♥ Your Community Organizers

Over 5 years of community organizing in tech has taught me a thing or two… Or three... My chapter of Girl Develop It, a non-profit whose mission is to teach women how to code, which I founded in 2013, is now in it’s 4th year. I’ve worked with amazing people to co-organize the Burlington Ruby Conference, UX Burlington Conference, and Offline Camp. I did this work out of a love of learning, an interest in helping people, and the joy of meeting interesting/brilliant folks in my community who I would otherwise have no platform to meet.

For the majority of that community organizing work, I worked as a software QA engineer and community organizing work was NOT my day job. Now, I’m an IBMer, working for IBM Cloud Data Services as a Developer Advocate. My job is to be a partner to the tech community and find ways to contribute to projects, build community, and empower people to try new things. But, as a seasoned community organizer myself, I know how annoying that can be… Well meaning folks reaching out to you constantly, blindly throwing spaghetti at the wall to see where they can get a notch in the belt of their company, without really showing any interest in learning about YOUR communities’ goals.

I have my own horror stories of people who said they wanted to support the community work I was doing but in the end just burned up precious energy and time, of which is in low supply as an extra-curricular community organizer. BUT, there were also shining beacons of community support which flowed like double IPA from the heavens from amazing companies who really got it. Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll be happy regale you with all of this lore.

Now that I’m being paid to do community organizing work, all of this started to make me curious… Do other communities experience these same frustrations? Instead of relying solely on my own experience to see what it’s like for community organizers out there, I decided it would be meaningful hear from other people in the industry, about their shared experiences, and how people at tech companies became valuable assets to the operations of their local tech community and how these experiences align with my own. I posed this question to twitter:

I was surprised to learn that as community organizers we all experience the same things, the same successes, but also the same missteps from companies who say they want to help us. And we are all starved for more companies to do better by us. I heard from tech community organizers in Berlin, Germany; Leeds, UK; Oakland, California; Raleigh, North Carolina; Washington, DC; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and of course my home state of Vermont.

Some common themes arose from this feedback. But before digging in, let’s define what I’m talking about a bit. By “tech community organizers” I am talking about people who organize groups that are open to the public, either IRL or virtual, who are dedicated to the advancement of topics in relation to software development. This includes tech events like user group meetups, workshops/tutorials, classes, hackathons, conferences, project nights, code and coffees, installfests, etc. Some of these groups might be directly tied to a company or non-profit. Some communities are completely lead by volunteers, while some are run by paid community organizers. Some tech communities’ goals are tied to the advancement of a specific programming language or development method, and others are committed to the advancement of diversity in tech.

I hope this information helps you find a deeper understanding that your ability to effectively support these groups hinges entirely on your understanding of who they are, and who they seek to serve.

Listen, learn, and then be Straight Up

Kristina Schneider, from Berlin, Germany, organizes @cssconfeu, @upfront_ug, and @CSSclasses.

For many reasons, you need to understand the needs of the meetup group you are trying to support before you start throwing “all the things” at them. The BEST supporters of any community are those that first take the time to understand the needs and goals. Ask the organizer if you can buy them coffee to talk about their community work and be prepared to have this meeting outside of business hours. This can be a great way to build a deeper connection and ask real questions. But also, be understanding if they say that between their community work and full time job, they just don’t have the extra time to meet with you. In that case, ask if you can attend one of their events as an observer and follow up afterward by email with any further questions. This way you can see firsthand if you can identify areas where they need help that you are able to facilitate.

Sylvia Pellicore, from Raleigh, North Carolina, co-founded @gdirdu.

There are many valid reasons for your company’s desire to get involved. By supporting your tech community you are creating a valuable recruitment pipeline, marketing the existence and culture of your company, fostering avenues for continued learning and improvement for tech workers while off the job, and letting the folks in your city know that you care about the ecosystem of the tech workforce outside your walls. Bear in mind, not all ways of fulfilling these goals will fit into the mission of the community organizations that you are seeking to support.

As an example, Girl Develop It’s local chapters are run entirely by volunteers and because of this, building strong and supportive community partners is key to their success. Sylvia Pellicore of GDI RDU speaks highly of Syncfusion‘s support, “They are helpful to us and our community first, and sell themselves second. The recruiting/sales pitches are there, but respectful and appropriate.” If you are a helpful partner that makes community organizing easier for volunteers, they will happily sing the praises of your company.

There are some really important questions that you need to ask the person (people) in charge of the community that you want to support before you get involved. These questions will give you a better understanding of whether the kind of help you are able to offer them will actually help them achieve their goals. This conversation will also let you know whether supporting this group will help you achieve your own outreach goals.

  1. Can you tell me about your community? What is the demographic of the people who attend?
  2. What is your group’s core mission and/or most pressing goal? What are you trying to achieve with the work you are doing in this community?
  3. What three concrete things does your group need the most to be able to achieve these goals?
  4. Why are you doing this work? What is your background, and what are your personal career goals?

