It take a village…

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It’s hard to write a letter that compresses almost six year of involvement into an essay. I thought long and hard on what to write, and I can really go into many tangents and there are, oh so many, topics that I want to dive in… but in all, the purpose of this letter is to say “Thank you”. Life is made of little accidents, that, sometimes, end up creating big things. And today we’ll talk about these accidents.

Let’s start at the end, Until June 1st, I was the President of the Chicago Java Users Group (referred affectionately as CJUG). A group that has been around for more than 20 years. To be fair, I wasn’t the president for these past 25 years. In reality I probably have been president for around 4 non-contiguous years (my involvement started in 2012). This is because CJUG has a term policy on presidents (you can only be the President for at most 2 consecutive years, then someone else needs to runs for office). This, of course, is deliberate, like many decisions we took, and the most salient reasons is to prepare the group to what came next.


Photo by oakie on Unsplash

I’m moving to Seattle to work in a new project in Expedia Group. The moving date is eminent, and that means I will not be able to keep my presidency hat. I’m proud to say, while this could be a dead knell for many communities (not just JUGs), it really isn’t for CJUG (read to the end to see why).

Of course while I’m excited of going to Seattle, I’m extremely emotional about leaving the group; and for good reasons, the CJUG leadership let’s say… not too happy of me leaving (at least they remind me about that with buying the cheapest tequila shot every time we are an at event…and that’s probably just because most bars don’t stock malort).

But, in all it’ll be fine. (For those who know me, that’s a phrase that I usually say “oh yeah… it’s…fiiinnne”). But it is… Since we rotated positions and had a diverse board everyone knows how to run the organization. In fact, I’m expecting great things of our new CJUG President, Janine Patterson, as she can see beyond what I could ever see since she doesn’t have my historical chains of rebooting up the organization. It is said that the next generation can advance farther just because they don’t carry the emotional baggage of the previous one… I’ll be cheering for you!

And a reboot it was! Back in 2012, after coming from my second (or third? can’t remember JavaOne), there was a big message being pushed by Stephen Chin and others… Get involved in your community, go back to your city and help your local Java Community grow. And me taking that message as gospel I went back and attended the first meetings of CJUG

At the time, the group was in a downturn. Some meetings would be attended by five or six people, on which two were board members, and the other two were recruiters. The past president of CJUG relocated (and made a language switch from Java to Ruby), so those left behind were a little disheartened by it. I just arrived the day that the group was electing a new president, and while a part of me thought that would be neat for me to throw my name in that hat, that would have been a very bold for a newcomer. And thus, I started helping as a member.

A nascent JUG (or even one that tries to restart grow) requires a lot of effort. Most of it involving putting a working structure (we all were using different emails for communicating) and figuring out processes (who is going to be in charge of confirming the venues). The work is by no means hard, but it is long. And as a newcomer it was doubly hard as I didn’t have the authority to make decisions but depended on the current leadership to do so.

Our president at the time was shell-shocked by the amount of work he was asked to confirm or engage. While the policy and procedures were not drafted by him, he still needed time to read, understand, and then approve since the President had the final say on all these decisions. He told me that the group had very little leadership activity and mostly it included just sending two emails a month. To have someone (or someones) pushing the envelope was becoming too much for him.

For those other User Groups that feel the above pain, the best way to relief the pressure is to just let it go. CJUG grew as far as it has based on trust. Board members and officers decisions don’t need to go through “review”, but instead each is free to advance our CJUG mission statement (which, when used correctly, is really makes thing simple).

Trust that your board members and officers are making decisions with the above guidance, and a President (or czar, or leader) doesn’t need to worry about being the last word on every decision. They can still ask for opinions but they don’t need to.


Great accidents

At this juncture we enter one of our first life neat accidents. At one of our first events (it was at the Federal Reserve Java Meetup in Chicago) I met Bob Paulin, newly minted consultant, ready to take over the world. He had presented for CJUG before on a dare from the past president, so I asked him to double down and become a mentor in our mentorship program.

We traded some beers, with a side of war stories, and we came to have a good rapport. We figured we both wanted to grow the Java community and that it was something that we could nurture. If you ever see Bob and me, we would look like the oddest friends. Bob is an ex-football player, corn-fed true and through mid western. I don’t look sporty at all, but takes to playing music and loves to talk to anyone (and yeah, forget about personal space when I’m around).

