City Programmer, Country Programmer – Building Rural User Groups

Metro areas generally have really active user groups where Rails_Awesome_Lord presents regularly, famous hackers drop in to give presentations, and the Rails Elite throw smashing parties and drinkups after each meeting. But not all developers live in (or near) metro areas and can partake in such festivities. If you’re among the rural band of outlaw programmers, this post is for you.

Portland, Maine isn’t a tech hotbed by any means and when Adam Bair and I took over our small Ruby User Group after the last coordinator moved to NYC we were pretty sure that garnering attendance and participation would prove difficult in our area. However, to our surprise it wasn’t hard at all. In fact, we found that Maine had a scattered yet hardcore group of programmers, each looking to find other programmers. We meet monthly and the size of our group fluctuates from 6-15 people depending on the month. We do very little outreach aside from Twitter announcements and messages to the Google Group. So what’s the secret? How do you call the mavericks out of their programming caves and get them to join you?

Here are some tips for getting your own user group started, even if your village is but wee and agrarian:

  1. Location – We host the user group right at our house. Since we already have all the necessary hardware (laptops, HDMI cables for hooking laptops up to the TV, seating, etc) it’s convenient to just host everyone at our place once a month. It’s much easier than lugging a bunch of equipment around, negotiating with companies to use their space, setting up equipment and so forth). Additionally, people tend to feel more relaxed in a house-setting which leads to more in-depth conversations, knowledge-sharing and time spent together.
  2. Money – If you’re hosting the user group in your own space (or in another free/low-cost charge space) you won’t need a lot of financial support. It’s worth asking your own employer if they would be willing to sponsor the event with pizza and drinks in return for handing out a few stickers and mentioning their support. Intridea sponsors our small group each month (along with several others) with pizza and drinks! If your employer can’t help you out chances are that another member’s employer might be willing to help you in exchange for some promotion.
  3. Content – Herein lies the challenge that most user group coordinators are faced with! It can be cumbersome to come up with good presentations every month. Here are a few ideas:
  • Presentations are not necessary for a rural user group. In fact, many of your members might dread public speaking and would probably appreciate a more casual format to the meetings until you all get to know each other better. Instead of official presentations, consider volunteering to show off some code you’ve been working on to the group. Afterward, it’s likely that someone else will feel inclined to show some code as well. If the members can trust each other to be low-key (who wants to feel like they’re going to work at the office when they go to a user group?) then everyone will end up sharing more information in the long run.
  • If you do offer a presentation, keep in mind that it doesn’t need to last 60 minutes, nor does it need to be delivered to the group as though you were presenting at RailsConf (unless of course, you are presenting at RailsConf and need somewhere to practice!). If you just want to run through some new code you’ve been working on and that takes 20 minutes, that’s ok. If you want to put together a presentation on CoffeeScript, keep it light and engaging. Programmers just enjoy getting together to talk shop with each other. If we don’t have anything officially prepared for the group then we’ll open up the floor to people that want to show off some code.
  • Ask other members to give presentations – if you hear that one of your members has been learning Backbone.js for a new project at work then ask him to present at the next meeting.
  • It’s beneficial to maintain a good relationship with other local/nearby user groups. Often our Portland members will caravan down to the New Hampshire and Boston Ruby User Groups if we don’t have any concrete plans for our own group that month. This way, our members are still getting together and talking about programming.
  • Twitter is your friend – Make sure you follow local (and local-ish) devs. If you catch wind that one of them is coming close to your town exercise those social skills and reach out to them – invite them to speak at your user group while they’re in town! We’ve been fortunate to have generous programmers from the New Hampshire and Boston area who have travelled to give presentations to our group in Portland.
  • Burn Out – If you start to feel burnt out, rather than let the user group die off, reach out to another regular member and ask for some help. There’s no shame in taking a sabbatical!

With all of those tips in mind, there’s also one more important thing to remember: a user group is a community. It takes a little bit of time and effort to build it, but once you’ve done that work it comes with all the benefits of any other close-knit community. If the community is cared for then it can become a tremendous resource to all of its members for anything from code advice, job hunting and mentoring to board game partners and craft beer enthusiasts.

If your area is lacking a user group, step up and host one; people will be thankful that you did! A house, a laptop, and a few conversations on Twitter is all you really need to get started. And maybe a year from now you’ll be able to look around you and see a strong community of programmers gathered together, sharing stories, strategies, and experiences.