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Conference versus User Group Events

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By Brendon Higgins, of the Virtual Machine User Group (VMUG)

At 14 years old, I picked computing as a career option and have continued on that course ever since. One of the key factors in my professional growth has been both knowing ‘who’ to ask for help and more importantly, having something of value to offer in return. Tools like Linked-In and Facebook are great for keeping relationships going but how to establish them in the first place?

My first computing job had me locked away with 6 others, in the MIS department for a company geographically located in the middle of nowhere. Opportunities to develop a professional network beyond the company where limited, so I started attending my local British Computer Society branch events. Where I learnt new skills, discovered new ideas and increasing my peer group all at the same time. BCS events are great but they tend to focus on concepts and as an engineer, I also require specific product information.

Conferences are filled with various presentations and discussions but these tended to be held in big venues, with large crowds and require financial resources to attend. Product information is available however the speakers tend to be from the sales or marketing departments, rather than the people who user the systems.

Normally this is simply because the ability and the desire to stand at the front of the room and speak publicly to large audience of your peers is rare. Companies are expected to ensure their products are presented in the best possible light and just trying to ensure the best experience for customers in the audience. However marketing and sales people may be tempted to introduce FUD to help “enhance the message”. Also with 150 plus people in the audience, the speaker tends not to take questions from the floor until the end of the presentation – making it possible to sneak slideware past unchallenged! This is especially the case if the speaker change over periods are brief, limiting the risk of exposure in a public Q&A session. There are always worthy talks on the agenda but selecting which talk to attend is a skill in its own right. No, for me, the real value of these events comes from identifying your peers in the crowd, then discovering what they have learnt to work and more importantly fail to work, in their environment. The trouble is finding them in the crowds!

Sitting down with your fellow system owners, a skilled moderator and the vendor’s technical staff is how you can honestly explore a product in detail.

For an engineer looking to discover what a system can actually do and its real world limitations, in my opinion, the small group round table format is best. Sitting down with your fellow system owners, a skilled moderator and the vendor’s technical staff is how you can honestly explore a product in detail. It is possible to quickly identify who has a comparable environment or is working on the same issues as you. Learning from their experiences and growing your professional network at the same time. However invitations to these types of events tend to be limited to only the largest or most “interesting” of customers.

So if the personal success of conferences depends on random chance events and the round table event tickets are delivered by unicorns, how can you build the professional relationships and develop the skills you require? User group events run by actual customers who own and operate systems have traditionally filled this gap. These events have different formats but can be divided into single or multi track events. Single room events are cheaper and easier to organise, while ensuring each speaker on the agenda gets close to 100 percent attendance, for their presentations.

However this is the natural home of death by PowerPoint, as ‘sneaking out’ is difficult with only one option available and the captive audience of customers is a dream come true for sales teams.

No for me, the next best thing to a small group round table is a multi-track local user group event. These events provide a mixture of large ‘key note’ type addresses for consumption by the masses and small break out rooms for more specialised subjects. Main room talks will always draw in a large percentage of the total delegates attending the event, which is why they are in the largest room after all. However, while the information is still broadcast at the audience, the smaller scales involved enable more engagement from the floor, for a two conversation. Often a large percentage of the audience will know each other and the speaker, making it possible to describe solutions in less general terms. Also a small audience which is confident in its own knowledge of a product will quickly pick up on any comment or suggestion which is “less than fair…” and openly challenge it. Speakers beware and do your homework!

For those who already know the speakers subject matter or are not interested in that specific application, there are other items on the agenda. These smaller rooms closely resemble the format of the mythical round table because they are in affect the same. Less than 20 people talking about the actual operation of a product or service and someone from the user group committee to ensure the discussion stays on topic. While using the “wisdom of crowds” to rapidly develop novel solutions during the session.

Networking is the key strength of a user group meeting.
Operating at the regional level, members tend to be local, know each other outside of the group and are able introduce new members to relevant contacts. Networking is the key strength of a user group meeting. Where peer to peer support can frequently resolve technical issues quicker than formal channels; or customers sharing information about deals and discounts can be used by others to further drive cost savings from vendors. The later clearly being a disadvantage to the vendor and not the sort of thing they wish to encourage at ‘their events’.

An improvement on a vendor’s local user group, is an independent user group of customers which is self-funded, because it has the ability to go ‘off message’ and start talking about a products weakness or even the alternative solutions available. Because the group is formed from actual customers, the vendor’s influence over the group is limited, so long as the group remembers it exists solely to serve its members interests and provide the forum to exchange ideas and share information which is correct.