How to make tech meetups work for you

Informal meetups have a lot to offer tech professionals. Here’s how to get the most out of meetup events.

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On any given day, more than 9,000 groups in 180 countries will gather somewhere in their local community to attend a “meetup,” according to the company that coined the term and originated the concept, Meetup.com. While topics range widely – from Texas Hold’em to plant-based nutrition – there are more listings for technology-focused topics than any other area, except careers/business.

Search under hot topics like big data and mobile development and you’ll find thousands of groups and millions of members, while general topics like software development and new technology each list over 10,000 groups, and 4 million members.

Groups on the east and west coasts are particularly strong, with NY Tech Meetup and Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs & Startups boasting 49,149 and 24,548 members, respectively. One analyst even claims you can use meetup data to determine which cities are the hottest for startups.

“From virtual reality developers, to entrepreneurs, engineers, artists, early adopters and quantum neuro-hackers, meetup groups within the tech community are gaining wild popularity and have become one of the most beneficial ways for the tech-savvy to network,” says Ashley Leonard, CEO and president of Verismic Software. “There’s even a meetup just for women called Girls inTech, a relatively new group with over 200 members,” he says.

The question for IT professionals is how to use a meetup to advance your career or professional knowledge. Here are some tips for doing just that.

1. Be open-minded.

Because many meetups are geared toward people who want to improve their social life or pursue a personal interest, it’s easy to not take them seriously. However, this misperception can undercut your professional pursuits.

“For years I dismissed the idea of joining one due to my preconceived notions that they were for wine enthusiasts, book readers and new moms,” Leonard says. “I was wrong. Being part of a meetup group has not only introduced me to new ideas but also new connections and an exceptional talent pool of potential new employees for my software company.”

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Unlike a professional networking group populated by members who are unemployed and looking for a job, meetups are generally attended by people who are affiliated with a company, whether as a contractor or employee, points out Matthew Moran, founder of Pulse Infomatics, an applications development and IT consulting provider. This makes them a great place to get your skills recognized, he says. “The unfortunate reality with job support groups is that it’s hard for someone not working to refer you into a place,” he says. While employment networking groups can provide great support, he says, it would be more fruitful to network with people who are not in the same boat as you are.

2. Discover your inner extrovert.

While Derek Peterson, vice president of business development at Intelligent Product Solutions (IPS), attends a variety of meetups on topics ranging from security to the IoT, the ones that do best, he says, are when attendees are willing to participate and meet new people. In contrast with an industry conference or other tech gathering, meetups are more casual events, where people let down their guard, Peterson says. “They often take place after-hours, hors d’oeuvres are served, and people are willing to talk more.”

For example, Peterson is a member of an Internet of Things meetup in New York City that meets every quarter, at which 30 members discuss ways to promote and overcome barriers to using the IoT. “I get to meet with the movers and shakers in the chip industry and cloud infrastructure, so it’s helped my practice,” he says. Peterson is also part of a startup-focused meetup, which has helped him identify promising startups for IPS to nurture through its Kickbox program, which offers mentorship and discount engineering rates.

Other meetups that Peterson has been involved with focus on Jewish engineers, VMware and Amazon Web Services. He also flew out to Las Vegas when invited by a senior executive to a meetup focused on crowdfunding. “You get out what you put in,” he says, adding that the trip yielded a key account for IPS. In other cases, he says, “I’ve seen events where engineers were introverted,” he says. “It can be hit or miss.”

Moran agrees that the informality of meetups is their strength, as opposed to events sponsored by an organization. “They’re driven by the members of the group, so there are no established guidelines,” he says. “It’s definitely a boots-on-the-ground, get-together-with-other-people kind of thing.”

3. Get off your phone.

The physical nature of meetups also makes them more beneficial than the networking you can do online on social media sites like LinkedIn, Moran says. “With social media, the relationship often begins and ends with the click of accepting an invitation -- you don’t actually connect,” he says. “In this regard, meetups do provide a very tangible interaction.” After all, the original intent behind meetups was to “use the Internet to get off the Internet,” according to Meetup co-founder Brendan McGovern, and connect with others face-to-face in the local community.

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Leonard agrees. “Especially in an industry where professionals are categorized as cloistered behind four walls and attached to their computers all day long, meetups are fast becoming a great way to physically connect, share ideas with like-minded individuals, and have a little fun at the same time,” he says.

4. Understand the group’s purpose.

Not all meetups are created equal. While some are designed just for networking or socializing, others are focused on group projects, workshop, lectures, presentations or problem-solving. While meetup sponsors can be flexible about responding to attendees’ needs and desires, it’s important to know what you’re getting into and whether the group fits your goals.

“Many meetup groups build programs and partnerships to support the growth and diversification of the tech industry of a specific city or region,” Leonard explains. For example, he says, NY Tech Meetup has worked with the Association for a Better New York, Citi and Google to create “The New York City Tech Ecosystem” report. It also hosts monthly events at which members are among the first to watch emerging companies demo new ideas, he says.

Many tech meetups around the world also bring in leading technology experts for lively discussions and speaking engagements, all to help support the tech community, Leonard adds. “In London, one tech meetup helps job seekers stick to their resolutions by arranging venues where they can meet with companies in a low-stress environment for an evening of drinks and appetizers,” he says. “It’s not only beneficial for the opportunity seeker but also businesses looking for new talent or developing growth strategies.”

Peterson’s IoT meetup is focused on overcoming barriers to IoT in New York City, helping small companies understand the technology and providing universities with insights on adding IoT to their curricula. In one case, Peterson was invited to be a guest speaker for a graduate engineering course on IoT sensors and connecting to the cloud.

When Moran joined the L.A. Eastside Web App Development meetup, it was with the specific intent of advancing his skills and knowledge in that area. The meetup takes a problem-solving approach, with attendees presenting their work, whether to show how they accomplished something or ask others for advice on resolving an issue they’ve run into. “It’s people at various skill levels, hands-on-the-keyboard, creating Web apps,” he says. “We’re learning not skills and theories but what other people are actually working on.”

At least two people in the group have gotten their latest jobs through the meetup, he says, as people can easily assess each other’s skills. “You’ve shown you have this talent, and it’s apparent you have this skillset because the group focuses on doing and showing.”

5. Consider being a presenter.

While it might seem intimidating, presenting is a good way to get valuable feedback on your skills and receive suggestions for improvement, while also getting noticed for your capabilities. “It’s not a place for headhunters or general networking, but distinctly a peer group to share knowledge and develop best practices,” Moran says. Demos can range from a tool you’ve been using, to code you’ve built or a technique that’s helped you overcome a particular problem. “It helps advance your talent faster and develop your skill set in a focused area,” he says.

Brandel is a freelance writer. She can be reached at marybrandel@verizon.net.

This story, "How to make tech meetups work for you " was originally published by Network World.

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