The Changing Role of User Groups

guestbloggerGraham Jones (Surrey, BC - IT Professional and President of VANTUG)

The Traditional Role

The traditional role for most UG's has been to hold technical events to inform and educate their members, promote networking between members and perhaps to run certification classes. Although this is a necessary role it may no longer be sufficient to meet all member needs and ultimately the IT industry as a whole. The number of groups has grown and many have reached a size which is indicative of stability and maturity. So we need to be thinking about “where do we go from here and why?”, rather than just more of the same.

The Importance and Challenges of Unity

There have been a number of attempts, with very genuine motives, to improve communication between groups of like interests, eg. dev groups or IT Pro groups across Canada. The early enthusiasm wanes and we end up largely at square one. Is Canadian geography to blame? Certainly that is a challenge but I am not convinced that is the real problem. The number of groups has grown and the event opportunities have grown. I believe that there is more than enough to occupy the volunteers who run UG’s “back home”. That doesn’t mean an intent to be parochial but more a question of lack of time/opportunity to reach out on a regular basis. This only serves to attach more importance to the occasional get together, eg. via DevTeach (kudos to Jean-René Roy) or EnergizeIT (kudos to Microsoft, Canada) . I also believe that in general there is less demand upon Speakers Bureaus. Engagement with local MVP’s, wherever they exist, and local speakers has grown, which has both reduced the demand outside of the immediate area and is helping to solidify the local community.

Most of the challenges in running a UG are common to all UG’s and ultimately we are all serving ONE community. So I believe that we need to focus our attention on being successful “locally” before we can be successful “globally”.  I am not suggesting that there is no cooperation between local groups but I believe that we need to go one step further. At the moment on a local basis we tend to be a “Collection” of groups. We need to work towards becoming a “Federation” of local groups with regular meetings between the leaders. Maintaining individuality is important but I don’t see that as a barrier to greater formal cooperation.

Why do I consider this to be important? The Canadian IT industry is facing 2 major challenges: 1) a shortage of skilled labour and 2) labour with the right skills. There are many dedicated and passionate people in organizations like CIPS, ICTC and ACCC who are beginning to make a difference but at times I am sure it must feel like “pushing string uphill”.  The IT skills shortage in Canada receives regular press these days. The actual potential numbers may create some debate but the scale is frighteningly large. As if this isn’t bad enough there is declining enrolment for IT programs for Universities and Colleges. The reason for this may be a “hangover” from the dot bomb days. Regardless of the reason we need to reverse the trend. So what can we do about this situation which is becoming ever more critical as time goes on and in particular where can UG’s and their members assist?

The Immigrant Problem

Although many well qualified IT Pros are admitted to Canada the system is far from perfect. As a UG Leader I fairly regularly come across immigrants who are having difficulty getting work. When teaching at a school for overseas students I also came across many IT people re-training for positions well below their previous experience and qualifications. Considering our current needs this both disappoints and dismays me. When I ask these people why they are having difficulty the most frequent answer is “lack of Canadian experience”. Come on, give these people a break. How are they going to beat this catch 22 situation. The other 2 most common problems are language and how they present themselves. Collectively we need to try and help these people get into the workplace.

HR people need to recognize that cultural differences can be a major factor in how new immigrants come across both in person and via their resume. In the west we are used to seeing an accomplishment approach to promote oneself. In many Asian countries this would be regarded as being too forthright. We need to find a way to help these people present themselves so that their real value is recognized. Not only do they often have difficulty finding work, you can hardly blame them for feeling cheated and disillusioned having come to Canada. Perhaps ending up pumping gas and delivering pizza is hardly a just reward for the often long and sometimes frustrating process of getting here. I am not suggesting that fixing this issue would suddenly solve the labour shortage but there are two consequences. One is obvious; we are not making full use of the talent that is already here. The other is that negative feedback understandably gets back to their homeland. This situation is not unique to Canada and in that sense there is international competition for what is probably a scarce resource. The last thing that we need is a bad reputation!

There are organizations such as SUCCESS in BC who, I am pleased to say, are trying to assist new immigrants. They are always looking for Mentors and employment leads. You might want consider assisting them.

Falling Enrollment in IT Programs

Immigration alone will not solve our problems. We need to correct the problems with our domestic supply which means getting more students through IT programs. At best that is going to take several years to correct since we need to get to students in High School well in advance of them making their career decisions. It may even be that for the longer term we need to get into the Elementary Schools where computer work is now more common. We also need to help career advisors in High Schools to present IT careers in a positive light. Recently I read a comment by Paul Swinwood of the ICTC, “adopt a High School” by which I took him to mean “get out there and spread the good word”. He is absolutely correct. We have to do this in large numbers if we are to really make a difference. This is our industry and so we should be out there helping to save it. Those who think a labour shortage equals higher salaries and more opportunity for me are being very short sighted. Ultimately the situation will come back to bite all of us because of the effect on the Canadian economy.

