The Importance of Technical User Groups

Technology moves incredibly quickly these days and practical learnings only slowly formalised into academic courses; fortunately there's many semi-professional and purely social ways to keep up.

I worked alone on large parts of my early career as a programmer, data analyst, and quant; a fact of location and circumstance rather than desire. As a result I fretted over the fact that I was working in a bubble - I had no-one to really challenge my modelling assumptions, find flaws in my logic, find bugs in my code nor introduce me to new approaches. The web can help with this, but only so much - and some of the more useful sites are not very forgiving of 'breaches of etiquette'.1

I started going to user group meetings in early 2012, and my eyes were opened. There are a bunch of them in Dublin I try to attend as much as possible, including Dublin R, Python Ireland, Data Scientists Ireland,, Dublin Spark Meetup and more.

I thought it would be interesting to spend some time discussing why technical user groups are important, some lessons I have learned from helping to run one for a few years, and to give some pointers in how we go about keeping the ship steady.

Dublin R has always been closest to my heart as I help organise it, and so have personal and practical knowledge of how it is organised. I imagine the other user groups will have similar experiences.

Before I begin, I do want to thank Kevin O'Brien, the founder of Dublin R, for all his hard work and perseverance in getting us going. Without him, Dublin R would not exist, and I think most regular members would agree. There are a few others heavily involved who will not be mentioned here, primarily because I will forget some and feel bad, but you all know who you are.

Why are Technical User Groups Important?

There are a number of reasons, but I will discuss three:

  1. Other people
  2. Other methods
  3. The sense of community

Other People

The first answer to this question is simple: people other than you go to them. Other people are the key here - it does not matter how good you are (or how good you think you are), you will become better if you can discuss your problems and learn from others.

Other people also provide a good gauge for your abilities: can you hold your own in the talks and discussions? Talking to other people before and after the talks provides a very good barometer for your level of ability, and helps let you know if you could use some more training or need to learn about a new technique.2

Other Methods

User groups are an excellent way to get exposure to alternative tools, techniques and models. Sure, you could just find it on the internet, but having someone explain it is better, and you get to ask questions too.

Talking to other people also exposes you to utterly different approaches to problems, often unfamiliar. I regularly find myself in discussion of techniques and algorithms I am aware of, but have never had explained. You then get to learn why and when it is useful, insight often lacking when reading about it from a book or website.

Sense of Community

I am not normally the most extroverted of people. Often reserved, I am rarely at the centre of conversation. Despite this, the sense of community is by some distance the best reason for going to Dublin R. Networking after our talks is the most valuable reason for going to talks and workshops, and we always ensure that attendees know what pub we are going to after the talk, encouraging as many as possible to come along.

An important benefit is that the regular or semi-regular attendees of Dublin R now have a network of people they can draw on for help or advice or points, beyond the formal meetings themselves. Applied AI partially came out of Dublin R, as did my joining up. Quite a few problems I dealt with since were solved by simply knowing another member of the group, and asking for their opinion or advice.

The final point I want to make is that none of the above is either R or Dublin specific. Dublin R is just the particular instance, but all of the above is applicable to any user group you might attend, provided it is run and attended with the right attitude.

It is quite possible that you live in an area where such a group is missing, but all is not lost. Start your own! Setting up and running such a user group is not nearly as difficult as it seems, it just takes time, patience and persistence.3

Mick Cooney delivering a workshop at DublinR

Running Your Own Group

Hopefully I have sold you on the benefits of going to user group meetings, so if you see a gap in your area, fill it! There are a few tips and rules of thumb I can pass on, but most of this boils down to one key principle:

Run a group that you want to go to!

This sounds trite and simplistic - and it is - but it is also powerful. The key idea is that since you yourself are the target audience for the meetup group, please yourself. If you need to make a decision on something, go with the option you prefer, it is likely to be the right one. There are other people out there that think like you and will appreciate the way you do things.

Beyond that simple principle, there are a few other things to note (though some of the following is the just the above principle applied to a specific scenario).

Always Be Talking

It is important to have a regular schedule and to stick to it. Ideally you want a meeting once a month. If that is not feasible, go with once every two or three months, but stick to whatever you choose. Do not worry about attendance or speakers; give good talks on a regular basis and people will start showing up. Once they do, they will come back.

