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How to Run a Successful Tech Meetup

Submitted by cwestin on
The Origins of #lspe

Since the Summer of 2010, I've been organizing the speakers for #lspe, The Bay Area Large-Scale Production Engineering meetup.

When I started, I had never heard of meetup.com and didn't know what this was about. I was working at Yahoo! at the time, and was approached by my HR partners, led by Janelle Delgado. They were interested in creating a forum that would interest what Yahoo! calls "Service Engineers." Other terms at other Bay Area workplaces include "Site Reliability Engineers," "SysOps," and "SysAdmins." I also wanted to attract "DevOps" folks: there are many startups where these functions are intermingled because of the growing recognition that site scalability and availability concerns need to be a part of application design, and aren't something you can just expect system administrators to bolt on afterwards.

Never having been a part of the meetup community, I didn't know what to expect. I scanned meetup.com to look at other local tech meetups to see how they worked. There seemed to be a couple of different kinds of technical meetups:

  • "We'll get together and chat/network over some beers."
  • Meetups with an agenda, speakers or some plannned activity such as a demo or specific hack project

Comparing these two, it was clear to me which I would prefer. I'm a busy guy with a lot going on, and if I'm going to leave work early and travel out of my way to get to a meetup in the middle of the week, I want to feel like I'm getting some value out of it. For me, that means learning about some new technology, or improving my skills in some way. Therefore, I look for meetups of the second kind.

Meetup.com lets you see the number of people who have RSVPed for a meetup, and provides rating and review capabilities. As I looked around at meetups, the attendance numbers showed that the majority of folks prefer the same thing I'm looking for: a meetup with speakers or a planned activity. So it was pretty clear that if I wanted this meetup to be a success, I would need to find content for it, and not just announce a beer bash.

The Yahoo! HR folks that wanted to create the forum took on the job of organizing the venue (we use one of Yahoo!'s large cafeterias) and supplying some pizza and beer. I agreed to organize the speakers.

Having a venue is huge, because from what I've seen of some other meetups, finding a venue can be quite difficult. Despite the fact that I no longer work at Yahoo!, having these folks continue to provide the venue is tremendous.

Organizing Speakers
Choose a Format

Before looking for speakers, you need to choose a format for your event. Aside from the one I rejected above (i.e., "We'll just network over some beers,") there are a number of formats I've seen used successfully:

I decided to go with multiple speakers on a single topic:

  • I figured it would be easier to get speakers to agree to do a 20-25 minute talk than it would be to get them to agree to do an hour or more. (But note that having shorter talks does mean I have to get multiple speakers for each event.)
  • I would have some protection against poor speakers. It is hard to get speakers. You have to take what you can get, and the quality is highly variable. You won't have enough choices to audition them and choose the best. (Not that they would agree to that anyway!) By having multiple speakers, you increase your chances that at least some of them are decent.
  • I would have some protection against cancellations and no-shows. I have had speakers cancel at the last minute, and I have not had to cancel events because of it, because I've had other speakers.
  • I wanted to be able to set up side-by-side comparison talks. I could invite speakers for multiple solutions to a single problem and get to see them at the same time. I thought the audience would like this too.

These choices have worked out pretty well for me. Once I choose a topic, I try to get three speakers on the topic. Sometimes I only get two, and sometimes I get four. Some of my most interesting events have provided a chance to see Chef and Puppet side-by-side (#lspe's "Deployment Tools"), or a multitude of monitoring solutions side-by side (#lspe's "Not Nagios")).

Choose a Topic

Choosing topics was very difficult in the beginning. I may have been too consumed with what I thought the audience would like. After a few events, I realized that I was part of the target audience, and that all I needed to do was to pick something I myself wanted to know more about. Seems obvious, but in the beginning I didn't realize that I was part of my own audience, and that therefore, this could serve as a reasonable guide. I don't have to try to figure out what everyone else wants to learn about, because it seems to be the same kind of thing I want to learn about.

Finding Speakers

Once I've chosen a topic, the hard part begins: finding speakers.

Searching for Speakers

By far my biggest source is online forums. Given a topic, it's not to hard to do some searches for solutions or products for these. Once I identify some of those, I post to forums, bulletin boards, or support forums for them. Occasionally this may have to be a more generic forum on Google Groups, but the more specific the forum, the more luck you'll have finding someone. For example, for the monitoring event I cited above, I posted to the support forums for several monitoring systems I was aware of. For open source offerings, I posted to developer forums, hoping to get a core committer from the project.

Forum owners don't like spam, so its best to keep it low key. Just make a single posting explaining that you're looking for a speaker in your area that could come and give a talk. Include a link to the event. I also include a link to the meetup so that prospective speakers can take a look at the past events we've had, in order to get an idea of the topics the audience has seen and is interested in.

