Innovation requires collaboration—and collaboration springs from sharing, whether it's simple Enable Sysadmin articles like this or through interactions in local meetups where we get a chance to connect and meet fellow sysadmins and SMEs to exchange insights, ideas and learn from each other. Through these exchanges, you will realize that you're not alone—some of your challenges are common across organizations, that most of the solutions are already out there waiting for you, and that you don't have to reinvent the wheel. No matter the situation, we've proven that there are creative ways to get connected, whether they be virtual or face-to-face.
As the world continues to react to the COVID-19 pandemic, many face-to-face events around the world were temporarily paused out of necessity for public safety. With vaccine deployment beginning to ramp up, a return to more in-person events could be on the horizon, once it becomes safe to do so.
In this article, I walk you through our personal experiences in participating and organizing various meetups. I hope our insights, learnings, and tips can help you make the most of these meetup events and even help you kickstart interest groups in your local communities.
Where do I begin?
I started out by checking local interest groups at meetup.com and attending a few local after-work events alongside my officemates. After all, it's not too bad having free beers and pizza—and a few jokes here and there—all while learning about the latest technologies, listening to personal stories, and watching cool demos. Things evolved after 2020. Most events went virtual, so it has been easier to attend lunch break virtual meetup sessions and find speakers from across the globe.
Tips: You can make the most of the meetup event by:
- Being an active participant and taking the opportunity to ask questions.
- Engage in the activities and discussions—make it respectful, fun, and open.
- Connect and get to know people in your local tech community.
This is a good opportunity to observe how meetups are being run and organized as a whole. I'm sure the hosts will appreciate it if the audience makes the most of the events they are managing.
Opportunities to share and present
Stage fright! I'm sure some, if not most, of us, are scared to speak in public. Meetup groups are created to be a safe venue for us to share our thoughts, challenges, and experiences. Think of it this way: You are there to help others and share your knowledge and stories, and for sure, that's something the community will appreciate. For example, in our local Ansible Meetup New Zealand, we give everyone a chance to share, from Subject Matter Experts, software and hardware vendors/partners, and most importantly, customers and end-users themselves. Actual customer speakers and topics tend to catch the most interest as these are real-life day-to-day situations, challenges, and success stories that most of us can relate to. Topics can range from your own personal experience, projects that your team is working on, and even short lightning talks based on the event theme. Make sure to check with the meetup group organizers on topics, schedules, and speaking opportunities. Speaking in venues like these increases your profile and gives you a chance to grow your career through the learnings and connections you've made.
- Speak to the organizers on their next sessions and themes, arrange the schedule ahead so you have ample time to prepare, and ask for feedback about your content.
- If this is your first time, watch videos online about public/virtual speaking or previous meetup sessions to enhance your presentation skills and practice them afterward.
- Ultimately, just be yourself and enjoy—it's your story to share, after all, and that will make the experience more fun for you and your audience.
Take the next steps: Organize a meetup
Be involved, partner up, or start a meetup. Organizing and maintaining a meetup group should be fun and not dreadful. We can make it less stressful by partnering with other community members to be a co-organizer. The more, the merrier as they say! This makes it sustainable by rotating and delegating the core responsibilities in putting together an event. Whether you are taking a role in an existing meetup group or putting up a new group in your area, here are some of the things you can consider:
- Use a tool or website for meetups. Meetup.com is easy to use and it's free for members. It's a great tool with built-in functionality to announce events, get RSVPs, seek speakers, and initiate discussions.
- Partner up with organizations in your community. One can sponsor the venue or virtual platform, another one can do the beers or pizza, or even a few giveaways and swag for virtual sessions.
- Grow the group and encourage interest. The community needs to be excited all the time. You need to look for topics, speakers, locations, channels, and activities to generate and sustain community interest. Spread the word through your friends and connections.
- Improve through constant feedback. This helps you and your co-organizers foster the community and improve your sessions.
- Video references. Here is a collection of videos from the New Zealand Ansible and OpenShift virtual meetups for 2020. Feel free to scroll through previous events.
What makes up a good meetup?
The ultimate reason why people attend meetups is the topic. If it is something I can use or relate to, provides a benefit to my work, or something that interests me, then I will attend that meetup event. This is why it is important to keep the topic interesting according to the demographics of your community. We may not be able to cater to everyone's interest every time, so it is important to cover a wide variety of topics in each session. A few tips on topics:
- Listen to what the community discusses during events.
- Be on the lookout for the latest industry trends that may be of interest to everyone.
- Highlight success stories you've heard from the community so participants can share them.
- Gather input within connections from partners and customers.
- Get the polls and surveys up to understand the community's interest.
Apart from the topic itself, below are some of the things to consider in organizing a meetup:
Focus on the community. Let everyone feel fun and comfortable. Make sure to welcome everyone at the start of the event. The truth is that this is their meetup, not yours. Encourage them to take active roles, participate, and invite others to join. Spark participation with questions such as: "Who is hiring?" "Who is looking for a job?" and "Who is new to this topic?"
Be inclusive and diverse. Reach out to new members and underrepresented groups. Always ensure that your meetup is a safe place for everyone, and avoid bashing and mudslinging based on technology preferences and affiliations. It is okay to have technology comparisons on your content but don't bring anyone down. Build people up regardless of their tech background.