From the very start, Kevin and I were determined to keep the talks going, even if that meant each talk was one of the two of us talking to two or three other people. As long as those people found the talk interesting, it was a success.

The corollary of this is that you may have to give a lot of talks yourself before you get other speakers, so have a few ideas in your head. If you are interested in the topic at hand, that should not be hard, I expect finding topics is easy.

You should also have a small pool of people (probably yourself and one or two other organisers) each with one or two talks at the ready. That way, should there be any gaps in the schedule or last minute cancellations, you do not miss a meeting.

Give talks you yourself would like to attend. Do not treat talks like a lecture, encourage interruptions and tangents and diversions.

Do Not Underestimate Your Attendees

Since you are your target audience, you do not need to dumb anything down. While not a licence to go down a rabbit hole, you do not need to assume the audience has no idea of anything. Give talks you yourself would like to attend. Do not treat talks like a lecture, encourage interruptions and tangents and diversions. Most of the best talks at Dublin R are the ones where someone asked a question that leads to a 10 minute diversion on a very specific point.

This may seem indulgent, but it is not. The audience is interested, they are thinking about the topic, and are interacting with the speaker. Encourage this as much as possible. It helps with learning, breaks down the formality, and allows for relevant conversation, all of which you want.

A related point to this, possibly controversial, you want to stay clear of marketing talks and academic talks as much as possible, at least initially.

People are giving up their free time to attend your talks, so it is fair to assume they do not want to be sold to. Of course, this is not an iron-clad rule and may be the price of getting a venue, but try to avoid it as much as possible. In my experience, people find those talks a total waste of their time. I know I do.

My reasons for being cautious about academic talks are similar in that they are often a waste of time for your attendees. Academic talks tend to focused in detail on a single research topic so specialised as to be utterly unrelated to the problems or interests of your attendees. Furthermore, the speakers may expect a level of formality in presentation that is at cross-purposes to what you are trying to create.

Before you grab your torches and pitchforks to find where I live, note that I am not trying to exclude business or academia at all - quite the opposite. I am referring solely to the style and content of talks you want, not the speakers themselves. A really accomplished speaker from academia or business giving an appropriate talk is as good as it gets.4

I appreciate many will disagree with the above sentiment; your mileage may vary. If so, fantastic, you are your own target audience after all. However, our experience in Dublin R has borne the above cautions out.

Be Patient

Do not worry about how many people are showing up. In many ways, smaller groups are better (I will discuss this in a moment). Once the content of the talks is good, curious people will come back for more.

It took us about six months to be satisfied with the progress of Dublin R. By then we noticed we had a group of about 10 regulars, with any 5-6 appearing at a talk. We ran a talk once a month at various venues, and tried to set a high standard for talk content. After two or three meetings other people volunteered talks, and we were on our way.

Quality of Content is More Important than Quality of Speaker

People are often reluctant to give a talk at a meetup. Lacking confidence speaking in public, many feel they are unable to meet some impossibly high standard that does not exist.

While understandable, try to soothe such concerns by stressing the informal nature of the talks and point out that most regulars are not polished speakers. Talks are really attempts to catalyse discussion about interesting things. The best talks are the ones with constant interruptions and tangents, especially if the crowd start discussing things amongst themselves. They are totally engaged at that point.

If you need to, help new speakers prepare their talks, giving them advice on aspects of the talk to focus on. After one or two times in attendance, prospective speakers should have a good sense of the culture of the groups and how to focus a talk appropriately.

To allow for depth in our talks, we usually go with one speaker per meeting, allowing the speaker to really get into the meat of the material. On that note, it is better to get specific then staying at a high and general level, no matter how widely applicable the topic may be. I consider it a mark of success of my talks if I can lose one or two members of the audience because I can see they are thinking about ways in which the subject matter at hand can be applied to their own problems!

If an hour is too daunting or difficult for people, stick with a more familiar schedule of a few speakers for shorter periods of time. The main thing is have something.

You also do not need to provide food or drink or any other treats. While nice to have and seems to be the current trend, it is not necessary and adds expense. It also might end up attracting people solely for the free food and beer. All you need is space to sit and stand, and someone talking in front of some visuals.

