If you are a developer and work at a large company I would like to share with you several reasons why you should start a meetup. Noticing a lack of events and forums where developers could talk about front end development and all things related at my company, I came up with an idea to hold a meetup and commit myself to six months of hosting it.
I got myself a trusted partner to help out with recording audio, video, taking pictures and to setup and breakdown the event. We booked the room for six months straight and our goal was to bring developers in our company closer together and help to build new relationships that would not have existed without the meetup. We had a rough format that we could stick to, that was to have two guest speakers each night. One would be a guest from the community, the other a Tesla developer or the host (myself) would speak along side the guest.
Understanding a meetup’s value
The greatest benefit was the ability for our front-end developers to engage with our guests who were leaders in the industry about topics that they might not have been able to find someone to talk with on their team or in their department.
Most attendees walked away gaining a new network of individuals that we could reach out to for information, or to provide expertise in a area of technology that we were learning for the first time. The speakers we were bringing in were either developer advocates or just really approachable people, so after just a few meetups we had new lines of communication setup through different members of the community which to this day we still value these relationships. One of our team is now using Bazel after communicating back and forth with one of the Angular Developer Advocates we brought out who put us in touch with the Bazel team directly. One of our attendees heard about the build tool at our meetups and engaged with the team directly to become more knowledgeable about the product for use on his own team.
Along with creating new relationships outside of Tesla, I also became aware of developers inside Tesla that I was meeting for the first time, but worked on similar projects or technologies as me. Meeting these folks opened up an opportunity for me to sit on a weekly design meeting for an in-house CSS framework we were building.
The value is a two way street for the guests we brought out as well, I believe that our guests also found value from learning how Tesla developers were thinking about problems on the front end and provided feedback on certain tools that we used. This was solid information they could take back to their organization to help cater their products more towards enterprise and large companies. Meetups usually turn out to be a win-win on everyone’s part because it focuses on learning.
Be consistent in location and notifications
Most companies have space for you to hold meetups like regular meeting rooms, training rooms, or a cafe. Hopefully finding a place to hold your meetup is easy at your place of business because it beats trying to find a public space. And it won’t cost much if you do it at your company.
Take my advice on keeping the meeting room and times consistent. If you are not consistent, you will make it hard for people to attend. You need to provide a regular scheduled meeting preferably at the same time and place every week or month. Give plenty of notice when this info changes. It doesn’t really matter if you are holding a private or public meetup, it’s imperative to provide a schedule that is easy to remember and takes place at relatively the same time and place. Also think about if you need to avoid periods where teams are releasing software, also avoiding the end of the week and the beginning and end of the month if you feel those are very hectic times for your teams.
We chose a training room that had been used to do similar meetings in the past. Every single month the door was open and we had people in the room ahead of time with an inviting smell of food and drinks ready for everyone. They could rely on the meeting being in this place every month. Sending out a reminder the week before and day of as well as doing a good job of announcing our guests for the next meetup and why their talk would be interesting is very important.
Creating the right niche is necessary
Think about what topics and technologies you could see yourself explaining or talking about, be aware of what technologies your company is using widely, these are usually good places to start. It’s a good idea to conceptualize what that common thread will be in your meetup and build the premise and idea to shape the marketing of your meetup around it. For our meetup we wanted to promote front end technologies or software design in general. This was a bit to generic of an idea and we quickly pivoted to talks specifically around Angular and React component development. State management was also a big topic in this space.
The community we seek to create as meetup organizers is a microcosm of a larger network of developers in your region or at your large company. Understanding that community is what is beneficial to your meetup. Get out and attend other meetups before trying your own because doing this first will help you understand the larger community and maybe what’s missing or what’s not being done correctly, this will help you to build your micro community. Getting this part right could mean success or failure in attendance. Getting it wrong could mean several weeks or months of poor attendance until you figure it out. I have faith in you though, and if you stick to it, iterate and improve, just like we do our software, you will figure it out and start to see your meetup grow in attendance.
Within a few months we already had about 50 people coming to each event. Our max was just over 80 people and this felt like a very healthy number considering our rooms size and the fact that a few months ago 80 people were not getting in a room and talking about front end development at our company. This really helped our teams understand concepts and patterns they were struggling with. We encouraged many developers to start thinking about better state management and using observables and Redux as these were the majority of the topics I would get questions on or be asked to do a presentation on.
