On Developer Communities: You Can Tune A Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish

On Developer Communities… 

I hold the following hypotheses about successful, growing, and thriving developer communities:

  1. First, you need a team builder
  2. You can run a company like a user group, but the inverse is not always true.
  3. Quality always works.
  4. People are not resources or assets.
  5. Don’t go away.

Each hypothesis is accompanied by one or more “anti-hypotheses” – clues that you are not participating in a sustainable developer community. 

Every Square Is A Rectangle…

… but not all rectangles are squares. You can run a company like a user group, but the inverse is not always true. You can tune a piano but you can’t tuna fish. What do I mean by all this?

User Groups are big extended communities – almost a family to some members. Meetings are anticipated. Folks even get excited about the newsletter emails! Communication is required, and it must be clear, concise, and consistent.

Just like in corporations.

But there are distinctions to be made. User Groups are nearly always volunteer efforts – even when there is sponsorship money involved. As such, leadership has to exercise patience and maturity when asking things of membership or other leaders. Demands are verboten. Ultimatums are useless. Authority is an honor.

Anti-hypothesis: If leadership wields authority by making demands and delivering ultimatums, you are participating in a dysfunctional community.

Leadership is a privilege.

When there is money involved, the collection and dispersing of finances must be transparent to leadership at a minimum, and should be reported to membership yearly.

More Of Our Story

When we organized the first Richmond Code Camp, companies in the area began asking us about sponsoring User Group meetings. Through sheer serendipity, one company in town pretty much had a lock user group sponsorships. As president of both groups, I now began fielding embarrassing questions about the situation.

At the same time, I wanted to give away cool swag at Code Camps. When I say “cool swag” I mean an X-Box. Although a mediocre salesperson, I could not convince Code Camp contributors to contribute an X-Box. So I began searching for an alternative… “maybe we could buy an X-Box if only we had some money” I thought… (which again reminded me of the Steve Martin shtick mentioned in the first post).

Darrell Norton is an MVP with an MBA from Richmond. If you have a local MVP who has an MBA you already know this: those guys come in handy now and then! Darrell had written a business plan for developer communities years earlier while working in Virginia’s Tidewater region. He circulated it some back then and got at least one taker: a user group from NoVa. It had worked very well for them.

The plan consists of multiple tiers of sponsorship: platinum costs the most but keeps your logo on our website and all communications for a year. Platinum sponsors also get to choose two monthly meetings to sponsor, for which they provide food for the attendees. Gold, Silver, and Bronze levels cost progressively less and offer progressively less to the sponsor.

I approached the company that held the lock on Richmond User Groups and laid out the plan. They had steadfastly supported the developer community for three years. I was going to open up the groups to outside sponsorship using Darrell’s plan, and I would give the company holding the lock three years at the Platinum level for both the Richmond .Net Users Group and the Richmond SQL Server Users Group – free. They agreed.

With our first sponsorship check in late 2006, I formed Richmond User Groups Corporation using LegalZoom. An S-Corporation in the Commonwealth of Virginia, we became a not-for-profit corporation and did not file for charitable status. This preserved the option of selling stuff (sponsorships).

If you plan to follow a similar road, you definitely need to check on the laws in your state, province, and/or nation to see what’s allowed and what isn’t.

The corporation sheilds the officers and crew of the User Groups and Code Camps from some legal situations. It also allows our sponsors to write off the money they send to us for sponsorships as a business expense. Best of all, it makes us look (and feel and behave, believe it or not) like professionals.

In addition, the websites for Richmond User Groups are wholly-owned by the Richmond User Groups Corporation. Remember (from the first post in this series), leaders can flow into and out of leadership. When they leave, the websites are not disrupted – the leaders do not own them, the corporation does.

All that is required when a leader moves away is a change of corporate officer titles. Done and done.


Perhaps incorporating isn’t the way for you to go. Regardless, remember the cool ideas practiced in user groups will work in your corporation. Communities work, people are social (even us geeks!) and want to belong!

:{> Andy

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