Finally, if you do end up having an appalling talk, be polite and use it in a positive way: you now have a very low bar for "Worst Talk at the Meetup Ever" and can be genuinely reassuring with future intimidated speakers.5

Plan Ahead

Once you have a little momentum, organise a schedule for future events. We try to have everything laid out two months in advance, even if some of the details are not fully hammered out. With prior planning, you can put people in charge of confirming venues or speakers, ensuring any details are accounted for.

Try to not still be planning a talk a week or a few days before it is due to happen!

A schedule also helps avoid clashes with other tech groups, and helps early identification of gaps between talks that could potentially be plugged. It is not a lot of work, it just needs prior responsibility and thought.

Networking after talks is the most valuable reason for going to talks and workshops

Start Small and Grow Slowly

It is very easy to see the size of your meetup group as a metric for success, but I think this is a mistake. Small groups have a lot of advantages you lose as your group gets bigger, not least that your requirements for (new) venue space increase.

Our first few meetings at Dublin R had a very familiar pattern: 10 to 15 people would show up at each one, a lot of them new faces, but one or two recognised from the previous month. To me, that was a sign of success - I did not expect to see many people at the talks- the fact that a few people were returning for more signalled we were doing something right.

Another excellent benefit of a small group is that you get to know most of the people showing up, and that really enhances the vital sense of community. This is difficult with 150 people at your talks where most of them disappear afterwards. It is the social aspect of the group that you need to focus on.

Venues are a Key Constraint

Finally, we come to the one issue that I have left until last as it may be the most important hurdle a tech group has in front of it: getting venues for talks. If one of your interested people has access to a room, this is not a problem, though it is good to have multiple venues available to you; it prevents you from being overly-reliant on a single person or place.

Dublin R started out with no money and little in the way of contacts. Renting a room was a non-starter, so Kevin showed some initiative and did something I never would have thought of: he went into a large subset of pubs and bars in Dublin city centre, looked to see if they had some sort of projector, and asked them if they would be willing to host a meetup on a night that is normally quiet.

He found a few bars willing to take the extra custom on a Monday or Tuesday night, and we went from there. If you have your own projector, it is likely to be easier, you just need a room. Hosting it in a bar is brilliant if you can get a quiet place for your talks, as the after-talk 'networking' starts immediately but even less-than-ideal is better than none.

After a few months, it is likely you will start getting offers for venues: companies look to host user groups as part of their marketing remit. If they want to give a talk too, so much the better (though remember my point about trying to discourage product sales pitches).

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on running a tech group. If any of the above sounds interesting, or you have any questions, feel free to get in touch. I am happy to help.

A Final Thought

Hello, Jon and Mick Crawford here chipping in with our 2p on the topic.

As mentioned in our very first blogpost, we actually first met properly at a DublinR meetup in Summer 2013 when Hadley Wickham presented a talk on tidy data. We've remained very much in the community - it's how we got to know Mick Cooney - and really enjoy going to, and occasionally speaking at, the meetups.

We're all members of other technical user groups in Dublin, Belfast and London; several in the latter city have grown massively in attendance and community value over the past couple of years including LondonR, Spark London, and PyData London in particular.

It's not all about the purely technical either, in 2014 Jon helped to set up DataKind Dublin, one of five chapters in the international DataKind network, which brings together volunteer data scientists and non-profit organisations to effect meaningful social change through project work. The projects are an opportunity for volunteers to learn and practice data science for a greater good, and for non-profits to make use of this valuable and rare resource to improve their services in kind.

The relative ease with which it's now possible to socialise with and learn from technical experts is fantastic. Whether you have a passing interest, you're a newcomer looking to enter a particular field, or have deep technical expertise, there's probably a technical user group near you that's perfect. And if not, then just go out and set one up!

  1. I'm looking at you stackoverflow...

  2. The answer to that is always yes, just in case you were wondering. Thinking you do not need to learn more or refresh your skills is an excellent method of falling behind. All the really good people I know have a long list of stuff they want to learn about.

  3. Kevin will be the first to admit that if he and I can do it, anyone can.

  4. Hadley Wickham's talk for us is one of the best talks I have ever been at. It was awesome.

  5. I imagine there are a few readers of this post know exactly what I am referring to here. Ask me in person some time.

Image from the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927. Quite a guestlist.

Mick Cooney

Mick is highly experienced in probabilistic programming, high performance computing and financial modelling for derivatives analysis and volatility trading.