From: Freddy Guime
To: CJUG Board
Date: 3/8/2013
“I propose Bob Paulin to join the board. He’s an J2EE and integration guru and is a listed and active Mentor in the Mentorship program. His bio can be found at https://web.archive.org/web/20130118152426/http://cjug.org/mentorship-program/mentors/"

Running into Bob has probably been the most influential event for CJUG. It’s funny because talking to my wife and just wondering how we achieved that much growth with CJUG, she, matter-of-factly, said “that’s because Bob keeps you on track”. As my wife saw my dumbfounded look on my face, she explained (as you would a five year old). “Ok, so you come with great plans and are not afraid to reach out and try impossible things, but you run out of steam after two weeks. Bob might not come with all those ideas, but once he’s convinced about it, he will do them and drive you to make sure that you complete it. He will not let you quit it, or get distracted until both of you do it, or is a bust”

And is true, like a great football player, he relentlessly created a path for us to push forward. At points when I was about to quit, or was tired that things might not be coming to fruition, Bob was there to egg me (and others) on. At the same time I was there to ask for the impossible (“let’s submit a Call-For-Papers to J1 on community”, “let’s try mentorship”, “let’s create a newscast on Java”, “I’ll reach out to the City of Chicago”). And that’s… a big secret of running a great organization

It might be a trite and tired comment, but it applies. We all have our areas of strength, and now I’m convinced you can’t be “everything for everyone at the same time”. If you find someone who you “click” with, and to top it off, this person complements your area of strength then they are golden and you should work with partnering with them.

May 10, 2013 Newsletter
We got 210 CJUG members in Meetup, (the .NET user group has 330).
Come on, I know there are much more Java developers, CJUG Needs you! Spread the word, forward this email to your developer’s distribution list. Shout “CJUG is Awesome” from the top of your cubicle (or office), mention it casually at cocktail parties (“hey, I’m member of the Chicago Java Users Group, they are a fancy bunch”), add it to your email signature (“CJUG Member”), share with students, professors, your local barista. Let everyone know (and sign) to our Meetup group at http://www.meetup.com/ChicagoJUG/

On Curmudgeons and steady hands

Michael Minella’s first presentation was pretty fun. CJUG was still young at the time (as an organization going through a reboot), and I was introducing him. A funny anecdote is that I was winging his introduction, and, for those in the audience I came across as a childhood friend of his. Even though, at the time I have just met him for less than a week. He did have a puzzled face (with a smile) and took it as gracefully as he could.

Michael became a centerpiece for CJUG in that he was always the “Factual” voice of the group. Even when there were emotional moments, or quick reactions to challenges, Michael took two steps back, read the situation as an detached third-party and resetted our viewpoints, to then come with a better course of action. He would read and interpret bylaws, and would even talk to those who Bob and I couldn’t even reach. Like the Sweden of CJUG, he had that steady perspective, and his influence still rings in the corpus of our bylaws.

As luck would have it, Michael also got involved in the podcast we now run, JavaOffHeap. Within the podcast he’s one of our pundits who always calls it like it is. Typically unrestrained in his opinion, he will make sure on the radio that you know where he stands. And that’s where his curmudgeon nickname came about.

His other contributions to the CJUG are many. From Meeting Director, to Board Advisor, to (Lazy) Secretary, and, of course, as our Spring/Pivotal liaison. I recalled that at one particular time, he was about to resign from the board; CJUG was going through trying times. I pleaded for him to stay just for another month, and I promised that things would get better. I was convinced that without his help, CJUG would disband. I can’t thank him enough for taking the chance, and sticking it out. I could say with confidence that, his decision to stay is one of the events that defined the outcome of CJUG.

If I were to introduce Mike again, I wouldn’t need to wing it anymore to say that he’s a great friend, that CJUG is indebted to him, that I can’t thank him enough for his support in all times, and would never hesitate to help, or ask for help to him. He has,and will always be our favorite curmudgeon.

