Software development is in a state of perpetual churn. Not a week goes by without the release of a new framework or open-source library, claiming to be the next silver bullet.
Some of this change is relevant, revolutionally even, most is just noise. Either way, we, as software developers, need to stay informed. Our job is a constant balancing act between watching out for the next big thing and becoming subject matter experts in the technologies that underwrite our day jobs.
All Hail the Meetup
It takes a huge amount of time and dedication to stay on top of everything, but of course we try our best through a whole of variety of mediums: blog posts, magazines, online forums, books, podcasts, conferences, etc. All play their part in helping further our knowledge, but over the past few years it's the ubiquitous meetup that has become one of the most popular ways of socialising knowledge.
But meetups are more than just about sharing knowledge. In the world of technology, meetups (and more generally, community) are an essential part of successful, vibrant ecosystems. Done well, meetups create a rising tide from which everyone in that ecosystem can benefit. They foster skills, help companies remain competitive and increase attractiveness to inward investment.
Sharing matters. Community matters. Without either, ecosystems stagnate, fall behind and eventually become irrelevant.
A Starbucks On Every Corner
With the advent of Meetup.com, the meetup scene has literally exploded over the past 5 years. There are now meetups for every conceivable niche, nook and cranny, and for the most part, this has been a good thing.
Meetup.com has made it incredibly easy to build communities, usually within minutes, and all without the pain of having to build your own website, manage mailing lists, find an audience, etc.
However, the ease with which one can create a meetup has meant that there is an increasing amount of fragmentation and overlap. And as meetups become more niche, communities have become smaller, less active, less self-sustaining and shorter lived. We are literally spoiled for choice.
Ask Yourself Why
If you want to build a (tech) community, the first thing you should do is ask yourself why. Is it because you want to give back? Or, is it because you want to find other like-minded people, who share the same passions as yourself, and from whom you can learn and thrive? If so, then great.
If, on the other hand, your main reason for creating a meetup is simply to promote a brand (either yourself or that of your company), then please, just stop right now. This is community done for the wrong reasons, where content and sharing, and by implication the audience, comes second to you. Disingenous at best, these kind of meetup are really rather clumsy, cynical attempts at recruitment and attracting talent.
Why would any company support or encourage their people to attend such a meetup when there is clearly a risk to their business? It doesn't make sense.
We created Bash in January 2012, before Meetup.com was a thing. At the time, there was a lack of community relating to software development in the Belfast area and wanted to do something about it. (As pointed out by a commenter on LinkedIn, there was plenty happening in the wider digital space, particularly in design, but I am referring specifically to programming and development here.) Our goal was to create an event that brought industry thought-leaders to our doorstep, to share their wisdom and expertise, and to inspire us all on to better things.
So we set about creating a website, a mailing list and finding a great first speaker. Thankfully, Martin Thompson, who hails from near Belfast, said yes, and that was the beginning of it all. We didn't have Meetup, but we did have Twitter, word of mouth, a ready made network of clients, who actively encouraged their staff to attend. In the end, over 180 people turned up for the first event.
From the outset, Bash put content front and centre. We made the conscious decision not to display or associate the Instil brand with Bash. We created several Bash pop-ups that talked only about Bash and its goals, and for the first year, there was no mention of Instil at any event. We were so successful at separating the two brands that it was many months before the community realised that it was us behind the scenes.
This might sound insincere, naive even, but we never created Bash to promote Instil. We are curious engineers. We wanted to be better informed about all aspects of software. We wanted to be part of the conversation, not just passive spectators looking in. And there's no better way of being in the middle of the conversation than organising it.
We still hold to these principles today. And whilst we recognise that Bash has been good for us - it adds credibility and authenticity to our offering, and we let prospective clients know that it is something we do - we still hold to our ideals: Bash is first and foremost about the audience.
Ingredients for a Successful Meetup
So, what are the ingredients for creating a successful meetup? To be clear, we are not claiming to be experts on all things community. We organised a successful conference in London and San Francisco in 2014; founded Bash in 2012, which has grown to become the largest tech meetup in Belfast; and we have supported numerous other meetups over the years. The following is just some simple advice on what has worked for us. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
1. Put Content First
So important that it has to be said twice. Be absolutely passionate about your community, focus on their needs and what they will get out of your event. Everything else will follow.
2. Keep your Foot to the Floor.
Once you start, do not stop or lose momentum. If you plan on having a meetup every month, then have one every month.
3. Be Realistic
You are a busy person as are your potential attendees. Therefore be realistic as to how many meetups you and your community can sustain, especially with all the meetups competing for people's time. For reference, we hold between 5-6 Bash events every year.
4. Share the Load.
Co-sponsor and work with people from other companies. Be inclusive - make it about community, not your personal or company brand. We've happily shared Bash costs with many other companies in the Belfast area, and beyond.
5. Enjoy It!
Seriously, if you don't enjoy working, engaging, communicating with people, then don't bother. Otherwise, just enjoy it and save the stress for your day job!
Successful tech meetups are run by people who are passionate about the subject matter and about sharing. They have the drive to make things happen and they expect nothing in return. And ultimately, this is the real sauce for a successful meetup - you do it for the love.
For more information on our meetups and events, visit our events