August 8, 2016
How To Create A Successful Technical Meetup
I co-founded the Cleveland Big Data meetup (http://www.meetup.com/Cleveland-Hadoop) back in September 2010. As of writing it has over 1,600 members and meets on average 6 times a year. 2016 is on pace for 8 meetups due to some bonus speakers. But the meetup certainly didn’t start that way. Here’s the story…
I co-founded Explorys, a medical informatics software company, in the fall of 2009. I had spent years doing traditional data warehousing with traditional platforms and knew well the strength and weaknesses of that approach. And I knew that if Explorys wanted to be Really, Really Big it was going to need a different kind of data infrastructure. Explorys was conceived at a fortuitous time, because 2009 was when the Hadoop ecosystem began to expand past the early implementations at Yahoo and Facebook. I am proud to say I was at the very first Hadoop World in 2009 put on by Cloudera in the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City among 500 people for a single day to talk about what was to be come the future of distributed computing.
But it also was clear that this was a very complex future because distributed processing isn’t simple. The remedy to this complexity was an open technical community of a scale I had not seen before, and I learned that the community around the code is just as important as the code. I had the chance to engage the nascent Apache HBase community, attend some Apache HBase & Apache Hadoop meetups, and I jumped in with both feet. My nights and weekends work was working with the Apache HBase community and I became a committer in 2011.
But concurrently I also wanted to bring that mindset back home to Cleveland. And this was pre-Cavs Championship Cleveland - not exactly known as a tech hub, much less a big data hub. So I had to build it from scratch.
2010 - The first meetup was in October 2010 in the 1st floor conference room of the Global Cardiovascular Innovation Center on the Cleveland Clinic campus (where Explorys offices were at the time) and consisted of about 12 people, nearly all of whom I knew and had personally invited and bribed with the promise of free pizza. I’m pretty sure I had come up with the agenda the day before, and the informal round-table discussion was along the lines of “we’re using Hadoop… it’s pretty cool.”
2011 - I managed to pull off 2 meetups this year. They even had agendas ahead of time, and were hosted at Explorys. By the end of the year we had 44 members!
2012 – I have to thank a co-worker Mike Kvintus for nagging me to re-double my efforts, and the group had 4 meetups this year. First hosted at Cleveland State, then at the Lerner Research Institute. By the end of the year we had 178 members. Kudos to Casey Stella for doing a talk on Spark - he was way ahead of the curve on this as Spark didn't take off for at least another year.
2013 – This was the year the meetup settled into it’s current cadence (January, March, May, etc.) and had 5 meetups. We had a few at the Explorys office, and we had the first meetup hosted at Progressive (June 2013). I have to thank Mike Onders for encouraging that. By the end of the year we had 483 members.
2014 – 5 meetups. In September we had the first Mega Meetup at the Global Center for Health Innovation. First Mega Meetup at the Great Lakes Science Center with 309 RSVPs! By the end of the year we had 863 members.
2015 – 6 meetups, plus a bonus. Doug Cutting in May! The Mega Meetup in September at the Great Lakes Science Center had 359 RSVPs. By the end of the year we had 1,360 members.
2016 – On track for 6 meetups, plus 2 bonus meetups. At time of writing there are over 1,600 members.
Content is King
Technical meetups live and die by solid content. Content is king. Content is everything. Presentations should have something to share and intent to teach – even it’s an archetypal hacker’s talk of “hey fellow nerds, I tried this on my laptop and it’s really cool.”
Sales and marketing talks at technical meetups are content poison. There is a time for sales talks, but technical meetups are not the right venue.
Time Is The Most Precious Resource
Everyone who has attended a technical meetup has had the experience of working all day and then attending an after-hours meetup. Dinner was a few slices of medium temperature pizza and a cup of Sprite, and you find yourself watching a presenter who will not Shut The Hell Up. So I borrowed an idea from TED talks and used a cheap digital kitchen timer and set the default speaking slots to 20 minutes. 20 minutes has worked well for the meetup. It’s a longer span of time than you think - long enough for good technical detail, but short enough to keep the meeting moving. Fixed timeframes also help the speaker prepare.
If a talk is great, then you savor it. If it’s not your cup of tea, then you know that in a few minutes there will be a new topic.
I put it to the speaker’s preference on how to address questions. If they want to address questions during, it’s their choice. But when the timer goes off, then it’s onto the next topic.
Like most things in life there are exceptions, when Doug Cutting came to Cleveland Big Data in 2015 I ceremonially knocked the timer over and let him talk as long as he wanted, on whatever he wanted. Likewise, we’ve had meetups on core topics like YARN for the entire session that had general applicability.
