How to keep a group vibrant

Over beers after Drupal Camp, 4 of us from the Poughkeepsie area were discussing how impressed we were with the organizers pulling of a 300 person event so successfully. As someone that organizes things, I understand how much work that was.

I was sitting next to Jeff, who is the president of the Mid-Hudson Computer Users Group. At some point the topic turned to running local groups. Of all the local technical groups in the area, the LUG has the lowest average age of attendees, by a pretty good margin. We have our share of retirees, but we also have a lot of middle aged professions, young professionals, and even the occasional college or high school student.

So I got asked the question “how do you guys do it?” This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked that by leadership of other local groups, at times I’ve had chats with ACM members as well. The answer?

Honestly, I have no idea.

I can bloviate and speculate, which I will. Maybe there will be some truth or usefulness in it. But I in no way claim that I have any real answers, or that any of these statements below answer anything. They just are what they are.

Linux is hip and exciting… at least it was when we got started back in 2003. If you look at our early talks they were very very Linux focussed, basic how to kinds of things. Linux was in the press all the time, so we benefited quite a lot from that. Our first meeting was 53 people, which blew my mind. Granted, at least 20 people at that first meeting were people I directly worked with at the LTC, who were coming out to support my kickoff effort, but success breeds success, and having that many folks out of the gate was important to keep us at a high critical mass while we got discovered in the community.

And that point of discovery can’t be made enough. How do people find out about things?

Word of mouth is powerful, and remains the best way to get the word out. Word of mouth is what gets butts in seats, because people trust friends and acquaintances to point them at good stuff. Word of mouth breaks down after a certain point because that can only travel among people you know. There is a whole other point here about visibility horizons and seeding other groups, that’s probably a post on it’s own at some point.

Beyond word of mouth there is serendipitous discovery. If you are in your mid 30s or up this includes event listings in the local papers, maybe a flier that you find at a library or some other space. If you are younger than your mid 40s this means Google. While there is an overlap it’s important to understand that the only way anyone under the age of 35 is going to find your group is via the internet. You must have a website, and it must be a focus. It has to be easy to find information, it has to look good, and it can’t be out of date. I did the overhaul of the mhvlug site last year based on Drupal to get us there, and I feel pretty good about the results.

Networking is also really important, which is funny, because I’m not actually that good at it. But as a group leader people are very willing to come up to you afterwards to ask a question or say a thing or two. It’s important to do your best to cultivate those interactions, because out of them can come some amazing things. I actively try to keep up on what our members are doing and working on in the public. As I’m now organizing our March show and tell (the last meeting I’m in charge of organizing), I’m just running through every cool project I’ve heard people mention in the last 6 months, and sending out email to them to get them on the schedule. I’m actually giddy about it, because it’s going to be a really cool meeting based on responses I’ve already gotten back.

And that brings us to another point, how to get meeting content. If, like us, your group real life event is primarily a lecture series, having a good set of talks is important. Because of the Dunning Kruger Effect, people that are qualified to speak on a subject won’t volunteer, and people that do volunteer may very often not be qualified. This means you pretty much have to specifically ask someone to give a lecture. Creating diversity here again means knowing enough people working on enough things, and reaching out to them to give a talk. It’s always best if it’s something that’s their baby, passion for a subject makes people very tolerant of the speaker, even if they aren’t very polished at presenting.

One other thing that’s worked for us is ensuring there are social events as well. The meeting is business, has a talk, and we try to keep it on topic (more or less), but we’ve got dinner after, and lunch once a month, which just lets people know each other more. Ask people what they are working on, or what excites them during these events. It lets you get to know some new people, which help a lot on the networking front.

So, our current good fortune may have something to do with these wanderings, there may be other things as well, or I may be complete off base. Again, Dunning Kruger probably means I’m the worst person possible to figure out what’s working or not. Every time I think I’ve figured out this whole running a group thing, I find something else that I need to change to make things better. It is definitely not a destination but a journey.

