Running a user group is extremely rewarding, and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved doing so for over a year. I’ve been very fortunate to have great partners in Leo Junquera and Louis Edouard. It’s been great for us to have been able to run a code camp just after a few months, and we’re already planning our second one. But I also believe it’s time to take this to the next level.

Thoroughly engaging user group event

There have been a number of new formats tried by other groups, and I’d love to experiment with some of those, but there are also some others I’ve heard people discussing. Here are some ideas my team has been considering, and some thoughts I have behind them.

Panel Discussions / Debates
In this format, we’d have two to three experts on a particular topic, and have them face off either against each other or moderate an audience debate. Ideal topics can include:

There’s nothing more stimulating than a real passionate debate that encourages audience participation. It’s hard to fall asleep during one of these, even after a long day’s work.

Open Spaces
As described on the Mix08 Website, this format is a way to bring together groups of people interested in a common topic to have an interactive discussion. In an Open Space session, there may be an expert who is passionate about (an often complex) topic leading a discussion. A few of these could be happening at the same time, and people just gravitate to their area of interest, jumping from one to the next, and are encouraged to participate if they’re truly interested and have something to add.

I haven’t had the opportunity to attend one of these yet, but it sounds very exciting. From what I understand, the format is loose; as a matter of fact, there is no real format. You can gather around informally and just debate on a topic, or you can gather around someone’s PC as they’re demoing a technology or technique. As Jeremy Miller commented when describing the first ALT.NET Open Spaces event, “with the Open Spaces format you basically skip the boring parts and get right to the interaction.”

Geek Dinners
These are informal get-togethers on a regular basis at a restaurant of common choice, where the environment is conducive for discussion among like-minded geeks for the purpose of learning or otherwise interacting with others who share technology interests. I’d love to organize this at least once per quarter in the Stamford, CT area.

Study Groups
These are groups that meet several times (weekly?) for a short burst of time (a month or two) to help each other study a technology they’re interested in, most often for the purpose of achieving certification. Yeah, some people think certification is overrated when trying to decide who’s really qualified for the job, but it’s a milestone for many in our field, at least as a measuring stick for ourselves. There’s a group in NYC, but I think it would be beneficial to start one in the Stamford, CT area, also.

Shared Stage
I’m not sure if there’s an official label for this, but we can share the “stage” with several other members for 15 minutes each, to lead a discussion on a topic we’re interested in or have some expertise in. In this way, people who are interested in one day giving full presentations on their own can get a taste of what it’s like before getting too overwhelmed. Plus, when they see others in the same position, it can make them feel a bit more comfortable and less alone. This can help grow a new group of promising speakers and future superstars. We could model it after the Speaker Idol events given at Tech Ed, only less competitive (unless that sounds enticing).

Ice Breakers
Some groups actually hand out name tags to people attending the meetings. I think this is a great idea for getting to know each other on a first name basis. I’m very embarrassed to say that even after a year, although I recognize faces, for the life of me I cannot remember most names of regular attendees. I also belong to a camera club with my wife, and they do this regularly. People do get to know each other much faster, although many try to avoid getting “tagged” at first. It’s a real ice breaker, and makes the whole experience a lot more interactive.

Summary
I think many of these ideas share a common thread — the opportunity for much more interactive experiences for the members of our community. This is what I find most exciting about this. In my experience, there’s nothing more interesting than a learning environment in a social setting. Unless a speaker is very engaging and gifted, sometimes full-length presentations can get a bit dry, and the experience can become a little stifling. Often, the best part of the night is at the very end, as people start informally discussing the topic or related topics on the way out the door. That last half hour or so after the event is often the most enjoyable part of the evening, so why not make it the entire evening? There’s nothing that many of us would enjoy more than two to three hours of engaging “conversation” with our peers.

So let’s make it happen!

If anyone has any ideas on this topic, please comment here, or contact any of us at the user group.