User groups are awesome for technology. They accomplish several key goals. First, they give developers a place to learn the standards around their technology. They also give a forum for thought leaders to explain changes and improvements to the technology to those who care. User groups also provide an organized place to network with those within our same field. This is why they are so awesome.
User groups are an old institution, compared to anything else in the field. One of our local user groups has been around for 20 years. The idea of user groups has been around longer than that. Therefore, it is not surprising to see that the idea is being iterated on.
If you have not been to a user group, seriously- go. Let me explain the basic format. The members of the group gather to hear a speaker talk about some topic. The speaker gives a presentation and answers a few questions. Sometimes the group meets for an informal meal or drinks afterward.
I attend two user groups that completely break from this format. This break is not simply to be different, but because they have a different set of goals and they have found a format that enables those goals better.
The first group is the Technology Immersion Group (TIG). TIG’s goals are to give a forum for developers to take a topic and dive deeply into that topic. TIG is structured more like a large study group. There is a panel that functions as subject matter experts, and usually some study material used to guide the group. The panel spends a short amount of time introducing what was supposed to be covered in off-hours and most of the time is given to Q&A. If there is not much Q&A then the panel will explain points of what is coming next.
The second group is the San Diego Architecture Special Interest Group. This group’s purpose is to give a forum for senior developers and architects to discuss things they are encountering at work and get advice. This group’s format is a round table with three rounds. The first round is a problem round. Anyone in the group can ask the group for advice on things they are dealing with at work. The second round is a round table discussion about some specific technology. Sometimes they do a book discussion, sometimes a more open discussion. The last round is a show and tell round. You need to share something that you find interesting. This could be a tool, a programming language, a kick starter or anything. The last round facilitates discovery of things to either help us with what we do, or helps us unwind.
These two groups arose out of a need that was not being fulfilled by current user groups. That does not mean that current user groups are out-of-date, but only that there is space for new user groups to arise, particularly ones that fulfill the specific needs of their users. I hope to see more specialty groups that change the format in different ways. I also hope to see these two groups replicated in different towns. All of this grows our community and improves the industry.