One of the things that I’ve noticed about successful people in the technology industry is that almost all of them in some way have been or are involved in their local user groups. A user groups is a collection of people that meet on a regular basis to hear lectures and swap information about a particular technology or platform.

Not just enthusiasts, but fellow professionals

One misconception that many people have is that user groups are just enthusiastic amateurs talking about technically simple topics. While that might be true for some user groups, it’s not really true of most technology user groups. For example, the one I’m most involved with is the Melbourne Cloud and Datacenter meetup. This group, which evolved out of the Melbourne System Center, Cloud and Infrastructure group that I ran for more than a decade, focuses on Microsoft technologies in the cloud and datacentre. Rather than just being “enthusiastic amateurs”, almost everyone that turns up is an experienced professional that works with the technologies involved on a daily basis.

Learn things that you didn’t know about products you use all the time

At a good user group, you’ll get talks from people who are using a specific product in a production environment. User group presentations are very different from the types of presentations you get from vendor marketing evangelists. A vendor marketing evangelist is paid to promote the product. They are there because at some point they hope you’ll buy what their organization is selling. It is almost unheard of for a user group speaker to be paid for their time. They are speaking on a particular topic because they are truly enthusiastic about speaking about that subject.

Rather than telling you how their company’s marketing team expects the product should run, user group speakers will often also cover technologies and topics from the point of direct experience with that product. Unlike a vendor marketing evangelists who are generally motivated to talk about the newest version of a product that may have just been released, user group speakers are motivated to talk about what they’ve learned about a product after using that product in their own environment for a decent period of time. This means that they’ll often tell you what’s good about a product and what is not good. What workarounds can be put in place and how they’ve dealt with these challenges in their own environment.

First class presenters

While some speakers at user groups are new to public speaking, many of the people that present at events like Ignite, Experts Live, and NDC first got their start presenting at user groups. My first IT presentations were to user groups and, even though I now present at international events, I still present at user groups on a regular basis as do most of the world class speakers that I know. User groups give you a chance to see some of the best speakers without having to pay the entry fee to a big conference. They also give you the chance to develop your skills as a speaker, something that can be valuable in developing your career.

It’s about pushing yourself

There can be more to getting involved in a user group than just turning up to hear people talk. User groups can also give you an opportunity to present on technical topics that interest you to other people in your region that are interested in the same topics. You’d be surprised what this can do in terms of opening up career opportunities, especially as you develop a reputation for being informed, if not an expert, on a specific technology or platform. Presenting at a user group gives you a reason to learn more about a product than you might know just from using it every day at work. It gives you a reason to push yourself, something that can be valuable if you don’t feel that you are extending yourself at work.

Come up with your own topics

If you are thinking about presenting at a user group, come up with a list of topics on which you can present and then talk to the organizers of the user group about whether they can make a space available for you to present. This is a far more effective approach than approaching them and asking them what they’d like to hear you speak on. It’s also worth keeping at them to present as while they might not have a slot at the next meeting, someone who is persistently enthusiastic about speaking will eventually get their chance.

It’s also about networking

One of the biggest intangible benefits of user group membership is that it allows you to meet people that are working with the same technologies in you in the same area. This can be an invaluable networking opportunity. You’ll become better known within the community of professionals that work with the same technologies in your region. I know of many people that come to my own user group who have been exposed to new employment opportunities because someone else at the user group heard of a position or needed someone with a specific set of skills and approached someone they knew from the user group first.

Finding user groups

The best place to search for user groups today is meetup.org. You’ll be able to see the user groups in your area and search by topic. There is no cost involved to signing up for most user groups other than your time. If you are interested in developing your career beyond turning up to work during work hours, I suggest that you attend some user groups in your area.