These questions may seem simple to you, but the best and most long lasting partnerships I’ve formed have been with the companies who took the time to learn about what I was doing, and provide support in a way that helped me and my work in a way that was actually sustainable.

As a company with skin in the tech game, it should also behoove you to ensure you are supporting an inclusive community. There are many resources out there for ways to increase diversity in tech, but just as many examples of tech communities getting it wrong. If your company claims to be committed to hiring diverse engineering teams, it is imperative for you to support community groups that are also committed to promoting inclusion at their events. Conversely, you don’t want to make the faux pas of supporting a community group that is actually known to be a toxic place to be for marginalized people because the people avoiding that group will also begin to avoid your company. Here are some important questions to ask these folks before you choose to put your name behind their initiative:

  1. Do you have a code of conduct and diversity statement for your community?
  2. Do you have a policy against teachers/hosts/organizers using sexualized images, activities, or other material at your events?
  3. What strategies are you employing to ensure that your community promotes inclusion and diversity?
  4. What percentage of your speakers (say in the past 12 months) have represented a diverse group?

These questions are crucial to ensuring that your local tech community is inclusive. You are in a unique position as a potential supporter to challenge your community to be a safe space for diverse populations. Not only that, you are also saving yourself the embarrassment of accidentally tying your company’s reputation with a community that is a PR nightmare waiting to happen.

Think of Lambda Conf 2016, for example. The conference chose a keynote speaker with ties to white supremacy which caused a lot of public outcry and outreach to sponsors pleading them to drop their support. After a matter of days the conference lost almost all of their sponsors.

Checking on the inclusion and harassment policies of the communities you align yourself with before signing on would save you the later embarrassment of having to rescind your support.

Make It Easy to Request Support

I spoke with Tasha Scott of .Net DC and Code Camp NYC who said:

If your company sells tech services, you should be sponsoring tech community events. Attendees of tech community events are more likely to be dedicated to their craft and have more well-rounded insights on how to solve problems (since they’ve seen how others solve problems)…Sponsoring tech events also gives companies the potential to meet candidates face to face in a more natural environment.

How do you choose a group to support? And if there is a group in need, how difficult is it for them to reach the key people within your company that they need to reach to be able to get the TYPE of support they need? (More on types of support next.) Make it easy for these people to get what they need by putting a supportive framework in place. GitHub does a great job at this by supplying a place on their website for folks to apply for sponsorship. You could also appoint this work as a key responsibility for someone within your staff.

“At SoundCloud, their marketing team understands sponsoring the community and they set up the structures and processes to make it painless for our side,” says Jan Lehnardt of Hood.ie and CouchDB.

This extra thought and effort to make it easy to find support when you most need it and helps make the work of the community builders in your ecosystem easier. At the same time creating one point of entry gives you greater visibility into the full impact your company is having in your community.

Be Prepared to Offer More Than Just Cash

Money is a truly a wonderful thing, but sometimes it can create more headache than it’s worth. As a volunteer, having to budget and track money in and out can create a ton of extra work that you just don’t have the time to handle. So sometimes, the greatest gift someone can give you is just doing the extra legwork to take care of purchasing the things you need so that you don’t have to.

Not sure what to give? There is one constant that no tech event will ever turn down:

gif credit goes to @foxadhd

Snax! Offer to order the pizza and then call the pizza place closest to the event venue and place the order for delivery with your corporate card. No muss, no fuss, and you just made a bunch of nerds really really happy.

Here are some other great ideas for things that you can offer: space, tables, chairs, mics, wifi access, name tags, power strips, stickers, a button maker, loaner laptops, etc.

  • Be the one to coordinate the logistical stuff for the venue so that the community organizer doesn’t have to. By doing the organizational/emotional labor of reminding everyone about what their needs will be on site, you would allow the organizer to focus more fully on the content for the event.
  • Donate swag to the group so that they can gift it to their attendees. Everyone loves free stuff and you get cheap marketing with folks walking around town with your name on their gear.
  • Provide the group access to your corporate discounts when possible, book lodging for out of town speakers or event judges, or if appropriate to your business, provide them with free or discounted community/non-profit access to your services.

Think Long term

Finding ways to sustain the group long term is worth more than targeting one event (to both of you!) Unless the group truly needs to raise money for a specific goal, you can use your partnership to impact the future of the group (and help the organizers avoid burn out) by helping to sustain them long term.

“The best thing companies can do to help communities and events is to act selfless, and not look for a direct return of investment. The return always comes and usually with greater value than would have been achieved with strict ROI considerations,” says Jan Lehnardt.

One simple way of doing this could be committing to snacks once a month for a year and then coordinating drop off each month.

Another great way is to offer a dedicated space for the group to utilize whenever they want and access to an internal calendar where they can reserve the room as needed.