On 3/30/2014 12:15 AM, Michael Minella wrote:
Did I miss something or did we break that 800 person barrier recently (meetup has us at 803)? :)
Michael
On Mar 30, 2014, at 9:10 AM, Bob Paulin <bob.paulin@cjug.org> wrote:
Yes we did! Meetup should really build some notifications around that. Huge accomplishment.
- Bob

Finding those relentless allies

Cedric Hurst was hit by a (literal) bus. Luckily, he survived; and after that experience he started his own company (to avoid the dreaded “bus factor”, even though I suspect if he were to be hit by another bus…). I have rarely met someone who is a business owner but still incredibly involved in the development community (Martinj Verbung would be another rare example). Cedric brings such a different perspective and is uncompromising on how to help for the community. While other business owners would be thinking that time and money might be spent better elsewhere, Cedric doubles down because he believes that growing a community is not just a great move for Spantree, but is something he really, deeply believe in (His sense of community).

Every time you come to CJUG, if you see a camera in the back recording the session, make sure to thank Cedric. He is the one who made all that happen seamlessly. I tried for a long time to record sessions, and it wasn’t until Cedric came in that it became what it is today.

Back in the day (just before Cedric joined), we didn’t have that much of a “coffer” for CJUG, so we tried recording sessions on the cheap. The setup required like five or six pieces of hardware that were all a mismatch of technologies (vga splitter, vga-to-video converter, video capture card, laptop to capture video, lapel mics, splitter for capturing another audio source). I felt like Dr Kevorkian setting up all that equipment, and of course, it barely worked. If you want to see the results, just go to our old youtube channel. At the time the hardware to make it all work seamlessly was around 5,000$ and we didn’t have that kind of budget to record these. It was thanks to Cedric’s (and Spantree’s) involvement that these Rube Goldberg machine of components is happily collecting dust in a CJUG bin.


About Culture and making mistakes

While a community group is technically not the same as a company, there are certain things we do share. One of them is “culture fit” on your leadership. It’s so important to make sure that those who run the community are very well aligned in the purpose and mission of such community. It doesn’t matter too much if there is difference in approaches (say someone wants to be more hands-on labs vs more sessions), but there is a breaking point where if the values of the leadership are inconsistent or different, it brings a group to a halt.

The CJUG went through such a phase where the leadership were split on what was important. It created a very divisive environment, and if it was not for the belief of Bob, Michael, Cedric (and countless others) on community first, the CJUG would’ve probably shriveled four years ago. And that brings us to a cautionary tale.

The mistake that CJUG made was, to invite a member to the leadership that were, not a “culture fit”, but were at the same time relentless on his approach. These two created a very tense board. It got to a point where politics were being played (on such a small organization). The CJUG board, at his bequest ballooned to around 30 people, which were all his acquaintances (to run a 300 member organization), and worst of all, out of the 30, only the same four (Bob, Cedric, Michael, and I), and an outlier were actively engaged in the organization. And while the other 26 were doing very little, they have as much vote and say as the ones that were working daily. So a lot of decisions and votes, while we wouldn’t agree, were simply overruled as the other 26 members voted the way this person wanted.

At some day I’ll write a Caper novel around it, but suffice to say having a board with that many people is both unnecessary and unproductive. It took a lot of time and patience requiring the board to either engage into the growth of CJUG, or to step down. After half a year we managed to trim the board to something more manageable (we sit now at 8 board members for an organization with 2500 users).

So the morale of the story is to do a “step program” for volunteers. Let people help first, talk to you, get them to know better, and see where they stand. After working with them for a little while, invite them over on smaller roles, and then eventually, as they grow and learn the ropes of the organization, let them take the reins in larger responsibilities.

The next Generation

After a while, once we managed to put enough thought to the organization (and re-aligned the board under a common vision), we became much more effective. CJUG managed to concentrate its time into growing the membership, bringing great content, build the community and really work in earnest on whatever was necessary. As part of the board realignment, there was a schism with the user group. The board member that didn’t like or wanted CJUGs new alignment decided to open its own Java User Group. And well, while not ideal, that’s better than letting the group shrivel-up (and that’s the reason there are two java user groups in Chicago).

As we managed to pick some new allies (Hi Tonya!), we deepen our roots with the Java Community by attending java related conferences, speaking at them, and exchanging contact info. It’s impressive how much you can achieve by reaching out and talking to people.

If you are a budding user group
The best, and quickest way to get great content and speakers to your group is to attend a local or regional java-related conference. If you do, attend sessions, and if you like them, go talk to the speaker. Let them know that you enjoyed the session, and, most importantly, exchange info and invite them to speak to your user group. It’s impressive the times that you will get an “Sure…” or “of course” to such a request.
Most speakers just don’t know who is out there wanting to hear their story, so once you let them discover you, they will do their best to reach out!