Make it free and available to all. Many companies are willing to give back to the community through sponsorships, enhance their image, and connect with IT professionals for potential talents. Try to keep the event totally free by making the most of the free resources available.
Food or giveaways. Light snacks and beers allow free-flowing discussion at the event. There are usually eager sponsors, and it doesn't have to be expensive. If food is not available, just let everyone know about the event details to manage expectations. Giving away swag for games on virtual sessions also proves to make any event fun and alive.
Backup plans. In case your presenters have last-minute glitches, have some simple backup ideas. Pick out a video you can watch and discuss. Step through good tutorials or the latest blog posts that interest you.
Demos make it fun and interactive. Tech demos are proven ways to make a meetup event interesting and interactive. It drives a lot of questions and discussion points. Throw in simple games, simple Q&A prizes to encourage participants to be active, and have a fun and light environment.
Lightning talks. In case you run short, ask for impromptu presentations to maximize the event. Check with the audience if anyone has a short presentation, something cool they're working on, an interesting article they've read, or a complex question they need answered. They can have the stage or the mic for a duration of time.
Local partnership in the community is important
Organizing these meetup events enables us to "build communities." A partnership within the local organizations, companies, and groups is one of the primary foundations. Through these partnerships, we forge a healthy collaboration between vendors, partners, clients, and end-users. Meetups provide benefits to the members and partners, empowering them to enable their staff both technically and through social skills and interactions. Professional connections are also established in many ways during these meetups. These connections can elevate one's position and exposure in the local tech scene.
As an organizer, these mutual benefits help sustain and foster a healthy meetup community through their available space, simple food sponsorships, their employees' availability as speakers, and the invitation to their staff and customers to be actively involved in the group.
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Some of the common challenges
Resource persons and speakers. It is not always easy to look for speakers. We understand that most of them need time to prepare for interesting talks or demos and that they can be busy with their actual work. Make sure to line up speakers ahead of time and be always on the lookout for keen sharers.
Venue and logistics. In a face-to-face setting, this can be a challenge as it will require logistics, access arrangements, advanced bookings, and whatnot, so make sure you plan and communicate ahead of time with your venue sponsors.
Schedules and attendees. Identify a time that suits the majority of attendees. Pre-pandemic, we started after office-hours, which enabled us to have good socials with drinks and pizza. We then tried out lunch-break sessions without the beers. This schedule encouraged more participation, as more people seemed to want to do something else or go straight home after 5 pm. We kept the lunchtime schedule during the 2020 virtual sessions until now.
Promoting meetup events
There are many creative ways to advertise and promote your meetup page and events. Choose and come up with what's suitable and most effective for your local community. Here are some of the methods we use:
Meetup website. Once you publish the event, make sure you send out reminders. I find it effective to send out email reminders through the website function at least one week, 24 hours, and finally, one hour before the event starts.
Tell your friends and close connections. Word of mouth is more powerful than most people realize. Send out the email links and RSVPs to your immediate contacts.
Social media posts and ask others to share. Contact influencers and non-profits in your area that would be willing to share your meetup link across social media and their local community channels.
Post to local and targeted groups. Look for a Slack workspace for local programmers or software in general. If there isn't one, create your own workspace! Choose a general name like OpenShift Meetup or Ansible Meetup. You can do this across other channels and means.
LinkedIn connections. Update your status with a link to your meetup, let your professional connections know so that they can re-share, and make the post go active/viral. You can also create a LinkedIn group and add it to your profile.
What changed in 2020
The main thing about 2020 is that everything went virtual and meetups were no exception. This situation allowed us to invite international speakers to our local events. It also showed an increased number of participants as we can simultaneously hold our events with meetups from other cities and countries. We are also able to have an event every month compared to bi-annual or quarterly pre-pandemic. On the other hand, we are missing the ability to interact fully and network with other participants. We certainly miss the beers, the banters, and the pizza galore that in-person meetups provide. I advise you to make the most of these virtual sessions—they build up anticipation towards actual face-to-face events as situations continue to evolve, and we slowly transition back to safe public gatherings.
There's always the opportunity to improve and enhance everyone's meetup experience, no matter what the situation is. I've summarized some of the tidbits we learned after organizing about 12 virtual and two face-to-face meetups in 2020.
- Social media and LinkedIn posts create more interest.
- With the increased remote work setup, 12 pm to 1 pm works well.
- Live demonstrations generate interest and discussions.
- Sending reminders to all who RSVP (even to those who haven't) is effective.
- Always use a stable video conferencing platform.
- Think of ways to encourage interaction (chat topics, polls, vouchers, games, giveaways, etc.).
- Local and personal promotion can bring in more attendees.
- Encourage partnership and support within your organization and the wider community.
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You're not alone in your journey, both in your career and personal lives. Our ability to connect enables us to foster a healthy environment for ourselves and for both the local and broader communities that we belong to. Being open to collaboration allows us to help others and seek guidance on some of the problems that we face. It nurtures our ability to innovate and move forward together no matter what the situation is—so go ahead! Connect and collaborate.