The Python User Group in Princeton (PUG-IP): 6 months in

In May, 2011, I started putting out feelers on Twitter and elsewhere to see if there might be some interest in having a Python user group that was not in Philadelphia or New York City. A single tweet resulted in 5 positive responses, which I took as a success, given the time-sensitivity of Twitter, my “reach” on Twitter (which I assume is far smaller than what might be the entire target audience for that tweet), etc.

Happy with the responses I received, I still wanted to take a baby step in getting the group started. Rather than set up a web site that I’d then have to maintain, a mailing list server, etc., I went to the cloud. I started a group on meetup.com, and started looking for places to hold our first meeting.

Meetup.com

Meetup.com, I’m convinced, gives you an enormous value if you’re looking to start a user group Right Now, Todayâ„¢. For $12/mo., you get a place where you can announce future meetups, hold discussions, collect RSVPs so you have a head count for food or space or whatever, and vendors can also easily jump in to provide sponsorship or ‘perks’ in the form of discounts on services to user group members and the like. It’s a lot for a little, and it’s worked well enough. If we had to stick with it for another year, I’d have no real issue with that.

Google Groups

I set up a mailing list using Google Groups about 2-3 months ago now. I only waited so long because I thought meetup.com’s discussion forum might work for a while. After a few meetings, though, I noticed that there were always about five more people in attendance than had RSVP’d on meetup.com. Some people just aren’t going to be bothered with having yet another account on yet another web site I guess. If that’s the case, then I have two choices (maybe more, but these jumped to mind): force the issue by constantly trumpeting meetup.com’s service, or go where everyone already was. Most people have a Google account, and understand its services. Also, since the group is made up of technical people, they mostly like the passive nature of a mailing list as opposed to web forums.

If you’re setting up a group, I’d say that setting up a group on meetup.com and simultaneously setting up a Google group mailing list is the way to go if you want to get a fairly complete set of services for very little money and about an hour’s worth of time.

Meeting Space

Meeting space can come from a lot of different places, but I had a bit of trouble settling on a place at first. Princeton University is an awesome place and has a ton of fantastic places to meet with people, but if you’re not living on campus (almost no students are group members, btw), parking can be a bit troublesome, and Princeton University is famous for having little or no signage, and that includes building names, so finding where to go even if you did find parking can be problematic. So, so far, the University is out.

The only sponsor I had that was willing to provide space was my employer, but we’re nowhere near Princeton, and don’t really have the space. Getting a sponsor for space can be a bit difficult when your group doesn’t exist yet, in part because none of them have engaged with you or your group until the first meeting, when the attendees, who all work for potential sponsors, show up.

I started looking at the web site for the Princeton Public Library. I’ve been involved in the local Linux user group for several years, and they use free meeting space made available by the public library in Lawrenceville, which borders Princeton. I wondered if the Princeton Public Library did this as well, but they don’t, actually. In fact, meeting space at that location can get pretty expensive, since they charge for the space and A/V equipment like projectors and stuff separately (or they did when I started the group – I believe it’s still the case).

I believe I tweeted my disappointment about the cost of meeting at the Princeton Public Library, and did a callout on Twitter for space sponsors and other ideas about meeting space in or near Princeton. The Princeton Public Library got in touch through their @PrincetonPL Twitter account, and we were able to work out a really awesome deal where they became a sponsor, and agreed to host our group for 6 months, free of charge. Awesome!

Now, six months in, we either had to come to some other agreement with the library, or move on to a new space. After six months, it’s way easier to find space, or sponsors who might provide space, but I felt if we could find some way to continue the relationship with the library, it’d be best not to relocate the group. We wound up finding a deal that does good things for the group, the library, the local Python user community, and the evangelism of the Python language….

Knowledge for Space

Our group got a few volunteers together to commit to providing a 5-week training course to the public, held at the Princeton Public Library. Adding public offerings like this adds value to the library, attracts potential new members (they’re a member-supported library, not a state/municipality-funded one), etc. In exchange for providing this service to the library, the library provides us with free meeting space, including the A/V equipment.