As the user group grows, we noticed some regulars that came to our meetups (is important to remember those recurring faces). Not just that they were regulars, but they approached us saying “how can we help”. When someone (anyone) volunteers like that, it’s your duty as a leader to encourage and nurture that goodwill.

Most volunteers already know that there is no money in volunteering, just a sense of doing “good” for the community. So you want to make it as welcoming and easy as possible for them to engage and participate. While there are some benefits (getting invited at conferences, the ability to present on your topics of interest, knowing potential employers at a personal level), most don’t engage as they don’t even know that there actually are benefits, or that they can actually “help”

Todd G.
Member since:
February 14, 2015
What initiatives would you like our CJUG to pursue
Become the best and most vibrant JUG in the US.
What topics would like covered in our presentations
Anything people find interesting and want to talk about.
Would you like to help our organization?
Yes! I am one of the Office Hours mentors.
Introduction
Java developer working in the finance space. I enjoy learning new things and meeting new people, so say “hi!” if you see me!

Todd Ginsberg is a success story. He is probably one of the few naturally gifted presenters I have seen. We were running lighning talks for our group members (an easy way to grow presenters) as we were trying to create A-class Chicago speakers. Within the CJUG we believe that we have great speakers here, just that they are undiscovered. To lure them out, we did a Randy Pausch “head fake”, and setup a lightning talk schedule and encourage everyone to present.

Todd took the bait, and prepared a 5 minute presentation for our lightning talks session. (I believe it was on Java 8’s Optional). His delivery, pace, and knowledge was outstanding (others did very well, even so you can see that Todd was just further ahead as a speaker). When we asked if he presented before, we were surprised that he didn’t. Bob and I have been lucky to seen many presenters in big stages like JavaOne, or DevNexus or GoTo Chicago, and Todd was already better than some professional speakers we ran into. To be able to pull that little presentation to such a degree of polish showed us what we were looking for (a homegrown class A speaker).

We kept challenging Todd to get involved with our group, and to keep submitting and honing his skills as a presenter. CJUG has become even better ever since. Todd has a knack for JVM languages and he is aware of what’s going on many aspects of Java and JVM ecosystem. Sometimes I would miss JVM breaking news, or Bob would miss JVM breaking news, but Todd keeps tabs on all.

One of the hardest steps of becoming a speaker is understanding that you have “something to say”. After all, you learned from someone (or someones) and sometimes you feel that, well “I don’t need to say anything as I learned from others already. What’s the point of me talking about something that’s already out there?”. The reality is that while yes, content might not be unique, there is always space for instructors, and that intro sessions are extremely valuable for those that learn best by participating and engaging in a conference session or JUG meetup. To be a great speaker is not about coming with “unique” content. It really is about being a storyteller. Take Venkat (who is considered the gold standard for presenting). He doesn’t really presents on new content, but he takes old content and reshapes it into a great story. He doesn’t need to have published a paper in a journal, but instead he just figures out what’s interesting to tell from what we know, and packages in a way most can understand.

Now Todd is submitting CFP to major conferences and some (gasp!) are asking him to come and present. We predict that six years from now Todd will be a recognized speakers and will have a large following (you should start following him now).

Hello -
My full name is Mary Grygleski (registered as Mary G). Please add me to your list for Security at Orbitz.
Thanks,
Mary

When Mary introduced herself to us she was one of our regulars in our Meetups. She is very deferential and respectful, but works so hard helping us out, that you would think it was her full time job. And she does it without even calling attention to it.

Sometimes organizations are lucky enough to get a volunteer that brings a solid, stable foundation. These volunteers are not flashy, or attract the limelight, or are loud, but instead they care deeply for the organization by making sure that everything is running smoothly. For us, that rockbed has been Mary. Is there an event coming up? We are certain that if there’s a problem that Mary can’t solve, she’ll let us know well in advance. Do we need to reach out to a speaker on a certain timeframe? Mary makes sure to remind us about it. She’ll take the work to do it as well, so just don’t get “oh…should someone contact x”, but instead you get “maybe we should contact X… I can send an email”. She will take most of the “busywork” as we see it, and that’s as important, actually, is more important that the flashiness or relationship building. Without a venue, food, communication to the community, and coordination with the Speakers we don’t have a meeting. Mary makes sure these are in place.

