Like many software developers, I could easily spend every single night of the week at different user groups dedicated to areas of my profession I’m interested in.  Meetup.com has made organising and publicising these groups a far simpler task so there are usually a couple of new group announcements floating past my inbox each week.

However there is a common problem I see with so many groups that I wanted to call out:

After a short period, they are effectively closed to new members.

By “closed”, I don’t mean there is no way for new members to attend, but “closed” in the sense of not being welcoming environments to new members from an intellectual perspective.

Having thought on this a little, this is how I explain this phenomenon:

1. Formation

User groups need a leader to come into existence, get through the formative early years and into late childhood.  All this happens over the course of 3-6 months for many groups depending on the frequency of events.  Leader form these groups because of their own personal interests and the lack of any corresponding groups addressing those interests.

The passion and curiosity of this leader provides the momentum to form the group, select topics for discussion, find a venue, arrange catering, etc.

2. Escalation

The leader will seek to extend their own knowledge through the group, given the reasons for the groups’ formation: topics and speakers are selected that naturally appeal to the leader, who is already likely an early adopter.

Without due consideration, the level of content ratchets up quickly over the first couple of events, driven by the leader’s experience and those similarly minded people he/she can convince to present.

3. Unwitting exclusion

After the first 3-6 months, the barrier to entry for someone with no/little knowledge in the subject is considerable.  The more committed new attendees might rely on persistence and external learning to bridge the gap between their own knowledge and that of the group.  For many other members, this gap will be a bridge too far and they will stop attending.

4. Gentrification

As groups get into their middle age, the well of leading content will either dry up (especially if the technology is also reaching maturity) or key members will drift away towards other groups.

And there will be no “second generation” members to take over the organisation and steering of the group.

And it’s very rare that the leaders of these groups are aware of these dynamics.  Organising technical events is an extremely time-consuming activity and considering strategic objectives for the group whilst constantly looking out for speakers for the next event is a tricky set of horizons to balance.

The road to hell is most definitely paved with good intentions.

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