If you don’t happen to have a public library that offers courses, seminars, etc., to the general public, you might be able to cut a similar deal with a local community college, or even high school. If you know of a corporation locally that uses Python or some other technology the group can speak or train people in, you might be able to trade training for meeting space in their offices. Training is a valued perk to the employees of most corporations.

How To Get Talks (or “How we stopped caring about getting talks”)

Whether you’re running a publishing outfit, a training event, or user group, getting people to deliver content is a challenge. Some people don’t think they have any business talking to what they perceive as a roomful of geniuses about anything. Some just aren’t comfortable talking in front of audiences, but are otherwise convinced of their own genius. Our group is trying to attack this issue in various ways, and so far it seems to be working well enough, though more ideas are welcome!

Basically, the group isn’t necessarily locked into traditions like “Thou shalt provide a speaker, who shalt bequeath upon our many wisdom of the ages”. Once you’ve decided as a group that having cookie-cutter meetings isn’t necessary, you start to think of all sorts of things you could all be doing together.

Below are some ideas, some in the works, some in planning, that I hope help other would-be group starters to get the ball rolling, and keep it in motion!

Projects For the Group, By the Group

Some members of PUG-IP are working together on building the pugip.org website, which is housed in a GitHub repository under the ‘pugip’ GitHub organization. This one project will inevitably result in all kinds of home-grown presentations & events within the group. As new ideas come up and new features are implemented, people will give lightning talks about their implementation, or we’ll do a group peer review of the code, or we’ll have speakers give talks about third-party technologies we might use (so, we might have two speakers each give a 30-minute talk about two different NoSQL solutions, for example. We’ve already had a great overview of about 10 different Python micro-frameworks), etc.

We may also decide to break up into pairs, and then sprint together on a set of features, or a particularly large feature, or something like that.

As of now, we’ve made enough decisions as a group to get the ball rolling. If there’s any interest I can blog about the setup that allows the group to easily share, review, and test code, provide live demos of their work, etc. The tl;dr version is we use GitHub and free heroku accounts, but new ideas come into play all the time. Just today I was wondering if we could, as a group, make use of the cloud9 IDE (http://cloud9ide.com).

The website is a great idea, but other group projects are likely to come up.

Community Outreach

PUG-IPs first official community outreach project will be the training we provide through the Princeton Public library. A few of us will collaborate on delivering the training, but the rest of the group will be involved in providing feedback on various aspects of the material, etc., so it’s a ‘whole group’ project, really. On top of increasing interactivity among the group members, outreach is also a great way to grow and diversify the group, and perhaps gain sponsorships as well!

There’s another area group called LUG-IP (a Linux user group) that also does some community outreach through a hardware SIG (special interest group), certification training sessions, and participating in local computing events and conferences. I’d like to see PUG-IP do this, too, maybe in collaboration with the LUG (they’re a good and passionate group of technologists).

Community outreach can also mean teaming up with various other technology groups, and one event I’m really looking forward to is a RedSnake meeting to be held next February. A RedSnake meeting is a combined meeting between PhillyPUG (the Philadelphia Python User Group) and Philly.rb (the Philadelphia Ruby Group). As a member of PhillyPUG I participated in last year’s RedSnake meeting, and it was a fantastic success. Probably 70+ people in attendance (here’s a pic at the end – some had already left by the time someone snapped this), and perhaps 10 or so lightning talks given by members of both organizations. We tried to do a ‘matching’ talk agenda at the meeting, so if someone on the Ruby side did a testing talk, we followed that with a Python testing talk, etc. It was a ton of fun, and the audience was amazing.

Socials

Socials don’t have to be dedicated events, per se. For example, PUG-IP has a sort of mini-social after every single meetup. We’re lucky to have our meetings located about a block away from a brewpub, so after each meeting, perhaps half of us make it over for a couple of beers and some great conversations. After a few of these socials, I started noticing that more talk proposals started to spring up.