Using forums has worked for me almost every time. There have only been a couple of exceptions. In one case, I tried to join a product support forum and was informed by the forum software that the administrator had banned my email address for spam. I even tried using the direct sales contact form in order to get to someone, but never got a response. It's hard to believe that someone would pass up the opportunity to come and talk about their product in front of the audience the product is aimed at, but you get that.

In another case, I was getting desperate, because the event was getting very close, and I still didn't have any speakers yet. So I bumped my 6-week old posting to the forum. The forum administrator immediately banned me. Ironically, said administrator worked for the company that produced the product, and wasn't too interested in helping me find a speaker. He also informed me that posting to forums for speakers never works. Again, this was only one of a couple of instances where using forums didn't work for me.

Finding the right forums to use, posting to them, and handling responses and inquiries is surprisingly time-consuming. Do not underestimate how much time you will need to spend on this.

Windfalls

#lspe has been going on for a while now, and I guess word has gotten around about it. Now I occasionally get unsolicited offers to speak about certain solutions. Sometimes these are commercial products.

I don't have a problem hearing about commercial products, as long as the talk isn't just a sales pitch. If you can give a talk about the use cases and the architecture behind the solution, that's interesting.

When I get such unsolicited offers, if the topic is appropriate, I reply with a description of my thoughts on the event (the theme nights thing), and explain that my technical audience doesn't appreciate sales pitches, but that the talk would be welcome if it can be technical. Can the talk be given by an engineer (or architect), and not by marketing folk? About half of the offers come back with a serious talk proposal; I don't hear back again from the rest.

I've also had unsolicited offers from attendees who just like to give talks. In these cases, I'll ask them if there are special topics they can cover.

In both cases, commercial offers, or individuals, these have sometimes given me ideas for topics I wouldn't have otherwise thought of. Both of these have served as the seeds for events I then found other speakers for. As a result, I always take contact information and chat with these folks. to see if I can make something out of it. Because I try to plan these ahead, I have to warn them that it might be a few months before I have an empty slot for the
topic.

Promoting the Event

I like to have the event topics chosen at least one month in advance. That allows me to announce the next event at each event, and to ask for speakers for the next event at that time. I also update the meetup event page for the next event with these details before the evening of the current event.

As I get commitments to speak, I add the speakers to the event agenda. I use a simple format that lists the speaker, the name of their talk, and optionally, where the speaker works. For independent projects, speakers sometimes don't want to list their employer, or would prefer to list the name of the project, so I'll do that.

Janelle had the great idea of creating a Twitter account for #lspe. I use that to tweet about the event one week ahead of the event, and again on the morning of the event. I signed up for a bitly account so I could include the event links in the tweets. When I do this, I try to find and use Twitter handles for the presenters or the software projects, foundations, or companies they represent. When I do so, the owners of those handles usually see the reference and help out by retweeting. It also helps to use hashtags that are appropriate for the topic(s). This will be picked up by other folks that follow the topic, who may come to the event, or retweet about it.

Janelle also came up with the #lspe hashtag and name, which we use to promote our events now.

Other

Regularity seems to be a factor in repeat attendance. I try to have the event at the same time every month, on the third Thursday. Any time is fine, but try to set a regular schedule for your events in advance so your audience can make a habit of attending.

We start our event at 6PM. It is hard to trade-off between having it start too early for people to get there from work (traffic can be very bad in the Bay Area at that time), or having it start and end so late that people don't want to come. You'll have to find a middle ground that works for you.

I'm trying to build up an archive of the presentations we've had. After the event, I send the speakers a thank you, and ask if they would be willing to share their slides. When I get these, I post the links to the meetup event page. These can be seen by looking at the "Past" events tab on the meetup.

If you have video recording skills, or can get a volunteer to video record your event, do it. I often get requests for recordings of the events. I can't do this myself, but sometimes other folks who can do it show up. I really appreciate it when they do this, and ask if they'd post links to the video on the meetup event page.

I've had requests to stream the event so people in other locations can watch it live. I haven't done that, but I've seen it done quite successfully. I went to the Silicon Valley Cloud Computing Group "Netflix's move to AWS" event. This was held at the Hacker Dojo. There were several hundred RSVPs for a space that could hold 200. In response to this, the event organizer used ustream to stream the event, and publicized a twitter hashtag to go along with it. This was a huge success. I didn't RSVP in time to get a seat, so I attended virtually. It was an amazing testament to the times we live in that this was possible. I watched the event on the stream. Remote attendees couldn't see the slides, and once we
tweeted that, people in the front row of the talk periodically got up and took pictures of the slides with their phones, and tweeted them. The organizer took questions via Twitter as well as from the physical audience, so it didn't matter that we weren't physically present. There were side conversations on twitter from both the physical and virtual audience. Overall, this was pretty amazing.

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