As an IT Manager how much do you know about your local User Groups? Do you know what takes place at meetings? Do you know the value that they provide? Do you know how UG’s are run? Do you know any of the UG officers? Do you know if any of your employees are members of UG’s? Do you encourage membership and possibly fund it if necessary? Do you know the importance of your direct or indirect support? If you said no to any of these questions then either you or your employees or both are missing out. UG’s are an important component of a vital and healthy IT industry and Microsoft has recognized that. So by way of introduction (part 1 of a 2 part series about UG’s) I would like to describe how VANTUG operates and is evolving. This is timely since this year VANTUG is celebrating its 10th anniversary, which is a creditable achievement for a UG.
When I took over as President 5 years ago I was quite new myself to the UG scene and wasn’t sure what to expect. I had always been used to taking a business like approach to any undertaking, including volunteer positions. Was I in for a shock! It wasn’t that the people on the VANTUG Board weren’t serious about or committed to good intentions but organized they weren’t!
Board Meetings were “fun” but not too productive. There wasn’t really any plan or clear objectives. We could not continue that way, and survive and prosper. Circumstances inevitably change and it is better to be equipped for change than let it dictate your fate; and change it did! In VANTUG’s case it is also appropriate to consider the relationship with Microsoft. When I joined VANTUG we only dealt with the local Vancouver office. As far as I could tell they had always been supportive by helping to fund events and come up with the ever popular SWAG.
To be successful I knew that we had to run VANTUG just like any small not for profit organization with the added challenge that everyone was a volunteer. This meant facing all of the same issues that any business faces. We could no longer just be a bunch of geeks eating pizza and drinking beer (BTW we still do some of that – the good old days haven’t been lost of forgotten)! My first task was to look at the “staff” and their roles. Most of the people were very solid and I am pleased to say many are still on the Board today. However, a couple had to go. Unlike the normal business world, I couldn’t just fire them. In one case the individual could see that things were changing and moved on. Unfortunately, in the other case the situation became rather ugly and in the end required the Board to take a vote. Now was the time to recruit some fresh blood and discuss roles.
To be successful the Board of any organization needs to be singular in purpose and yet diverse in opinion and character. The individuals, whilst likely being very different in personality, must “fit” within the “culture” of the group. At first, the apparent “laissez-faire” atmosphere of Board Meetings I found to be a quite frustrating. Eventually I realized that I was never going to get a “totally serious” atmosphere (the nature of the IT animal) and that I had to aim for a compromise whereby I had to adapt somewhat myself. That’s pretty much where we are today. The importance of this is that the “culture” must be very seriously considered when contemplating replacing or adding a Board Member regardless of the “value” that they might bring. A poor choice will likely lead to future disruption and possibly unpleasantness.
Shortly after I took over as President, VANTUG went through its most challenging period for survival. It was around the time that the IT industry in Vancouver really hit bottom. Our membership numbers were going down steadily. Despite the fact that a UG is a good place to network for jobs, we couldn’t attract members. I suspect that this was because most of the people at the meetings were out of work and those that had jobs were working like stink to keep them. We were at serious risk of not surviving, at least in our present form. Then serendipity took a hand. Policy changes within Microsoft regarding support of UG’s helped to provide incentives for people to join UG’s and those policy changes basically saved VANTUG! Microsoft was not aware of our situation; hence my reference to serendipity.
Microsoft support in various forms has gone from strength to strength over the past 3 years; extra funding, personnel with specific responsibility for dealing with UG’s and the user community, excellent speakers for UG events, country wide con calls with UG leaders, funding INETA and Culminis, inviting input and genuinely listening to our needs and suggestions, etc. We have certainly benefited greatly and I hope that Microsoft feel that their support has been rewarded. That leads me neatly to discuss sponsorship. Obviously Microsoft is effectively acting as a sponsor but no ordinary sponsor. From my point of view I would like to think that we have developed a kind of “partnership”. However, Microsoft alone cannot, and indeed should not be expected to, be the sole sponsor of UG’s. UG’s are independent organizations and must always look for ways to survive whatever the circumstances or Microsoft policies.
So let’s take a look at how VANTUG is currently structured. The following are the board positions and their roles:
President – VANTUG’s public representative; builds contacts and relationships; provides input on future direction; manages the Board; runs General Meetings; looks for ways for VANTUG to support the public, eg. provide free technical resources
Vice-President – stands in for the President where necessary; acts as Secretary at Board Meetings
Finance Director – manages our finances including billing
Program Director – works with the President in finding speakers and makes physical arrangements for events
Membership Director – maintains membership records and distributes monthly newsletter (currently done by the President)
PR & Communications Director – looks for ways to advertise events; produces the monthly newsletter
Events Director – helps to run events and recruit volunteers for events
Marketing Director – responsible for “selling” VANTUG to assist the President with looking for sponsorship opportunities
Webmaster – maintains and develops the VANTUG website
Special Interest Group (SIG) Director – assists SIG Coordinators with planning and running SIG’s; liaison between Board and SIG Coordinators (currently done by Vice-President)
The Marketing Director is a new position. I already mentioned sponsorship. We are no different than any other business; we need adequate funds to survive and prosper and I feel that we now need a position dedicated to that task. Up to now the President has been doing this but the time demands upon the President have increased tremendously over the past 2 years. This is for good reasons; there are so many more things going on and I foresee that continuing, even expanding.
So what does it take to be a UG Leader? In the past UG’s were typically started by people, who had particular strong technical interests and expertise, perhaps Microsoft MVP’s. After all service to the community is a major component of that honorary title. However, these days I believe that some business experience and acumen is a more important component. That’s not to say that technical experts or MVP’s don’t have that experience (many run their own consultancy business) but running a UG these days is running a business and technical expertise is useful but not a requirement.
For example, in my own case I spent most of my career in the Process Industries, admittedly often working with computers. My current technical focus and work is the desktop, which has some relevance to VANTUG. However, VANTUG covers a wide range of both MSDN and Technet activities and I wouldn’t claim to be even close to being an expert in any of it. As President I need to have enough technical knowledge to communicate meaningfully with others and, of course, try to keep fairly up to date with what is happening, particularly in the Microsoft world. If I have been able to move VANTUG forward over the past 5 years it is because of my business and management experience.
Are we there yet (as the kids in the back of the car say)? No, not even close! I am fairly pleased with our progress but the instant you even think about being remotely satisfied then that is the beginning of the slippery slope. When you are “standing still” you are really going backwards. I knew we had made some progress when a member came to me and said our meetings had a more professional feel and now viewed VANTUG in a more favourable light.
However, there is always lots of room for improvement and there always will be!!! Quote, “those who cannot imagine ‘perfection’ will never come close to achieving it”. I always viewed VANTUG as an 8 -10 year “project” for 2 reasons; firstly things can, at times, move very slowly in an all volunteer environment and secondly bringing about fundamental change always takes a long time (longer than we either hope or expect). There is at least another 3 years to go before I even dare think in terms of a fairly stable organization and some real measure of success.
I hope that this has given you some insight into the operation of VANTUG and the challenges of running a UG. I do not wish to suggest that VANTUG should be held up as the ultimate example of a UG. That would be wholly inappropriate. However, I would like to encourage you to find out about your local UG’s and what they can do for your employees and therefore ultimately for you, and what you and your employees can do for them. Next time I will talk about some of our activities, which are not just confined to regular General Meetings.