Of course, socials can also be dedicated events. Maybe some day PUG-IP will…. I dunno… go bowling? Or maybe we’ll go as a group to see the next big geeky movie that comes out. Maybe we’ll have some kind of all-inclusive, bring-the-kids BBQ next summer. Who knows?

As a sort of sideshow event to the main LUG meetings, LUG-IP has a regularly-scheduled ‘coffee klatch’. Some of the members meet up one Sunday per month at (if memory serves) 8-11AM at a local Panera for coffee, pastries, and geekery. It’s completely informal, but it’s a good time.

Why Not Having Talks Will Help You Get Talks

I have a theory that is perhaps half-proven through my experiences with technology user groups: increasing engagement among and between the members of the group in a way that doesn’t shine a huge floodlight on a single individual (like a talk would) eventually breaks down whatever fears or resistance there is to proposing and giving a talk. Sometimes it’s just a comfort level thing, and working on projects, or having a beer, or sprinting on code, etc. — together — turns a “talking in front of strangers” experience into more of a “sharing with my buddies” one.

I hope that’s true, anyway. It seems to be. :)

Thanks For Reading

I hope someone finds this useful. It’s early on in the life of PUG-IP, but I thought it would be valuable to get these ideas out into the ether early and often before they slip from my brain. Good luck with your groups!

The Happy Idiot

Today is November 1st, and there’s an event that takes place every November called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I don’t believe I have the ability to really write a novel, and have no reason to think anyone would read it if I did. But I would like to make an attempt to write a blog post every day this month, and this month’s post is about The Happy Idiot. Hope you enjoy it and leave comments.

Who is the happy idiot? It’s the person in class who shrugs off fears of looking dopy and raises their hand. It’s the person who, in an architecture meeting, isn’t afraid to be wrong in asserting that a new bottleneck is quickly emerging in the design. It’s the person who gives presentations on topics they’re really only 75% comfortable with, and announces as much to the audience, inviting corrections and more input. It’s the person who invites feedback and asks questions that seem trivial, even if it exposes their ignorance.

We need more happy idiots.

I wholeheartedly accept this role, even though there are circumstances where it might be easier to keep my mouth shut and keep up appearances or it might seem beneficial to not put a dent in some perceived reputation or something like that. The problem I have with doing that is that appearances are, in my experience, largely bullshit. Reputation, in my experience, comes from doing, not from merely being perceived as smart, or good, or whatever. Execute. The rest comes from that.

Furthermore, once you enter the realm of keeping up appearances, you wind up in this horrible vicious cycle where eventually you just always have to clam up to seem smart about everything. Purposefully keeping quiet when you have no idea what’s going on – indeed, *because* you have no idea what’s going on is a close relative to lying, and has the same consequences. Eventually you’ll be cornered to execute and you’ll have no idea what to do. The fear that this will happen will eventually take over your waking hours, causing stress, and it’s all downhill from there.

On the other hand, being the happy idiot means filling in the cracks in your knowledge. It means you’re conscious of your own ignorance. It means you’ll be able to execute more effectively. This starts a positive cycle: you learn more, you execute more effectively, you begin to be perceived as smart, good, whatever, and it’s not completely unwarranted, because you’ve actually asked questions that took guts to ask and as a result you executed in smart ways. Eventually, your dumb questions aren’t perceived as being dumb anymore. Eventually, when you ask a seemingly trivial question, people stop reflexively thinking ‘how does he not know that’ and start thinking about what your brain is about to do with that little tidbit of data.

Further, it means people will trust you more. Think about it. Would you rather give a critical project to someone who absolutely never asks questions and “seems smart”, or the person who asks intelligent questions and executes?

So, I say be the happy idiot. Put yourself out there. If you’re perceived as being dumb for taking steps to be less dumb, then the problem isn’t yours, and you shouldn’t make it yours.