What I’ve Learned After 15 Years as a Java Group Leader

After founding the Philadelphia Area Java Users’ Group in 2000 and leading it for 15 years, I’ve decided to resign my post and pass on leadership to someone else. It’s time. At our first meeting in a small and long-forgotten dot com, 35 Java developers came to eat pizza and listen to a presentation on XML and JAXP. Since then we’ve had about 100 events (a few with 200 attendees) and a mailing list that peaked around 1,500 members.

My experience running this group has revealed some patterns that may be useful for other user group leaders (or those looking to start one), ideas for speakers, and observations on the career paths of many members I’ve known for an extended period of time.

Some thoughts.

Members

Topic suggesters and early adopters – A group of roughly ten members regularly suggested meeting topics then unfamiliar to me, but became widely popular a few years later. I relied on this group heavily for ideas at different times, and many of the suggestions were a bit beyond the scope for a JUG. Early on I typically rejected non-Java/JVM topic suggestions, so many of these meetings never developed. Consecutive meetings on Scala and Clojure in 2009 come to mind as an example of being timed ahead of popular adoption.

These ten members included both experienced developers and even a couple who were then only computer science undergrad students. Without exception, the career paths of these specific individuals have been noticeably positive relative to the average career path, and more than half have been promoted from developer to CTO or equivalent. I believe all of this small group have now gone on to using other languages as their primary tool, and all still code regularly.

Language migration – Of the overall membership, the vast majority (perhaps 80%+) are still using Java as their primary language by day. About 5% now focus on mobile development. Another 5% combined currently focus on Python or Ruby, and maybe 3% work in functional languages (Scala and Clojure).

Age – Although I don’t have data, it’s fairly clear that the average age of a member or meeting attendee has increased over the years even as the member roster changed. The group has received far fewer membership requests over the past five years than in the past, and new members are less likely to be fresh graduates than they were in the group’s early days.

Groups sense overhyped technologies – Some of our meeting topics were technologies or products that were heavily marketed through multiple channels (conferences, speaker tours, newsletters) at the time, yet failed to gain traction.  Many that RSVP’d to these meetings commented on their suspicions, and some admitted to a desire to attend in order to poke some holes in the hype.

Regulars – At any given meeting, about 50% of the attendees were regulars that attended almost every event regardless of their specific interest in that evening’s topic. Many of these people also regularly attend events held by other groups.

Presenters

Speaker name recognition – This should surprise no one, but our three largest events by far were all with speakers who had a fair amount of celebrity and industry credibility. These were open source advocate/author Eric ‘ESR’ Raymond (YouTube link), Spring framework creator Rod Johnson, and a joint meeting with Hibernate author Gavin King and JBoss founder Marc Fleury. We had Johnson, King and Fleury around the height of their products’ popularity, and ESR (who is not a figure specific to Java) in 2012. Each event was SRO, with many more in attendance than had RSVP’d.

The next level of attendance was for speakers who had either founded a company or created a product/tool, but perhaps did not have top-tier name recognition. We had eleven meetings of this nature (including the three mentioned), most drawing large crowds (150).

For speakers without a product that were relatively unknown, the strength of a bio definitely impacted attendance. Current job title, employer name recognition, overall industry experience, past speaking experience, and even academic credentials clearly influenced our members.

DaveandESR

Dave and Eric ‘ESR’ Raymond

Local speakers were our lifeblood – About 80% of our speakers lived within an hour drive of our meeting space. We had four presenters who combined for fifteen meetings, and another eleven who all spoke twice. Fifteen local speakers delivered almost 40% of our presentations.

Speakers benefit from presenting – Several of our local speakers have shared anecdotes of being discovered by an employer or new client through a JUG presentation. Even though we did not allow recruiting or sales/marketing people at events, most speakers are easy to contact. Speaking allowed some members to start building a ‘brand’ and increased visibility in the tech community.

The best way to sell is by not selling – Our official policy was to forbid pure product demos, but we knew that when a company flies out their ‘evangelist’ and buys pizza for 150 people, we’re getting at least a minimal level of demo. Speakers who dove into a sales pitch early on would almost always see members start to leave, a few times in droves.

The evangelists who were most effective in keeping an audience often used a similar presentation style where the first hour defined a problem and how it can be solved, and concluded with something like “My presentation is over. You can leave now, or if you want to stay another 15 minutes I’ll show you how our product solves the problem.” This usually led to discussions with the speaker that lasted beyond the meeting schedule, and sales. Making the demo optional and at the very end is a successful tactic.

Accomplished technologists aren’t all great speakers – A strong biography and list of accomplishments does not always result in a strong presentation. We were lucky that most of our speakers were quite good, but we did have at least a few disappointments from those active on the conference speaker circuit.

Sponsors

Ask everyone for something – Companies willing to spend money on sponsorship and travel costs clearly understand the value of goodwill and community visibility. There are also those that want to get that visibility and goodwill for free, and they ask leaders to announce a conference or product offering as a favor or “for the good of the community“. These requests are an opportunity to add additional value to the members.

Instead of complying with these requests, I would always request something in return. For conference announcements, I would ask for a discount code for members or a free pass to raffle off. Sponsors with a product might be asked for a license to give away, or at worst some swag. Most were willing to barter in exchange for their request being met.

Maintain control – Some sponsors clearly just want your membership roster and email addresses, which they may try to acquire by using the “fishbowl business card drawing” approach to raffles, sign-in sheets, speaker review forms, surveys, or perhaps through a bold request. Don’t sell your members’ private information to sponsors under any circumstances, and companies will still be willing to sponsor if you deny their attempts. We allowed a business card drawing once for an iPad, and all members were aware that if they decided to enter that drawing they would likely be getting a call from the vendor.

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