Most technology user groups are started by — you guessed it — users of the technology, be it .NET, Python, or in my case, SQL Server. The catch is that I’m not a SQL Server user, or at least I don’t get paid for it. I was laid off in November 2013 and found myself unemployable: I had no experience in my collegiate background (chemical engineering), no experience selling (what I was initially hired to do), and though my last title was Business Analyst (BA), all the BA jobs were IT-related while my last role was more like, “Here’s our business…now analyze it.” What I did have experience in (and loved doing) was using Microsoft Access and SharePoint to optimize and “de-spreadsheet” business processes. The next logical step to continue working in this capacity was to learn SQL Server and hope that someone would take a chance on me.
After three failed interviews for obviously lacking enterprise-level database experience, I joined the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS). They have a plethora of virtual chapters with webinars galore, and my mind became a sponge for all things SQL. But to advance my career, I needed to disconnect from the technology and reconnect with the people and organizations in my community. To my surprise, Little Rock only had a .NET user group and lacked a SQL Server user group. So I scratched my own itch by starting the PASS chapter of Central Arkansas. Starting this group not only brought together local data professionals but beautifully complemented our previously established sister organization.
Not reinventing the wheel made starting the user group a cinch. By affiliating the new user group with PASS, I gained access to an internationally recognized organization, a free website, the ever hospitable #sqlpass community, and chapter leader resources that included sponsor contacts for publishers and vendors, i.e. free swag like books and online training passes to give away at our monthly meetings. I contacted several sponsors listed on the PASS website and they helped make our inaugural meeting a huge success. While preparing for the next meeting, I wanted to give away a copy of Joe Celko’s SQL Puzzles and Answers, published by Elsevier under their Morgan Kaufmann imprint. The only problem was that the sponsors listed by PASS didn’t include Elsevier’s Morgan Kaufmann imprint! So I decided to personally reach out to Elsevier to see if they would sponsor our PASS chapter. They were more than happy to sponsor our group and sent not one, but two copies of all the titles I requested, including a discount code for online purchases.
The process of reaching out to Elsevier got me thinking about the role that sponsoring publishers play with user groups. The relationship between a user group and sponsoring publishers goes much deeper than free giveaways at monthly meetings to incentivize participation. Remember Blockbuster and Blackberry phones? Technology evolves rapidly and staying up to date requires users of the technologies to either adapt or expire. By linking user groups to sponsoring publishers, members are equipped with the tools they need to stay relevant. Sponsors can also assist in this regard by connecting user groups with speakers by either using their authors or providing speaker honorariums. I’m not disparaging the value of being autodidactic in one’s learning, but by bringing in timely and relevant speakers to share their knowledge at user group meetings, user group members (sometimes known for not coming out from behind their glowing monitors) are afforded the opportunity to network with other professionals and also engage in peer-learning between meetings. Finally, fresh ideas in startup communities need talented people to create the products and services that will shape our future. User group members can be an oasis for founders who lack the technical savvy to turn ideas into reality. Don’t know any talented developers in your area? Visit your local user group and rest assured that you’ll find the talent you need thanks in part to the publishers who sponsor them.
Since November last year I haven’t given up trying to get my foot in the door as a data professional. And while starting the PASS chapter in my area hasn’t paid the mortgage or put food on my table, the value I’m bringing to my community is remuneration in itself. I’m reminded of an interview where Seth Godin answered skeptics on how he could make a living giving away his ebook, Unleashing the Idea Virus, “Well, my original answer was that I wasn’t trying to make a living, I was trying to make a point. Then I discovered that if you make a point, making a living takes care of itself.”
About the Author
Aaron Kelton is the founder and president of the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) of Central Arkansas chapter, which meets every 2nd Wednesday evening of the month in Little Rock, AR. Drop him a line via Twitter @AaronKelton to speak at an upcoming meeting.