We need a mechanism (perhaps a website) to connect the schools with those who are willing to get out into the student community to promote the IT Profession. Educating students is only one component. We also need to educate parents about the opportunities for their children and the general public about the criticality of the situation. I would like to think that UG’s and their members can play an effective role in this.

The New IT Worker

So far I have only touched upon numbers. The kind of skills demanded are also changing. Although there will always be a role for technical specialists it will be in less demand. If you want to progress in your career you will need some core technical skills married to technical diversity and business and “soft skills”. Perhaps UG’s cannot easily minister to all of this but I believe that we should be thinking about where we can contribute beyond the purely technical. Since business and “soft skills” are common across the technical landscape this links back to the potential benefits of a local Federation of UG’s. This would permit a measure of common planning around these areas and larger numbers would attract high caliber speakers in non-technical/pseudo-technical areas.

It is clear how seriously Microsoft take these issues by the programs that they offer for schools and the popular Canadian Ignite Your Career series and I am sure that there will be more to come. Whilst I do believe that Microsoft wishes to take a somewhat altruistic stance, I am equally sure that they know how difficult it is going to be to fulfill their own plans if things don’t improve. I firmly believe that UG’s must have a “place at the table” if the necessary groundswell of activity is to be achieved.

Comments (5)

  1. wcraddock says:

    Great article and perspective on the industy, the place of a user group within it!

    Will Craddock

    Regina IT Pro UG

  2. Philip Elder says:

    Ping back for you:

    Some thoughts on developing the UG as a pedagogical tool.


    MPECS Inc.

  3. Philip Elder says:


    Some thoughts further to utilizing the UG as a pedagogical tool.


    MPECS Inc.

  4. Stephen Ibaraki says:

    There’s much here in Graham’s piece. A few weeks ago, I was invited to give the keynote to the National Council of IT Deans and then stay for 2-days of meetings on many of the issues noted by Graham. So they all very much resonate with me. In fact, connecting with Community for support was part of my keynote and the role Community can play.

    Good piece Graham!

    Thank you,


  5. Graham Jones says:

    As a follow-up to my post I decided to "put my money where my mouth is" and volunteered to be a Mentor for SUCCESS ( Having "passed" my own interview last week (phew), today I met my first Mentee. This person has been in Canada now for about 3 months, which admittedly, when job hunting, isn’t a long time. However, her background is interesting and relates well to the problems that I described in my post.

    She is originally from Hong Kong but has spent the past 8 years working in the US, very successfully as far as I can tell in positions of some responsibility. She has travelled extensively in the US and Asia on business. She understands the business culture in China which is very useful. She simply wanted to move to Canada and likes it here but is still adjusting to the differences between here and the US.

    She is personable. Her written and spoken English is good and she speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin, which is a definite employment advantage out here in the Lower Maninland of BC. For the past 6 years she has been working successfully in Business Analysis in IT for a major company. So what is the problem?

    I asked her where she was meeting the "hurdles". Apparently, because she has neither a ComSci or Business degree (she has a Batchelor’s in Journalism from HK and a Master’s in Communications from the US) her resume usually doesn’t even get considered. She has experienced this regularly at Job Fairs and has been told point blank by HR people that she doesn’t meet the job specs. Whatever happened to the "…or equivalent experience"? This lady has 10 years of solid experience and that doesn’t count at all. Give me a break.

    How can the industry on the one hand be concerned about an IT skills shortage and on the other hand be so asinine as to reject such people out of hand? She is more than willing to further her education on a part time basis but in the meantime she has to survive. She is clearly disillusioned by her experience so far and knows several friends (IT, Engineering, Medical) who came here with expectations and are driving cabs to make a living.

    It is understood that qualifications can matter and that qualifications from other countries may have less value than some of our own. However, it is solid experience that makes us who we are and defines our value. A degree is simply a piece of paper that says you have a "foundation" to learn.

    Besides education in some of the better Chinese Universities is very good. When you have people who come here with MCSD and MCSE accreditation and good experience but still cannot get work it is a total waste of talent. Unless we change our attitude we will get what we justly deserve; "a black eye".

    You can be assured that I will be doing my best to assist this lady. I believe that she has the skills and experience to contribute to Canada, which is what she wants to do. If money was the sole issue she could have stayed in the US and probably done better. Making a meaningful contribution is very central to this person and her well being. That was easy to tell. Unfortunately, my instincts tell me that she is probably one of many. Shame on us!

    Graham J

Skip to main content