Comments on this are especially welcomed, as I’m very very interested in other people’s experiences and suggestions. I’m always interested in learning how to do this better.

Drupal Camp Western Mass

When your alarm goes off at 5:30am to go to a conference, part of you wants to skip and go back to bed. When it also means you’ve got to drive 2 1/2 hours in below zero conditions, there is even more inertia to just bail. I’m really happy I fought those primal urges and made it to Drupal Camp Western Mass yesterday, because it was pretty awesome.

Over the course of the day, given the 5 tracks that were being run, I could always find a really good talk. At one point it meant walking out of a bad talk, but I landed somewhere good eventually. I learned quite a bit more about some of the core of drupal, and hit up some of the more design oriented talks, which has given me a new reading list. There were 300 attendees there yesterday, which is a heck of showing for such grass roots organized conference far from a big city. It was also nice to be at a tech conference that wasn’t just a bunch of male geeks. At least a third of the audience was female.

I’ve got about 8 pages of notes, and a new bag of tricks to approach some of the more complex things we’d like to do for the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. I hope they run it again next year, as it’s definitely worth the drive and the time.

Place Holders in Science

Ars Technica has a very good article on the role of placeholders in science:

The comments appear like clockwork every time there’s a discussion of the Universe’s dark side, for both dark matter and dark energy. At least some readers seem positively incensed by the idea that scientists can happily accept the existence of a particle (or particles) that have never been observed and a mysterious repulsive force. “They’re just there to make the equations work!” goes a typical complaint.

It’s a somewhat odd complaint. Physics has a long history of particles that were predicted based on the math and not detected for years, sometimes decades. But it’s not simply physics. Other areas of science have produced evidence that suggests something must be present, but haven’t hinted as to what that something must be. These situations, where scientists insert a placeholder for a something they don’t understand yet, have sometimes led scientists down the wrong path—phlogiston and aether spring to mind.

But these erroneous placeholders carry the seeds of their own destruction, since they make predictions that the natural world can’t fulfill. And, possibly more often, the placeholders turn out to be right, and an understanding of the phenomena behind them revolutionizes our knowledge of the natural world. In this feature, we’ll take a look at some of the most successful placeholders in the history of science, and then consider how even a placeholder that has gone wrong can help advance a field anyway.

Worth a read to understand that the use of placeholders is how we make progress in science.

Tips for giving effective presentations

Some quite good points from Physicist/Feminist:

The “What” vs. the “So What”: Doumont stressed the idea of getting across your message.  He differentiated the message from the information.  The information can be thought of as the “what”.  The message is therefore the “so what”.  One of the most useful things he said was to “maximize what the audience gets out of the presentation, not the information you put it.”  I think it can be really tempting to put as much information into your presentation as possible, but it is more effective to parse out unnecessary information and concentrate on the “so what”, the motivation for your work.  Your talks should always have a message.

You should read the full article, it has lots of great tips.

The point of maximizing for output not for input is key. My current method to try to get to that is start with a much larger slide deck, dumping in everything I find interesting about the topic. Then I start aggressively editing. Giving yourself time to edit is the key, because everyone’s first draft leaves a lot to be desired.

Best Customer Service Call Ever

I will hide the vendor’s name to protect the innocent. However I have a recurring order with a vendor, which is great, up until they got rid of a few items. I tried to modify my order online, and I got an error that said I couldn’t and to call the customer service number. Ok, fine, guess I need to use my cell minutes for something.

I explain the issue to the CS rep. He offers to reset my password. I explain that I can actually log in, but I just can’t modify anything.

“Yeh, the website has been like that since I started. Honestly, I have no idea what IT gets paid to do, because I’ve asked them about that a bunch of times and it’s still broken. Your best bet is to just call in your changes. I know it’s less convenient, but we’re available 24 hours.”

I thanked him for his time, told him I’d call back later, and had a good laugh. I appreciate honestly like that.