Don’t overlook the value of user groups

In recent times we’ve seen an explosion of information sources and the formats they’re delivered through.  You’re all reading a blog right now and most of us have at least once followed someone on Twitter or listened to a podcast, however these formats are almost exclusively one way, you’re only being told what the author wanted to tell you with little follow-up interaction available.  While these formats are a great way of learning what’s happening outside of your normal environment they don’t always help answer specific questions you might have or give you an insight for the reactions of your peers to new or alternative ways of working.

Despite the ease of online access one of the biggest potential sources of information and inspiration for us can come from what are ironically the most overlooked and oldest sources, user groups.  While groups often offer websites, online forums and newsletters their biggest value comes from the meetings they arrange; being able to actually meet and talk in person with people who maybe unbelievably similar or different to you but who all have one interest in common.

Recently I visited a meeting of the UK SQL Server user group (http://www.sqlserverfaq.com/), an independent group with 9,000 registered members who use their black book of relationships to attract the most relevant guest speakers.  When I attended there were around 35 people, ranging from a database manager for a global investment bank to an IT engineer who after 18 years of using Oracle was now migrating to SQL Server.  Both had different reasons for being there, one keeping abreast of new features the other gaining confidence in a new world, but both left feeling equally as informed.  The evening had demonstrations, presentations and an open floor Q & A session where everything from people’s desire to use new features to technical problems that no amount of Google’ing had been able to solve were discussed.  Most beneficial however were the tea and coffee breaks, a chance to chat informally with people whose everyday lives touched SQL Server, not product marketing analysts, sales people, or support engineers hiding behind a corporate support desk.  Instead I could see the emotions of the people for who it matters whether partitioning was as exciting as the SQL Server website makes out, or whether like when I was a DBA all that actually matters is still stability and performance.

There are many user groups, some independent, some vendor-led, some free, some subscription based however whatever the product or technology you are sure to find an interactive forum where no problem is too small, too irrelevant and where you can look into the eyes of the person giving you their advice, and while my BlackBerry may bring me dozens of RSS updates a day it’s yet to deliver me the emotion and seriousness with which they were written with.

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