One of the issues I’ve noticed with student developers is their lack of practice in their art. This is understandable, considering you always have to start somewhere and build a foundation, and that can be very scary. Just as musicians must listen to and learn from other musicians (say, guitarists eyeing the Eagles’ Joe Walsh), developers need to listen and learn to other developers. Local user groups are a great way to do this, and usually without costing a dime.
What User Groups Offer
User Groups offer you the ability to chill out with people with the same interests and exchange ideas, ask and answer questions, and be surrounded by those who are like you. If you’re trying to learn how to code in Java, hanging out at McDonald’s isn’t going to do it. Going to a Java User Group, usually called a JUG, is where you’re going to learn to hone your craft. User Group meetings usually have some sort of topical presentation, then breakout sessions for specific topics, such as Web development, mobile development, and database solutions.
Finding User Groups
There are many resources out there to help you find a user group. Bing and Google are your friends, especially since there aren’t usually more than a handful of groups per topic per capita. So, starting with search engines is a good place to begin. It should be as easy as entering your nearest major city and the topic plus the term user group. Additionally, many of the developer user groups are part of a larger user group movement across the world, so I would look for <City Name> + <User Group Type You’re Looking For>, such as:
- Indianapolis .NET User Group
- Bay Area SQL Users Group
- Boston PHP User Group
Some of these groups have particular nomenclature for themselves, such as Java User Groups being named JUGs. So, the following chart may help as well when crawling through search results:
- Indiana + Windows User Group = I + WUG = IWUG
- Indiana + Linux User Group = L + WUG = LWUG
- Indiana .NET Developer Association = Indy + NDA = IndyNDA
- Indiana Java User Group = Indy + JUG = Indy JUG
- Indy + SQL Association = Indy PASS
- Indy + Alternative to .NET-Only User Groups = Indy ALT.NET
A number of industry organizations have formed and make available lists of user group meeting locations. Some of these organizations include INETA, SQL PASS, GITCA, Java User Group (JUG) Community,
You may also want to check out APCUG, the Association of Personal User Groups. While I’m not sure they’re as popular as they were in the 80s and 90s, they may still be able to help.
Still other ways to find user groups include platform Web sites, such as Microsoft’s Web site, the Java Web site and others… they usually have a support and/or resources section for finding gathering grounds for like minds.
Find Friends in Your Field (a.k.a. “Networking”)
Another opportunity presented by user groups is the ability to network, which is the act of finding people who can help achieve your mutual goals. If you’re a student looking for an internship, you’re much more likely to find people willing to bring you on if you’re regularly attending user groups than if you just outright search for internships.
Perception is reality – if you’re attending groups with people who know their stuff, other people in those groups will start to believe you know your stuff as well. It sure is easier to land an internship or a job if you’re a known quantity.
It’s easy to get disheartened when starting in software development. There are a lot of people who know more than you. But all those people started where you are today. Those same people are willing to help you get better, possibly better than them! It’s always best to surround yourself with and learn from people who know more than you. It keeps things real, and makes you a better developer.
Obviously Bing and Google are your friends when it comes to finding info on the Web. Some of the links below may also help you quickly find a user group resource: