Not too long ago, I started feeling bored with the work I was doing: The environment was stagnant, and there were no new problems for me to solve. I decided to combat this by setting up an internal IT user group at my company, where my colleagues and I could collaborate on novel projects. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned and the positive impact they’ve had on my career.
I’ve included the links to resources that I found useful at the end of the article if you decide you’d be keen to try something like this yourself.
As a professional in the field of information technology, I am fueled by solving new, exciting problems. However, I’ve occasionally found that boredom can strike working in a large organisation when the same problem starts feeling like an everlasting project.
Sure, taking online courses to learn some hacks can help spark creativity within your project. Still, I’ve found that real creativity for most software developers and engineers (let’s call them ‘DevEngers’) comes from collaborating and learning from each other.
While going through a slow period at work, where I was stuck on the same problem, this realisation became even more prominent for me. I needed to make a change and find some like-minded people to kick start some inspiration.
As a small first step, I joined meetup.com and then took a bigger step and started exploring job opportunities at other companies. While interviewing at a contracting house, I saw that a group of their DevEngers often collaborated outside of normal working hours. Seeing this changed my mindset: I went from “I need to find new opportunities” to, “Hey, I can create a fun environment where I am”.
"Simple, we need a community. We need a community of people who are going to let us succeed, a community of people who are going to let us fail, a community of people who are going to let us learn. That’s something that everyone in this room can give.” ~ Aaron Walker
It was from this realisation that I got the idea to set up an internal IT user group as a way to keep the DevEngers at my company engaged and happy.
What is a user group?
You might be wondering what a user group actually is, so let me give you some context:
In personal or business computing, a user group is a group of people who have similar interests, goals, or concerns. A user group’s members usually reside in the same geographical area and regularly meet up to share ideas.
4 key lessons I’ve learned from starting a user group
I started my journey by pitching the idea of having regular sessions to share knowledge and the cool projects our DevEngers were working on to both my manager and the other DevEngers.
The idea landed, and after only three months of running with it, the sessions became increasingly popular.
Not only was this great for my morale, but managing this ever-expanding project taught me some important lessons that have really benefited me at work.
As the founder of our user group, these are the four key lessons this experience has taught me so far:
- How to be part of a user group
- How to chair a user group
- How to keep people engaged
- How to empower others
How to be part of a user group
One of the first things I learned is that a member’s experience of a user group is not a solo adventure, but rather a shared experience. Each and every member has the power to influence each other through their participation and engagement, so I made sure that I actively participated in each of the sessions I ran or attended.
The aim of a user group is to facilitate collaboration by encouraging every member to contribute something – knowledge, an idea, even an opinion. I’ve learned that the best way to create a safe environment where people feel comfortable to share is by showing that you respect their input. Being compassionate, and understanding that not everyone has good presentation skills, for example, but being open to hearing their ideas anyway is what makes being part of a user group valuable.
Pro tip: If someone in the group is struggling to present their ideas clearly, try asking them questions to challenge their ideas constructively and help them express the value of their idea without breaking their confidence.
How to chair a user group
Chairing a user group needs to be done selflessly. I learned that making your members a priority is key. One of the main things I do is encourage different people to drive the events by allowing anyone to present on a topic that interests them so that the sessions are diverse. I also make sure that I have a plan in place to organise a backup presenter or discussion session if the host can’t carry out their commitment.
On a practical level, I’ve had to improve my time management skills as well as start, keeping notes of action items to ensure I don’t leave any of my promises unfulfilled. Since the user group has become more popular, many people come to me with their ideas or thoughts, so writing them down somewhere immediately helps me to keep promises I make, and remember who to follow up with and about what.
How to keep people engaged
Once we got the idea off the ground and hosted the first few sessions, the challenge of maintaining enthusiasm in the user group was something I had to consider.
A useful trick I found worked well was taking a systematic approach – such as sending regular newsletters and setting up certain recurring events. This helped establish a ‘brand’ of sorts for the user group that people could recognise. I found that setting it up so that people expected regular information from it, made engaging with the user group something that my teammates started to do more naturally.
How to empower others
Because the group was set up to serve my teammates, I started sparking up corridor conversations and coffee chats to find out more about what intrigued them when it comes to technology and coding.
This helped me learn a lot about the people around me. Through making an effort to ask questions, I learned to empower people to grow their curiosity and hunger to learn. Asking something along the lines of, “How do you think your side project could be used to solve a problem in our current working environment?” really stirred up a lot of creativity and excitement because it encouraged people to start thinking outside the box.
One of my key takeaways from this journey so far is that the most powerful thing to understand when empowering others is not to lead, but rather steer their talents and curiosity in a safe environment.
As the founder of our company’s user group, and therefore the member with the most practical experience, I’ve found that sharing what I’ve picked up along the way when it comes to things like logistics, communication and sub-branding is another great way to add some wind to someone’s sails. By sharing this knowledge, quite a few teammates have been able to host their own innovative series of user group events. Some even give away cool little prizes!
Why I’d consider starting the user group both a professional and a personal win
Starting up the user group at my company has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. We’ve been up and running for well over a year, and have now started branching out into other types of events.
On a personal level, I’ve been able to help nurture other developers’ curiosity and learn new skills alongside them. My leadership skills have also strengthened, and I’ve become more productive at work because I feel way more engaged on a day-to-day basis. The best thing of all, however, is that everyone around me has become closer and more collaborative.
Would I recommend taking this leap within your own organisation and starting an internal user group? The short answer is: yes. The long answer… well, just re-read the article! ;-)