On Jan 11, just prior to CodeMash, a gathering of regional community influencers was held. This summit featured a panel of four prominent influencers from different language interests, with Jeff Blankenburg moderating. The bios below greatly shortchange the panelists’ accomplishments

I’ve done my best to document the conversation, but often the words flowed quickly. Some of the comments below are paraphrased, if I’ve misquoted or misrepresented what someone said, it was inadvertent and I apologize. Drop me a line and I’ll correct it.

Jeff: What makes user group meetings or conferences special?

Joe: Passion, and an encouraging culture.

Elizabeth: Attention to detail and dedication of organizers. Community conferences are better run than company conferences. Company run conferences have less heart and less above and beyond.

Mike: Getting like minded people together outside of presentations.

David: Having good speakers over the years. The core of every meeting is the speakers.

Joe: Get extroverts involved. Bring in people who have different backgrounds but are passionate.

Jeff: Some ideas for improving user group meetings?

Elizabeth: Have people present difficulties they’re facing in a round table fashion, and attendees discuss possible solutions.

Mike: Have pizza at the end, and have networking after the meeting.

David: Pre-printed name badges with the attendee’s name and interests.

Steve Smith (audience): Hudson Software Craftsmanship has hands-on exercises at each meeting.

Bill (audience): Attendees ask questions at the beginning of the meeting, but have the answer session at the end. If you ask a question, you have to stay for the answer.

Joe: Make sure the leaders introduce themselves and that the members connect.

Mike: Other language communities share code much more than we do in the .NET community. Part of our reluctance stems from the enterprise world, where we can’t talk about intellectual property. Also, the “I don’t want to admit I suck” attitude makes it hard to share.

Jeff: Pair coders, switch every 10 minutes. Have good speakers paired to build an application together. It’s good to see respected people make the same coding mistakes, it helps overcome the “If I show you my code, you’ll laugh at me and then I have no value” feeling.

Joe: We developers will not advance past mediocrity until someone else lays their eyes on your code. On a scale of 1 to 5, anyone can go from 1 to 3 on their own, but we won’t get to 5 without others.

Audience question: Does some of the openness of other communities come from the technology? Ruby gems are plain text, but .NET is in compiled in DLLs.

Joe: No, the Java community is similar to .NET. Having a commercial entity backing the language changes things a little.

Elizabeth: Huge kudos to Python for promoting diversity in the community, and having an anti-harassment policy. The PHP community does not have such a policy in words, but it’s understood.

Joe: Kudos to CodeMash for the diversity statement on their website (note: see the anti-harassment policy at http://codemash.org/About). There are times where I wish the Ruby community had more professionalism, and times where I’m glad we don’t. Sometimes the community acts a lot like middle-schoolers, but RubyCon felt like being in a group of friends.

David: Our 2011 goal is to reach out to other user groups for joint events.

Jeff: What are some of the cool things other conferences do that make that conference unique?

Josh Holmes (audience): When Joe arranges RubyCon, he throws the conference he wants to go to. His passion bleeds through the entire conference. One unique thing is the Scotch potluck.

Joe: Harness the area you’re in, and do something unique to the area. The Scotch potluck was started by accident. The Scottish RubyCon brought in Highlanders for a sword fight.

Mike (audience): The FoxPro conferences in the 1990s didn’t end with the last session. Everyone went to the bar.

Jeff: CodeMash ends on Friday, but 20-30% of the participants stay the weekend with family.

Bart (audience): Find a good venue, like a movie theater. Determine the value of the conference to the community, and have a retrospective at the bar afterwards.

Joe: Stop going after marquee speakers. Bring in people with passion.

Bart (audience): Stir Trek writes value stories, then finds the people they want to speak.

Jeff: Stir Trek does not have an open call for speakers.

Josh Holmes (audience): There is a balance between the number of attendees and the number of tracks. There was a conference with about 800 attendees and 26 tracks. Attendance at each talk was low. Single track conferences have value.

Mike: One time a conference venue fell through, so the conference was changed to a single track, and talks went from 90 minutes to 20 minutes. Only one speaker bailed. (note: that speaker was in attendance this night and fessed up) [update 2011/02/01] Mike Wood was not involved with the conference, which was Kalamazoo X, led by Mike Eaton [/update]

Tim Wingfield (audience): Kalamazoo X is a good single track conference. The upside to a singe track conference is that everyone is having the same experience. In Chicago, there is a conference with 30 minute sessions and 20 minute breaks.

Jeff: What can be done to improve meetings or conferences?

Mike: We changed the holiday party from a bar to a game night, and attendance increased.

Audience member: Large conferences are judged completely on their content. Have speakers submit a 4-5 minute YouTube video of them presenting.

Joe: I disagree, conferences are judged based on the experience. Almost all Ruby conferences are recorded and can be viewed online. Nordic Ruby had 30 minute talks and 30 minute breaks, no Q&A during the talk—that is saved for the break. It’s a single track conference, everyone is having the same conversation in the “hallway track”.

Jeff: It’s possible to have a great conference experience without attending a single session.

Josh Holmes (audience): The #1 factor in overall conference ratings is food, so feed people well. Also, the fishbowl style of meeting works well.

Elizabeth: We had a conference at a campground with WiFi and a media room. We had talks in the morning, went hiking in the afternoon, then had campfire talks. Another time, we rented a 30-person cabin in Gatlinburg, everyone was required to give a talk.

Josh Holmes: At an Agile Summer Camp, we had no WiFi and were out of cell range. It was a great event because everyone had to pay attention and be involved.

Mike Eaton: Multiple speaker sessions.

Jeff: Multi-speaker sessions can work, but can also fail. We have one at CodeMash showing the differences in building apps for each platform—iPhone, WP7, Android. We’re building the same thing in 15 minutes.

Bill (audience): It depends on the talk. We did one on distributed version control, which worked well with a good demo.

Joe: While one presenter speaks, the other can be writing tests. These talks can bomb miserably.

Mike: People with energy can make it work.

Carrie (audience): I spoke with Phil Japikse, we had a prepared a script, but questions threw the script off. We have different strengths, so it was a very fun session because it is what people wanted.

Phil Japikse (audience): It was a three hour talk, and we could bounce between each other’s strengths. At Cincinnati Agile Conference, the 70 minute slot doesn’t lend itself to two people unless it must be two people.

Audience member: A talk on getting along with the vendor, where a DBA and the vendor co-present.

Josh Holmes (audience): If the two people’s skills are well aligned, it will be more boring. It’s better if they have different opinions.

Jeff: One of the most important things we’re able to do this week is to get in the same room with all these people and network.

Jeff’s last comment ended the session, and then it was time for socializing and networking. I hope these notes are useful to someone looking for ideas to improve user group meetings.