Everybody Needs Something
Marketing still matters – it just can’t dominate the presentation content. So I also provide the guidance to my speakers to feel free and put your company logo all over the slide deck. Wear the t-shirt with the biggest company logo you have. Hand out whatever you want before and after the talks. As long as the content is there.
Recruiters are another thorny topic. People go to meetups for a variety of reasons, and a common reason is networking. I’ve heard of meetups that “banned recruiters” from attending and I think that is a terrible mistake. It’s not likely that I’ll ever put a 20-minute talk from a recruiter into the lineup, but recruiters need their time too. So every meetup begins with a Recruiting Shout-Out. Anybody who wants to stand up and say “we’re hiring and looking for …” is free to do so. Just keep it brief.
Walk The Line
Neutrality is important to being an effective meetup organizer. Becoming a shill for a specific vendor turns a lot of people off and potentially fragments the community, so I try my best to rotate common vendors so it’s not the same companies over and over again.
Meetup.com, that is. I have found Meetup to be a terrific platform for managing the Cleveland Big Data meetup.
Location, Location, Location
A good facility is a requirement, preferably with a big screen and auditorium. In the early days we did quite a few meetups with stand-up screens and portable projectors. Those are a pain to set up and put away, but it was the best we could do at the time.
Manage Your Speakers
Speakers are busy. Make it easy for them and send reminders of when you need drafts, and send multiple reminders.
For 1st time speakers I usually like to see drafts 2-3 weeks out just to make sure they are on track.
A meetup without pizza? Puh-leeze. Do not underestimate the importance of pizza at the meetup and the logistics of large-scale pizza ordering are not to be taken lightly. Calling up a pizza place at noon and asking pizza delivered for 150 by 5pm is high risk. The thought of a technical meetup without food should strike fear into the heart of any meetup organizer.
For a Monday evening meetup I’ll call the pizza order in on the preceding Friday, then follow up that Monday with some minor changes depending on how RSVPs roll in. Leave nothing to chance when it comes to food.
Once a speaker performs a successful meetup presentation they are granted the honorific Friend Of The Show, and referred to as such at every subsequent meetup. So to paraphrase Bill Murray in Caddyshack - "so you've got that going for you."
Stories Only An Organizer Knows
What’s On The Menu
The first Mega Meetup was held in September 2014 at the Great Lakes Science Center. Most museums have contract caterers and the GLSC’s caterer was Aramark. So I got a menu and was worried because everything looked “fancy” – no pizza. I didn’t have budget for “fancy.” My family and I are members of the Great Lakes Science Center and I’m quite familiar with the food options on the 1st floor cafeteria, so I asked why I could buy pizza on Saturday afternoon but not on a Monday night. The reply was that it wasn’t on the menu because the 3rd floor alcove where the meet-and-greet was to be held didn’t have any place to keep it warm. So I informed her that she had grossly overestimated the sophistication of my group, and I assured her that even if she put the pizza boxes on the floor that it would all be consumed. We both got a big laugh out of this, the meetup got pizza and I stayed in budget.
The Lesson: always ask.
I was surveying locations for a meetup and was speaking to a location that charged for entry, but unfortunately I could not secure an fixed-price arrangement for the event. Per-person fees work fine for events with a defined set of people (e.g., private party), but meetups are known for people just showing up, or not. A per-person fee would put me in the in the position of blowing my budget in a very bad way if too many people showed up. So I had to abandon plans for that location.
There is a long list of folks to thank.
The Apache Software Foundation, the Apache HBase community, and the Bay Area and New York HBase and Hadoop Meetups. I tried to model/steal ideas the best I could.
Co-workers at Explorys who supported the meetup. You’ve been a steadfast audience, and I’ve been able to turn several co-workers into speakers.
The many many, many guest speakers - especially Cloudera and Hortonworks both supported the meetup from inception. I couldn't have done it without you!
Thanks to IBM for supporting the meetup post Explorys acquisition.
Case Western Reserve University (Computer Science Department, Hacker’s Society), Kent State University (Computer Science Department, Hacker’s Society, Center for Information Systems), and Cleveland State University.
Progressive Insurance – Progressive was sending 5 people to every meetup even before they were using Hadoop. And then got even more involved once they did, now co-hosting the meetup.
Great Lakes Science Center. Several great meetups there and a great group of people to work with.
Global Center for Health Innovation (HIMSS Innovation Floor) – We’ve had several great meetups here too. Thanks to John Paganini for always taking care of us.
© 2016 – Doug Meil