Running .NET DC

I’ve been privileged these past few months to run the .NET DC User Group. This post is about my experience doing so, in case someone out there is interested in running a user group.

First, a Thank You

I inherited this user group; I didn’t start it. The two previous organizers, @TashaEv and @justcallme98 re-started and grew the community. Before they moved away, they made sure that I had all the right accounts and passwords, and a bag of swag to give away, and a few months’ of speakers lined up. This post is about what it’s like to run a Meetup. @TashaEv and @justcallme98 did the hard part of actually building up the community. Thanks!

Online Tools

Meetup.com is the hub of running the user group. Meetup is a website where people can list and schedule events, and RSVP to the events, charge admission, etc. I use a pretty minimal set of features on Meetup: I schedule meetings, announce meetings, and answer messages people get sent to me. Most messages are actually pretty helpful: People offer to speak or offer to sponsor (more on those below). One guy tried to sell me life insurance through the “Message the Organizers” button, but at least he was polite and went away when I ignored the message.

Meetup is free for guests, but organizing events requires a subscription. I pay about $80 / year. Basically, this gives me the ability to schedule events, and see who’s coming. Considering that Meetup handles making the event searchable by prospective guests, and generates iCal and Outlook files, and handles messaging, it’s probably the most economical way for running a group like this; it would cost me a lot of time and effort to replicate this functionality with other tools, and the result wouldn’t be as smooth.

Getting Speakers

Getting speakers is the biggest source of time spent outside the Meetups. So far, my strategies have been tweeting that I’m looking for speakers, messaging different public slack channels for developers in the area that I’m looking for speakers, and asking around. Sometimes people spontaneously message me that they’re interested in speaking.

I find it helpful to have a Google Form that asks the questions I need. (And please, if you’re interested in speaking, follow that link!). This helps me because I don’t forget to ask important questions of prospective speakers, and because all the answers are summarized in one place.

To keep track of things for this Meetup, I use a Trello board. (I’m going to leave it private, because it has speakers’ contact info.) On this board, I keep track of past and future speakers. Future meetings each get their own card, and that card has the speaker’s contact info and topic, and how sure I am that they’ll actually speak. (The further in the future the event is, the more comfortable I am with a “maybe”.) I also use this board to keep track of who has sponsored which meetings; previous sponsors might be willing to sponsor again, and I want to avoid bothering people too often.

Sponsors

Recruiting for tech jobs in the DC area can be pretty aggressive. I’ve had recruiters send me messages on LinkedIn and Meetup pretty often, and usually they’re far off topic. It’s important to have a policy about this; it lets you protect your members’ time from recruiter spam without having to separately decide how to handle every single recruiter message. Here’s the policy we use:

  1. Sponsoring means buying pizza and soda for one meeting. (I think if we had standing sponsors, the meetup would turn into an extension of that company’s recruiting office, and that would not help the community.)
  2. Sponsoring gives the right to talk for 5 minutes at the meeting for which the pizza was bought.
  3. Sponsors can hand out swag and talk to members at that meeting.
  4. I will list the sponsor as a sponsor on the Meetup site for a few weeks before and after the meeting they sponsored.

The first sponsored Meetup I ran, getting the pizza paid for was a bit of an adventure. The previous practice had been to generate a PayPal invoice for the expected cost of the pizzas, and then send it to the sponsors. The first sponsor I interacted with was a big company, and their accounting department wasn’t comfortable sending money via PayPal, so I asked if they could write me a check, and it turns out that for them to send money to a private individual is a Whole Big Thing. The eventual solution was just to ask them to order the pizzas. I figured the recruiting department at a big company could figure out how to expense some Domino’s, and I was right. That will be my usual practice now, I think, since it also prevents the situation where I’m holding money on behalf of the Meetup. The Meetup isn’t incorporated as any sort of legal entity, so that money might be in a sort of iffy tax situation if I did have any.

Pizza Calculus

Speaking of pizzas, figuring out how much pizza to order is a tricky business. I’ve been to meetings where we ran out of pizza, and been to meetings where there were whole untouched pizzas left over. Here are some of the variables:

  1. Not everyone eats pizza.
  2. Not everyone eats the same amount of pizza.
  3. Not everyone eats the same kinds of pizza.
  4. Not everyone who RSVPs will show up.
  5. Not everyone who shows up will have RSVP’ed.

So, given these variables, we’re going to give up on getting the perfect order. Here are my rules:

  1. There should be enough pizza.
  2. There should be pizza with meat.
  3. There should be pizza without meat.

Last meeting, we ordered about 1.5 slices of pizza per confirmed RSVP, and this resulted in maybe a pizza and a half being left over. I’m not sure I’m comfortable going a lot lower than that, since not having pizza is just about the only thing that can really ruin pizza. (Also, I have the same rules for soda: there should be enough, and there should be one regular, one diet, and one sugar free. Soda is much less popular than pizza, so I’ll typically get only 3 2-liter bottles: regular, diet, and no-caffeine.)

Publicity

This is probably the part of the job that’s easiest. @TashaEv and @justcallme98 did such a good job of getting things started, that there are a lot of people who check Meetup every month to see what this user group is doing, and even a few people who come every single month.

For publicity, I use the .NET DC Twitter to tweet out upcoming meetings, and announce through Meetup itself. (The “announce Meetup” button on Meetup.com emails an event to everyone in the group. I try to use this sparingly, since most people I know get enough email. I announce the Meetup only once, a few weeks before it occurs.)

It’s Fun

I want to add that running this Meetup is fun. I meet interesting people, and I get to help people learn. If you’re in the DC area, I hope to see you there!

Till next time, happy learning!

-Will

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