November 10th, 2009 marked a pretty dramatic turning point in my career. The startup I worked for was in a tailspin, and a friend who’d escaped invited me to visit his new workplace for a meeting of the Utah Ruby Users Group.
This was the first time I’d attended URUG, or anything like it, and it was scary as hell. There were smart people talking about things I didn’t understand, and a guy in a fez who seemed to be asking lots of annoying questions.
Mike Moore showed off a fascinating new technology called Ruby Version Manager by a fellow named Wayne Seguin. People talked about the dramatic changes in Rails that would soon take place due to the work of people like Yehuda Katz.
I was literally incapable of processing about 90% of the conversation in the room, and terrified someone would ask me to say something and expect me to do anything but make a fool of myself.
Even though I was so bewildered that I literally cannot remember who was at that first meeting, I’ve since learned that at several of the people were there are now some of my closest friends. Over time, I became a part of this community that literally saved my career.
Here’s why I think the URUG community’s been so important to me:
1. It’s consistent.
It’s easy to forget now that there were moments where I very nearly gave up on breaking into software development. It would have been so easy for me to go back to marketing, and I had several opportunities where I could hang up my still-new coding spurs and have a long, prosperous career with the word “product”, “process” or “manager” in the title.
But I got to associate with the people at URUG every month, and I was able to keep my eyes on the prize. It repeatedly connected me with me the kind of people I wanted to emulate, and the kind of work I wanted to do.
Just having a single night where I knew I’d be around great people was an anchor when becoming a software developer still seemed like a distant goal.
2. It’s accepting.
The guy in the fez may have been irritating, but nobody chased him off. I was irritating, I’m sure, and nobody chased me off. It was the only time I was able to have a face-to-face discussion with experienced Rubyists, ask my stupid questions, and come back next month with more.
Never once have I seen behavior at a URUG meeting that I felt embarrassed by, nor do I hear people say negative things behind others’ backs. I’m very proud to say that the kind of people who show up to user groups seem to be the kind of people who are interested in building one another up.
3. It’s a chance to contribute.
I once wrote a blog post about why I don’t contribute to open source, and now I realize I missed the point entirely. A friend pointed me to an old talk by Chad Fowler, one of my heroes, where he mentioned that people should contribute in their own specific ways.
My problem was that I was trying to contribute to the community in exactly the same way as people who are the best coders can contribute. So contribution felt like an obligation that I was failing.
That’s why one of my favorite things about the URUG is that everyone is, at some point, asked to participate. Even as a brand-new coder, I was given a topic to research and come back to share the following month. I mangled it, I’m sure, but the group interacted with me, applauded, and I gained the confidence to do it again later.
User Groups are a wonderful way for people to ease into contributing to a community without feeling like they’re competing with ninja-coder strangers on the other side of the planet. In fact, it’s so sneaky that you may not realize that you’re contributing just by being yourself and showing up.
My opportunity to help
Last week, I was asked if I’d be willing to handle the responsibility of organizing the Utah Valley Ruby Brigade. It’s intimidating, as I haven’t done anything like this before, but I am so grateful to be getting a chance to contribute the best way I know how.
At lunch with Mike Moore this week, we briefly talked about what sort of “outreach” programs we might offer to newbies. I do teach a programming class to non-programmers and think that’s a fun and noble goal. However, the most valuable thing is what URUG already offers: consistent meetups with friendly, smart people who are actively invested in one another’s success.
I can’t begin to thank Mike Moore and Jake Mallory for their work in maintaining URUG, and hope I can put at least some of the value in that I’ve received over the last two years.
For now, the best I can hope for is to bring my newcomer’s enthusiasm, not break the things that are working, and learn the rest as I go along.