Its been roughly a year since I started to help co-organize the Norfolk Ruby Users Group. When I started Ken, the sole organizer at the time, was getting a little burnt out. And to no fault of Ken (he’s a pretty busy dude) it was becoming apparent in our meeting attendance (from May to August of last year we were averaging 5 RSVPs per meeting). Our main goal was to grow our community.
Starting out I wanted to accomplish two things: adding structure and being more consistent.
Originally our meetings had no structure at all. Someone would volunteer to speak and if no one did it would default to Ken. Some meetings would last 30 minutes while others would go on for a couple of hours. This created an unpredictable experience for attendees and it possibly alienated those who had to be at home by a certain time. In order to alleviate this we simply added a time cap to our talks (45 minutes including time for questions).
The positive side effect of this was that it consistently gave us time to go to a restaurant afterwards for dinner and drinks. This unintended side effect is what strengthened our community more. People started to form relationships and our meet ups started to not only become time to learn something new but also a monthly time to catch up with friends.
Since our goal was to grow the community I wanted to keep things simple: have eight RSVPs per month for six consecutive months. The challenge for us as organizers was that we had to ensure we were consistently providing value to our potential attendees. Translation: informative topics and engaging speakers.
I didn’t want one person to take the burden of having to speak every month so I decided to never let the same person speak more than a couple times a year. To do this I did everything I could to encourage and empower our attendees to become speakers. No matter where they were in their journey as a developer I wanted them to feel like they had something to share.
The other thing we did, was bring in as many out of town speakers as possible. If I got any wind of interest in speaking from someone I followed on twitter I reached out to them to see if they would like to come visit and speak. For a lot of our out of town speakers we were able to find times when they were remotely close to the area and if so scheduled our meetings around them so they could come and present. Our thought process here was we didn’t have a lot to offer them with swag or reimbursements so we would go above and beyond to make things work with them. This included driving an hour here and there to pick them up.
For my own interests in teaching I also hosted a Coderetreat and a RailsBridge. After each of these we saw a slight bump in attendance. But the more powerful effect was that it created an infectious attitude about teaching. As a group we decided to add 15 minute lightning talks to our meeting agendas where the topics were geared to beginners. We always tried to record these talks and put them online to maximize our outreach.
I’m happy to report that a year later our average RSVPs for the past 12 months has been roughly around 13 with one month peaking at 20. We’ve revamped our website and our doing a fundraiser (only 8 hours left !) to help cover our costs as well as those of out of town speakers.
My most immediate goal is to continue to welcome new members. I’d like to get that average up a couple more and it is clear the only way to do that is to continue educating. We’re going to start having weekly hack nights for people to learn more from one another.
Long term wise I envision us becoming more of a polygot group. Even though we’re in a smaller area there have been a ton of other user groups that have come and gone. I want those people to feel like they could come join us regardless of the languages or frameworks they work with because we could learn a ton from them. Hopefully with enough growth I’ll eventually be able to train my replacement.