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WTF Next? Dev ramblings from a master of nothing.

One of the timeless articles among the lists of "must reads" for programmers, The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Steven Raymond, was written to expose how the open source community can succeed. The article exposed commercial software construction as an unyielding entity that is structured and secretive, where only those closely involved understood the inner workings. Similarly, open source was associated with the bazaar, as a thriving community where everyone is involved, and the internal structure was available at anyone's glimpse.

Recently, I heard a comment about our DNUG that lead me to write this article. Our group is feeling antsy and we're growing momentum. We've upped our meetings to a monthly rotation instead of every other month. We've gotten good numbers for attendance, and things are going well. Some interest was expressed in expanding the group and making it more available. We need to get the word out. This person's response was "We have XX members in our LinkedIn group. We have ZZ members in our google group. What else can we do?"

Obviously, the mindset behind that statement is that we've got so many already, do we NEED more? Well, my belief is that as a DNUG, we need to be an open community, and the following 4 quick tips outline how I believe that we can maintain one, with applicable principles to Raymond's article.


1. Understand your scope.

Our DNUG is the Baton Rouge .NET Users Group. If we assume the name implies the scope of our group, there are only two qualifications to membership: Being in the Baton Rouge area and using .NET in any way shape or form. So, who really are the members of our group? I would say that if someone shows up, and they use .NET, they are welcome to the meetings. Even if they are only just interested in .NET, they are welcome to come and contribute however they want and however they can. Our membership is something we cannot define easily, because everyone who's in BR and uses DN should already be considered in the UG.

Once you start qualifying your membership scope by these terms, you'll understand that the problem isn't how to attract more members. You've already got the biggest membership that your name allows. The problem then becomes how to find those members and encourage them to participate however they want.


2. Encourage; Do not funnel.

The key to maintaining active members is to allow them the freedom to do whatever they want with the group. Sure, there are extremes and slippery slopes that you can expose, but moreover the community is one of the users and for the users. Allowing them to move it how they want in a Ouija-like way gives them a sense of investment that will keep them coming. If you try to direct them like a police officer at a broken red light, all you'll get is some ticked off users.

In Raymond's article, there are a few truths that apply to this tip.

a. "If you treat your beta-testers as if they're your most valuable resource, they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource." This really couldn't be more true. If you treat those who are willing to help as if what they are doing is the be all end all (which when a user group doesn't have users, you'll realize that they are the be all end all) then they will strive to be as great as you make them feel. Encouragement on this level will reap rewards you could only hope for without interaction.

b. "Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging." Users make the group. Getting those users involved will only benefit the group, which is about them anyway. Their involvement will lead to a better DNUG, and will help iron out the difficulties that may arise.

c. To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you. Your users will automatically have interest in specific topics or methods for ways they can help out. To keep them involved, you've got to cater to those interests and put them where they want to be in the group, which might not always be what they are best at.


3. Maintain Committers.

This principal is mostly based on the Apache Guide to successful community building. Those who participate have to be given a reason to keep at it. Apache suggests meritocracy, where members are rewarded for their contribution by gaining greater power within the group. However, power doesn't mean that they steer the group, power means that they are a more integral part of implementing the requests of the community itself.

The easy way to get this sort of merit recognition is through positions, responsibilities, and small rewards. Most members of the community are active because they are evangelical about what they do and they want to keep sharing, so rewards aren't necessary. However, most still appreciate recognition through responsibility.


4. Check in early; Check in often.

In order to get people excited about what your DNUG is doing, you've got to let them know what its doing. Keep the group informed and open, let them know what's being planned and how they can help. Let them know about upcoming meetings even if you haven't solidified a date. Keep ahead of schedule by at least two months to let them know what they've got to look forward to. This by far will let them know that what they are doing isn't just a fleeting thing. It's happening, it has momentum of its own, and it will continue to happen. They can help to the best of their ability, take a break, and they'll still have a place to return to.

Keeping the website up to date is also necessary. Keep it interesting with local articles and group member's RSS feeds. Let them know when and where they need to be to contribute or attend, and let them know that there WILL BE ways for them to do so. However, don't take this as a sign that you are the audience to every event, and that you control ultimately what the group should do. Maintain the attitude that the users are the ultimate driving force, and they will determine a better route for the group than you ever could alone.


Posted on Wednesday, November 19, 2008 12:29 PM User Group Stuff | Back to top

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