Make everyone feel comfortable
You need to prepare from the beginning to be accommodating to all attendees. Of course have snacks and drinks available, comfortable seating, high quality video presentation, but also you could stream the event to further your reach to individuals who cannot make it to the room every night. Make sure that you let attendees know that if they have suggestions or would like to contribute or speak to contact you or make it easy for them to do so. This will make them more willing to engage with the speakers and the host. Be cognizant of larger issues such as diversity in the workplace and extend this idea to your guest speakers as well. Creating guidelines on how language will be used, what topics we may want to steer clear of as well as topics that may severely offend those of other sexes or minority groups should be understood and treated with respect and professionalism. Just use good judgement.
Similar to the Angular Code of Conduct, we had a code of conduct that as speakers we adhered to and talked about before our meetings. Understanding how speakers and attendees should act and how to make others feel inclusive was very important to us. I believe having a mini version of this code of conduct or adopting it’s values is a great idea. It is something that may only take a few seconds or a minutes to remind people of at the beginning or end of your meetings, but it may go along way in setting the tone for how others act and interact during a meetup.
Another area we tried to help people feel welcome was by soliciting feedback and asking for ideas on future talks and if there was anything they would like to hear about or if we could change anything about the meetup or whom we invited. Although we did not get a ton of feedback, the info we did receive helped us to provide better content each month and think of topics and ideas that we would otherwise have not thought about.
Use geography and networking to your advantage
From day one I took advantage of my geography being located in the Silicon Valley area. Getting the word out and finding people to help present at our meetups was easier than when I tried running meetups in other cities, so I took advantage of this. Each month we have been lucky enough to find a speaker from outside the company to provide intermediate level talks of great value for seasoned developers. We also had a chosen a fellow developer from our organization each month to give a beginner level talk. I did a lot of these talks but I also opened this slot up to anyone who wanted to speak at the next event. The variation of levels in talks on the same night helped to make sure that everyone was getting something valuable out of each meeting.
When it came to booking speakers, I learned that if you want something, just ask for it. By not being afraid to ask and reaching out to individuals that are well known in the community, I was able to get some well known speakers, then I just had to come up with a good presentation to go along with their topic. These names that are widely known in the community will help to ensure you get a better turnout also. Then we could pair them with one of our guys and it would be a great experience for the developer getting up there for his first time. Treat one of your speaking slots almost like an open mic night.
Community service builds career and confidence
Running this meetup made me step outside of my comfortability zone many times. Asking people I looked up to in the community to speak, committing to a difficult topic or code demo, hosting the meetups and introducing guests, working with the A/V department, interacting with guests and attendees and speaking in public. Those are just a few of the things required of a host. By committing to these events and duties I have definitely come out of the first six months more polished as a speaker, less terrified when talking to a group of people and more confident in my ability to talk about my craft.
This is a positive change I have gone through and I feel it has advanced my career somewhat. It’s mostly because I put myself in situations where I had to make something happen each month and strive to do better each meetup. I also know that by sharing my experience, maybe someone else might decide to do the same. Hopefully if you do it, you will have as much fun and grow like I did during the process.
Each meetup you will need to have an email template that you can easily make small changes to the speaker’s names and topics. The date and times need to be correct (I have messed this up once or twice). Practicing sending that email and ensuring that it shows up as intended in different email providers like Gmail, Outlook and others is super important, this will only need to be done once and then you can just change that template each meetup.
Create signage and directions, because although we printed good instructions to our meeting, we felt it was very important to print out a few signs to point people in the direction of the room. You don’t’ want someone getting discouraged because they can’t find your room.
Ensuring that your flyers and emails have a similar look and feel that is consistent is just as important as holding the meetup in the same place each time. Use good layout techniques and grid design to make the information look professional. If the meetup is large enough you may want to think about printing actual flyer.
Provide a point of contact
Provide a phone number and email in case someone needs to contact you with questions. Being a work related meetup I always had my information and cell number at the bottom of our flyers just in case someone needed it.
Taking a break
After a successful six month run, I have a newfound respect for other meetups and the work it takes to organize and hold an event that contributes value to a group of engineers. I learned a lot from this first attempt and plan to take this knowledge with me to any company that I work at.
Running a meetup can get quite demanding of your time, so knowing when to step away or have someone to take the lead for a few months is a really good idea (tip from my wife). Prepare these breaks as part of the schedule. Make sure the people you have working with you are reliable and willing to help out and give you a break now and then. Just like a job, it’s demanding and takes time away from life, family and friends. You may even get your company to allow you to do preparations and meetings during work hours and if you can show it is of benefit to co-workers and helping teach new engineering concepts. Most companies will probably be more than willing to chip in and help you succeed, mine was.
Finally I want to thank everyone involved in my meetups from the speakers to the attendees. When each of us take the time out to attend or speak it’s valuable time and I appreciate everyone who gave up an hour or two to come and listen to our speakers and I hope that they found tremendous value doing so.