Monday, May 19, 2014

Organising community events is a lot of work

This may turn into a rant. I won't be offended if you don't read it ;)


I've been organising (and helping organise) "community" events for about 6 years.
By "community" events I mean user groups or meet ups of/for developers who want to learn from and with each other. Most of these meetings have been related to "mobile" and the majority have focused on Windows Phone.

I've also spoken at a number of groups organised by other people.

I am frequently asked about what it takes to organise such a group and how to get started. I've been meaning to blog about this for some time. Here are some thoughts.

Sad fact #1 - It takes a lot more work than it may appear.

There are 4 basic tasks that a group organiser must do:

  1. Find & book a venue
  2. Get speakers/presenters
  3. Promote the event to attendees
  4. Make sure everything runs smoothly on the night

Find & book a venue

Depending on location and the size of the group this can be particularly complicated. Technical requirements (at the very least probably projector and Wi-Fi) and the desire for somewhere cheap, or even better free, mean that such locations are often in popular demand by other people too.

Get speakers/presenters
Most people when they start a group are also prepared to speak but this isn't a permanent solution to finding speakers.
I can talk for hours but think people would get bored and stop coming if it was me speaking each month. In fact, I consider it a failure when I have to speak because I couldn't find anyone else to do so.

It's really important to persuade attendees to speak up and share their knowledge and experience. This is often easier than getting an external speaker. Persuading people to come and travel to speak at a small group can be tricky based on the time and effort they put in to coming for probably, very little in return.

Logistically managing people who are interested in speaking, when you are able to meet and when the venue is available can be tricky. With one past speaker who was really keen to come at the first available opportunity, it still took over 2 years before we found a date which was suitable for all. But hey, I said none of this is easy.


Promote the event to attendees
Most people aren't looking for events to attend. Those that are will go to places like meetup.com (so it's important to be discoverable there) but they are only a very small number.
In terms of promoting events it typically means finding people who may be interested to attend and persuading them on why they should come. This typically comes down to the speakers and the subject(s) they are going to talk about. - People come for the speaker but come regularly because of other attendees (the community). 
This takes lots of time and effort.
Of course, once you get someone to attend you need to get and keep their contact details so you can tell them about future events. It's much more successful to actively contact people and tell them about similar future events. Just hoping they'll see a tweet about it or happen to remember to check a website for possible events is not a good tactic for getting a full house.

Make sure everything runs smoothly on the night
Unfortunately, for an organiser the actual event is not a simple affair. It's mostly non-stop. Is everything ready for when people arrive? Are any and all issues and questions handled correctly during the evening? Does everyone get away all right and everything get packed up ok?

There are lots of things to be done in the days before, and after an event.
From confirmation of details to ordering catering, to sending out post event follow up emails. A lot more happens than just turning up at the advertised start time on the night.

If an event doesn't go well, why would people come back next month?


Sad fact #2 - Nothing comes from most of the people who offer to help. They either don't mean it, don't realise it will actually take effort, or don't have anything useful to offer.

At least this is my experience. If I don't do it it doesn't get done and then there is no event.

The cost of organising, attending, hosting and travelling to events has cost me £££££s.
In return it has helped me get a couple of interviews. While getting me in the door it's my knowledge of the subject (in a large part demonstrated by and gained from answering questions on Stack Overflow) that has got me jobs though.
At best the return on my investment on events breaks even.

While spending lots of time organising events I haven't been doing work that demonstrates my skills and abilities.

I've recently missed out on a highly financially rewarding opportunity due to my lack of ability to show what I have done and can do.


Organising lots of user group events has lead me to be good at organising such events. The result hasn't necessarily been that I can say I'm good at what the events are about.

Being able to say "I've helped build apps with a collective download total over 50 MILLION" is useless if you can't say what the apps are. Unfortunately most of my contracts stop me talking about the apps I'm helping ship. (Some don't but I easily muddle the ones I can and can't talk about - It's safer for me to not mention any of them.) Ironically people come to me because they want the best, but don't want me to talk about it because they feel it may reflect badly if they, as a large brand name company, were putting so much responsibility for their app(s) on an individual outsider.

Remembering the past advice I've received of:

"you get the work you do"

This shouldn't have been such a shock to me.

I spend my time trying to help other people build better apps - so I don't have time to build apps myself.
I spend my time building apps I can't talk about - so I don't have any apps to demonstrate what I do.

It's a vicious cycle.
Maybe as a community event organiser I need to find a way to balance helping others and managing my future job prospects and demonstrating my abilities beyond community events. I'm open to suggestions on ways other people have done this or how you think I could.


Sad fact #3 - most groups don't last more than a handful of meetings.

I organised 27 DevEvenings and my 42nd WPUG meeting is next week. I think that's pretty good going.

Here's the kicker though. Most potential employers aren't interested in the ability to organise meet ups.

Fortunately I'm not looking for work from most employers at the moment. But I do still need to pay the bills.

I'm not thinking of packing it all in just yet though. Despite everything I do still enjoy organising events.



Yes, this has all been a bit selfish.
Through organising and speaking at events I have done a bunch of things for other people:

  • Helped people learn about new technologies 
  • Helped people learn what makes a better app
  • Helped people build better apps
  • Helped people get better exposure for their apps
  • Helped people make friends, business contacts and jobs
  • Helped people get free phones


This is what's important to remember. I'm doing this to help other people build better apps.




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