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Naresh Jain's Random Thoughts on Software Development and Adventure Sports
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Starting a new User Group

I‘m not an expert in setting up and running user groups. But these are my experiences starting a few agile user groups in India and Philly.

Following are important ingredients for any user group:

  1. Vision or Goal
  2. Facilitator
  3. Body of knowledge
  4. Discuss topics or content
  5. Individuals
  6. Venue
  7. Offline discussion forum

Vision: The primary vision/purpose/goal of any user group is to provide a platform for the members to share and learn from each other’s experience. Its a peer-to-peer learning and exploration platform. I like to call this SCube = Speak, Share and Seek.

Facilitator: Running a user group needs one or more facilitators who understand this vision/goal backed with a lot of passion, motivation and energy. Their primary purpose is to build a self organized group without trying to be gatekeepers. The facilitator need not be an expert on the topic. What I have seen happen in most of the cases is:
“A person is interested to learn more about a subject and is looking for ways to learn from other people’s experience. S/he is unable to find an existing platform to exchange ideas with other people. So they go the extra mile to set up a platform for people to meet”.

Starting a group is relatively easy. The real fun is in sustaining the group. As the group starts growing, one has to make sure the right topics are been discussed. They also need to keep people’s egos under check as the group grows bigger.

Body of knowledge: Every user group needs some source of information for the following

  • to drive the topics
  • to get external speakers and
  • to help with the logistics.

The internet can be a very good source of this knowledge. It can also be very helpful to have a body that supports such initiatives. For examples in India, ASCI can help you and support you if you want to set up Agile User Group in your city. Right from financial support to logistics and contacts, all of this information/knowledge can be provided by these bodies. They can also help the group to be focused.Discussion topics or content: This is the real meat for which people would be interested in the user group. The group needs to have a good mix of the following:

  • Presentations: Good for introductory sessions and for presenting experience reports. Helps to bring people on the same page in terms of terminologies, vocabulary etc.
  • Discussions: There are different formats of discussion which can be helpful:
  • Activities/Games: This is one of the best ways for people to experience the topic. Folks have found innovative ways of explaining both technical and methodology related topics. For Ex. Agile related topics XP Game or Waterfall to Agile Demo
  • Hands on sessions or workshops: While the participants can benefit the most out of these sessions, it‘s also a lot of work to set this up. In the agile space the most common workshops are:

One should try to involve experience people to present/facilitate some of these discussions. In fact I have seen most innovative ideas come out when someone from the particpants come forward to facilitate the meeting.

Individuals: Having a small group of motivated individual willing to self organize. Most importantly they should be eager to learn and open to share knowledge. Having a diverse group of people from different companies/backgrounds can maximize the learning for everyone. When starting a new user group I have always found it to be helpful to not focus on numbers. A small set of motivated individuals is more important than a hall full of “I don’t care” individuals.

Venue: Any decent place convenient for majority of the group to meet. Ideally a conference room at someone‘s office or a classroom in some university or just any place can work. If you are using office space for meeting, be sure to rotate the venue between different similar companies to avoid one company‘s monopoly.

Offline discussion forum: A wiki and/or a user group on Yahoo or Google can provide the platform for offline discussion and collaboration. Any logistics related info should be radiated thru this forum. Great discussion happens on mailing list, but one needs to be aware of their limitations due to deterioration in communication bandwidth.

How to get started?
I believe in starting small. Trying to get a small, focused group of motivated individuals meet regularly and discuss interesting topic. Topics than can help them right away at work or else where. One should be able to find few people in their city or near by, who have experience on the topic. They can share their experience.

Once you have a small group in place, you should form a mailing list and start the initial discussion. Hopefully someone from this group should be able to get a venue for the meetings. Coffee shops, bars, office spaces, university class rooms are all good to begin with.

One should try and find people in the group who can volunteer to present/facilitate a topic/discussion. To start, it would be good to have a few nice topics on hand and then let the group decide what direction they want to take after that. Just discussions can get boring; organizing some activities can really help break the ice. In addition to these activities it would be good to find someone who can facilitate a workshop or some hands on sessions.

Asking people for suggestions about books, sites, articles, blogs, etc can help to get started.

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