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How to successfully run a technical community?

Years ago I discovered a world around technical communities, people like me who love technology, learn and share the knowledge they have and gain. 

I approached different communities when I was living abroad, but it was when I came back to Spain when I got much more involved with all kind of technical communities. I founded the first .NET user group in the Balearic Islands, I was country leader at INETA and Culminis, and I also volunteered as EMEA Regional Lead for the Microsoft User Group Support Services, this one became www.technicalcommunity.com.

All this allowed me to meet lot of people from who to learn and share my passion: technology.

Now, thanks to my current role at Microsoft, I keep meeting lot of people who is passionate and energic and that are part of these communities, some of them meet the communities for the first time. That’s probably the reason why I get asked very often: “how can I run a technical community?”

Each community has a different personality, so there isn’t a magic recipe to run a community, neither a single way to do it. This post tries to show you the usual conversation that happens when someone ask me the question, it is written in a way that you can see some tips based on my own experience and the experience of some successful communities I have the luck to work with.

Geek: I would like to start up a technical communities and do some meetup’s. How can I start?

I: Have you really thought about it? Running a community takes more time than it seems. Do you have more people to start or will you do it alone?

Geek: We are already three and my friends will help me with it.

I: Great, the community starts with two people willing to do things. Maybe you can start setting up a mechanism to communicate all the activities you do. I like to have a website and an account on your favourite social network, so you can announce what you do, publish photos of your meetups, etc. You can see some examples of the websites that different Spanish communities have created:

Geek: Lovely, we will start immediately building a website, with a gallery, a calendar and so on. Can you suggest me where can I host it?

Yo: Wait, don’t waste too much time creating the super portal for your community. Start with something simple, the goal is just people can find you. There are many services you can use to host your site like WordPress, Tumblr, MeetUp… You can also have up to 10 free websites with Windows Azure where you can deploy with a few clicks the main CMS and Blog engines.

Geek: I was thinking to do events every two months, what do you think?

I: I prefer to meet up every month, but you decide what fits better in your community. The most important is that you can have a fixed periodicity, people likes predictability because they can plan in advance. For instance, you can meetup every second or third thursday. I would also recommend that when you announce the new community you have already scheduled several meetups, 3 or  4 might be enough. Doing this you can excite the attendees and members of your community telling them what’s next. Without a string deadline you risk to do the first meet up and then don’t do the next one.

Geek:  Ok, I will prepare all the sessions.

I: It is really important that you do not do all the sessions yourself, you need to get your buddies involved too. Do not worry if the first meet ups only have 4 or 5 attendees.

Geek: Well, if I only will have 4 or 5 attendees I do not think it is worthy to do all this work…

I: Believe me, it is worthy. It is much better to have just a few people motivated, that having lot of people who is not engaged. People will start coming if you are patient and constant with your meetups. I highly suggest that you do different types of meetups, so you offer the chance to get the attendees involved in what you do. There are some ideas for it like:

  • CodeKatas 
  • Develop an app together to participate in contests.
  • Create or contribute in an opensource project.
  • Learn together a technology to obtain an official certification and meetup to solve doubts or share what you learned. 
  • Round tables to discuss a common issue, a technology, an architecture.
  • Just go to the bar to have a drink while you talk about geek subjects. 
  • Typical event with speaker and attendees. Just try that your attendees deliver also sessions. You might want to do a contest to know who will deliver the next sessions.

Geek: Do we need to create a legal association?

I: I do not think it is necessary, there are many communities that are not registered legally. If you do it, it might be easier to work with sponsors in the case you find one.

Geek: Talking about sponsors, is it easy to get sponsorship for your events?

I: No, it is not. At the beginning no one will know your community neither what  the community can offer to a company. It is also uncommon that a company sponsors monthly events, it will be easier once you have some proven track that a company sponsor an event with a high number of attendees or high impact on press.

Geek: Got it, it seems it is going to be harder that what I thought.

I: Yes, it’s tough and takes lot of work. But if you have reached this point and you are not demotivated, enjoy it! Coordinating or being part of a technical community is a great personal and professional experience, it is extremely enriching and you will not regret it.

There are always some differences, but this is a pretty standard conversation when someone approaches me to know how to create a technical community. As you can see I try to make it very clear that it implies a lot of work, as many people do not realize it. So, that’s the reason why there is only one tip that really matters:

Whatever you do, be sure that is something you really like.

At Microsoft (at least in Spain) we will always try to help you with your community, because of that we offer you:

  • Register attendees: You can use our World Wide Events platforms, thanks to it you can manage the register for the event, whether they are online or in-person. 
  • Online events: We offer you our online events platform, so you can do live events and get them recorded to what the event on-demand later on. 
  • Event promotion: Let us know your events and we will publish them in our newsletters MSDN Flash y Technet Flash and social network channels. You can also write a guest post in our MSDN and Technet blogs.
  • Decks and demos: If you want to perform sessions related with Microsoft technology we can guide you on how to do the session or share with you some decks and script demos based on your needs. 
  • Technical Community: We also offer you access to the portal Microsoft Technical Community, there you can publish your events, get special offers like free ebooks, a free subscription to Office 365 to manage your community, trainings about Microsoft technology and the possibility to connect through Yammer to other WW communities to keep sharing your knowledge.

So you already know, get involved in a technical community and if it does not exist yet in your area, create it yourself.

Feel free to share your own tips on how to run successfully a technical community.