply give up on a group if you've got small attendance. A few folks coding can be just as happy.
  • Consider alternative venues. Because hallway-track group meetings are less formal, it hardly needs to be in a lecture hall. We've been able to give a few ad-hoc demos on a television at a local pub. But with screen-sharing, you may not even need that. Consider bars, coffee shops, even a developer's home — all can make great spots for a meetup.
  • Invest time in recruitment. Semi-annually, ECRuby holds a formal Chippewa Valley Ruby Camp where we offer a free all-day introductory course in Ruby on Rails. The goal is to ensure that 30 new individuals have Ruby on Rails installed, with enough knowledge to experiment on their own time by the end of the day. Usually this brings in several new ECRuby members. Consider any nearby universities or technical colleges that might be ripe with students looking to pick up a new skill.

So whether you're in the heart of Manhattan, or the middle of North Dakota, it's very worthwhile to invest in a Ruby User Group. If there's not one nearby, take a cue from our own Jon Kinney and start up a Green Bay Ruby User Group, or from Daniel Lv and kick off ShanghaiRUG. Not to mention Adam and Renae Bair, who currently run the Maine Ruby User Group. Now get out there and meet some devs!


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