The greatest gift you can give to any community organizer is encouraging your employees to participate. You can help guide them by suggesting community activities that closely align to the work that your company does. You can even incentivize your employees to participate by offering paid comp time in return for attending or participating in the events of your choice. This supplies your local community organizers with volunteers, speakers, and co-organizers, which in turn strengthens the community.

Let Your Employees Participate

Credit: http://dilbert.com/strip/2009-11-16

Encouraging your employees to participate in the tech community may seem like a no brainer, but there are actually companies out there who discourage their employees from participating in the tech community. Let’s ruminate on that for a moment. Perhaps this stems from being burned in the past by prior employees leaving after attending a conference, or just plain insecurity (I want to teach them MY way.) I truthfully have NEVER heard of a happy employee being swept up by a thieving rival tech company against their will… Let’s be real here, those folks had already decided to go long before they stepped foot at that meetup.

Skilled and passionate technical workers are a precious resource to any tech company and there are endless reasons to encourage them to become part of the community. Tight on training dollars? By encouraging them to participate in their tech community they will gain knowledge, training, and productivity resources and if the events are after hours this doesn’t cost you anything! “Bonus Points: consider attendance of a tech community event as ‘training hours’ and let your employee attend on work time. You’ll be investing not only in the skill of your employees but in their work/life balance as well, while keeping impact to the training budget low,” @TashasEv.

If you take the extra time to invest in the passions of your employees, the effort pays off in dividends.

Tracy Kroop of Philadelphia, PA wrote, “In 2013, a colleague & I organized a hackathon. Our company supported us far beyond my expectations: not only did they host the group at the offices all weekend, but they fully funded the effort, including meals; covering expenses for attendee swag bags; lodging for an out of town judge; setting up a guest network and routers at the event.” Not only was Tracy offered the logistical support she needed to organize this event. She says she was also given a percentage of her time during business hours to hone the logistics.

The product of this effort and billable hours on the part of this company was that they were able to host dozens of passionate technical folks from their community and beyond within their offices and forged long lasting relationships with folks who love learning for the sake of a joy in technology.

Depending on the event, you could even offer comp time to your employee in return for them reporting back to the rest of your engineering team about what they learned from the event. Ask them to host a recap session, write a blog post, host a viewing party of one or two of their favorite talks (if the conference recorded the sessions,) or maybe even give a training on a skill they learned. They get to benefit from learning new skills and your whole team gets to benefit with a distilled version of the content they found most applicable to your company.

Rob Hale, of Burlington, VT, co-organizes @VTCodeCamp and @HackVT.

Rob Hale of Vermont Code Camp and HackVT: “I’m WAAAY more interested in building a healthy, supportive community than meeting the needs of any one employer.”

Here is the best piece of advice I’ve received for folks who sense hesitation from their managers when they mention they want to get out into the community… Don’t ask permission. You have a long career ahead of you and if your employer doesn’t have the foresight to respect your investments into your own learning and development outside of their walls, their loss. Your personal development is more important than placating your company’s ego. If you love your job, hopefully they see the benefit from your learned skills and come to support it. Either way, your employer isn’t paying for your free time.

This could mean following your passions in the evenings and weekends, or taking personal time to attend tech events. Which, with family commitments and non-tech passions, this privilege of extra time just can’t be a reality for everyone, but if you have the time/ability, the payoff WILL make the extra personal development time worth it. Lorna Mitchell describes a key benefit of being active in the tech community, “I tend to tell people that the community will help them to skill up and also make the connections for their next step.” When contributing to the tech community, you don’t only make friends, you make invaluable business connections.

In Closing…

In all truth, my goal in speaking about this topic is a selfish one. I’ve seen too many community organizers make a huge impact on their cities and then burn out like a flash in the pan because they did not get the support they needed. In feeling isolated and increasingly over invested by being solely responsible for each sold out event, these community organizers are destined to eventually burn out. Without any successor, inevitably the user group shutters and the community loses a valuable resource. I think every successful community organizer needs a break now and then and deserves to have people in their community who are willing to step in to give them that time.

As community organizers, whether the communities be virtual or IRL, we all love people in our own special ways and we have the hardest time saying no when somebody in our community says they need something. This is a blessing and a curse because, without support, we inevitably give too much and our community babies turn into monsters that consume our lives. So I challenge everyone here. If you have ever attended and enjoyed your local user group, conference, or tech community meetup, reach out to the organizer and ask them how you can help. Even if it’s just volunteer organizing one event so that they can have a month off or offering to buy the pizza for the next meetup you are planning to attend, you would be making a direct investment in the future of your local tech community and would be repaying but a small fraction of the benefit you’ve earned from these events.

At the very least, if you see these amazing people at the bar, buy them a cold one.

They earned it.

You can see me talk about this topic at a few amazing upcoming conferences: Code Daze (Buffalo NY, September 15–16, 2016), Vermont Code Camp (Burlington, VT, September 17, 2016), and Monktoberfest (Portland, ME, October 6–7, 2016.) 
You should also consider joining me at
Offline Camp California (Santa Margarita, California, November 4–7, 2016.)