Note: This article was originally published on the october/2011 issue of php-architect. If you like it keep a close eye on the Community Column in the magazine, where I get the chance to write alongside other awesome community people.
Vacuums are a very interesting part of physics. From the latin vacuum means “empty”, basically describing an empty space, which is very similar to what happens to an area where there is not a User Group present. Its empty, its PHP developers are looking for support and sharing their ideas in some other place, probably even neighboring user groups. This does not mean the talented people are not there, it really means that they are not taking full advantage of their potential and getting to know each other.
Some developers may notice this absence of “particles” and interaction between them in their local area, this may even cause them enough of an itch that it needs to be scratched, and thus a User Group starts forming. But how hard is it to start a group? Can anyone do it? what really am I going to have to do to get all these particles into my vacuum and end this “empty space” in my region?
Well that’s where a different characteristic of vacuums come in, suction. You probably remember this from school, vacuum containers are always trying to implode, the explanation is quite simple, a vacuum causes a lower pressure inside its container, and matter has a tendency to move into lower pressure areas trying to equalize the environment, this causes suction.
What does that mean for User Groups? Well the same applies, this vacuum of community activity causes a lower pressure environment and eventually it will start sucking in new contributors, new developer and generate more and more activity. As Kevin Costner said in that long ago movie “Build it and they will come”, that is very true for starting new communities, you just need to give the first few steps and very soon, you will not be walking alone anymore.
The firsts steps are always simple, your first objective should be to find developers in you area, give them a place to discuss, to get together. Its easier if you start this virtually, create a forum or a discussion list. Somewhere they can trade their ideas and get opinions. Of course just creating this is not enough, you need to make people aware of this list, its much like applying heat to particles. Back to school, do you remember what heat was to matter and how it spread? Let me remind you, its all about movement. Heat causes one molecule to start moving more then usual, which makes it bump into another which then bumps into another and pretty soon everyone is bouncing around like bumper cars in a circus.
The same principle will spread your virtual meeting place. Talk to one developer, your co-worker for example, tell him to tell his friends who are also developers. This will start the chain reaction, but don’t stop there, look for companies that have PHP developers, find them in job boards, talk to recruiters, just get the word out. As much as recruiters can be a pain, good recruiters will love to have a place to find out the names of new PHP developers, so they will actively broadcast your meeting place. After you have a lively group in your virtual meeting place, take it to real life, suggest a meeting at a pub, or if you got someone interested in speaking, host a talk at a local company.
One thing will lead to another, all the entropy and vacuum talk we did before will start applying, activity will start bringing in new contributors and before you know it, you have and active User Group in your hands. Even better, you are not alone, leaders from around the world are out there ready to give you ideas and help you kickoff new activities in your group. Come join the talk at https://wiki.php.net/usergroups.
Also, this is not a one man job, count on your members at least one of them will have the “built of a leader”, bring him on board. As I said in my first column, we are not Leaders, we are just cat herders and temporary, we will come and go, but the group needs to stay. So share responsibility, look for partners and sponsors, recruiters can be very good partners, if they respect the limits imposed by you. Local companies will probably also be looking for talent, so taking the event to their headquarters is even better then handing them a resume or giving them a job board to advertise spots, all they need to do is open their door and pay attention, surely they will be glad to help.
These are all lessons I learnt from the past, I have actively participated in the creation of two User Groups and this is how it started. Every group will find its own sweet spot on how meetings are held and how its managed, I remember participating at the community panel at php|tek one year with my colleagues from this column and answering questions about each of our user groups and how they worked. I was really intrigued to see that each one had its own quirks, but all of them shared similar starts or building blocks. And it was during this panel that another batch of them started. This shows how much its important to share, especially with new groups. We do this very actively in Brazil where all the user group leaders are in a mailing list that we use to talk to each other and share ideas, possible sponsors, plans and tips.
So, do you think you are ready to start a User Group in your area? Wait, there is one already? Well awesome, are you there? Are you helping? Why not? Come join the fun, being in a user group and participating is a very good, professionally and personally, you are not just helping others, you are learning, teaching and expanding you set of tools. Come join us! .. oh and I promise, no more physics lessons!