She has grown so much and (with some encouragement) is now creating a presence in the Java Community. She has been accepted at OracleCode One (and other conferences) and has been talking with the likes of Heather, Yolande, Sharat and Tonya. Now pursuing her passion as an advocate. CJUG is extremely lucky to have her.

— — -

Hi gents,
I’d like to thank you for letting us host last nights talk, it was a blast! Looking forward to doing this again some time soon. Next time we will offer beer to everyone…
I was wondering if you had any good pictures you could share with me from the event for our social media? Also please let me know when the video of the talk goes on-line.
Jonathan Ross

There are some people that carry with them the feel that they “always been there”. Even though Jonathan Ross joined our crew two years ago, it feels that he was already an old friend from years hanging out. Professionally there are few peers for Jonathan. He’s an astounding performance engineer that can hold his own against JVM luminaries. The best part, he’s so humble about it that you wouldn’t know that you are talking to a jvm / performance expert.

He is the one that help us realize to not take things too seriously and that at the end of the day we are here to follow our passion for community, but to enjoy the ride as well. I have to say that I tended to be suspicious of people from the financial industry (as they sometimes have not been transparent, that industry sometimes changes people), but Jonathan is honest to goodness as transparent as can be. He enjoys being part of the group and just wants to help out the community, and play music in the process (he’s an accomplished musician, and I’ve been lucky to share the stage with him).

Jonathan not only brings that sense of “fun” to the group, but he represents Chicago in that large Java stage as an unparalleled expert. Can’t wait to see how his name and influence keeps growing :).


Long Live the Queen

On Jun 29, 2016, at 10:58 AM, Patterson, Janine wrote:
Hi Freddy,
I’d like to introduce you to Travis Hampton, a Software Manager here at GE Digital Transportation. He is interested in hosting a future CJUG event in the 500 W Monroe office in the future. I look forward to the next CJUG meeting!
Thanks,
Janine Patterson

We end up our tour of CJUG past and present with our current president, Janine. Janine came through us (like many other volunteers) by accident. We needed to find a space for a presentation and she reached out and talked to us. Another technologist, she is excited talking and attending our talks. A great trait that she possesses is that she will try things that many would be afraid of, and just roll with it.

When she kick-started office hours, Bob and I were worried about it being successful, since we have tried at least two times to jump start it (in the form of mentorship, and also as an after-event open office hours). We ran mentorship like doctor appointments where you select which mentor to talk to, and when. While we did have some that came and talked to us, it really never took off the way we wanted.

Janine came in and did a couple of very novel things. First, she made “office hours” a recurring meeting, with a set time for people to come in, and then she added a “tutorial” topic for the office hours. The ingenious part is that the tutorial topics weren’t new or original content. These were tutorials that were already available on the internet. The office hours then took shape of “If you have a specific problem, come and talk to us. Or if you are just curious and want to have a Lab Assistant as you go through the planned exercise, that’s fine too”. We got people that would have never walked into our Meetings because the bar suddenly became much lower. Just come and do things on your own, and if you get stuck, or have a question, go ask Janine or Todd.

One of the last presentations I saw from her was a lightning talk titled “The Bus Factor”. In the talk, I’m the worst bus driver, and Bob, and Cedric all suffered an untimely fate! Even so, the presentation highlighted the biggest strengths that CJUG has, the one I’m so proud of, and the reason why I’m so confident that CJUG will become much larger in the future.

CJUG is made of many volunteers. I have been lucky to have found each and every one of these volunteers. We shared something special, we bonded over the organization, working through almost-insurmountable problems, extending our reach to new CJUG members, giving back to the community and help create the new geeks of the future with our children’s conferences. We really, really care about this group and what it represents.

We have a bus factor of 7, possibly 10. I wish all groups to be as lucky, and this is what makes me proud. I only highlighted just a small share of volunteers and I’m not doing justice to all the others that have helped (Jeff Palmer and Ramani, Amrita, Lamar, Paul, Nick, Nicole, Brian, Ray, and many, many others).

Now you have seen a little of what CJUG looks like from the inside. It’s built by people that have no other compensation than just giving back and paying it forward. If you happen to see them in the meetings or events, just make sure to say “thanks”. We tend to take them for granted, and to be honest they are not. And if you want to be a part of what I see as the best organization for the Java professional, then reach out to them. The organization, and they, have a way of taking residence in your heart,

As they have done in mine.

Freddy

Past CJUG President (2018)