.NET Group Therapy
By Jonathan Goodyear
Previously in asp.netPRO, I talked about the amazing groundswell of interest that has surrounded the .NET Framework since its early beta releases. More than two million developers have downloaded it, and the industry buzz surrounding .NET is truly remarkable. While these results are a good sign of industry awareness, they can't be correlated directly to industry acceptance and understanding. To achieve this, more help is needed.
In that column, I mentioned the large number of .NET books, Web sites, and conferences that have made their way onto the scene. These methods are helpful, but they also have their shortcomings. Books and Web sites are good as reference tools, but don't offer the human interaction necessary to answer readers' questions. Conferences offer an opportunity for developers to discuss .NET with industry experts, but it's on a time-constrained basis. There's rarely enough time to delve into significant detail. Even then, the material is often forgotten a few weeks after the developer returns home and gets back to work.
In the past, these kinds of limitations have prompted developers to form user groups. User groups offer developers a recurring forum in which they can learn new techniques and discuss any issues that they're encountering. The community-like nature of a successful user group is tremendously beneficial to the learning process (similar to study groups in college). The problem is, starting an effective user group can be a difficult task. Fortunately, there's help available.
Recently, the International .NET Association (INETA) was formed to unify the numerous .NET user groups that have cropped up around the country, as well as around the world. It was also created to encourage the establishment of new .NET user groups. I had the opportunity to speak with two of INETA's board members, Bill Evjen, executive director of INETA and president of the St. Louis .NET User Group (STLNET), and Barton Friedland, founder and group chair of the Bay Area .NET User Group (Bay.NET), while attending the Visual Studio .NET launch in February 2002. According to Evjen and Friedland, the goal of INETA is to help mentor smaller .NET user groups and create strong membership by providing resources, such as a central repository of PowerPoint slide decks on various .NET topics. The INETA Web site (http://www.ineta.org) has a searchable list of .NET user groups, enabling developers to easily find one in their area. INETA also plans to allow .NET user groups to promote themselves at major .NET events.
A compelling aspect about INETA is that it advocates a hierarchical structure in which a user group is divided into subgroups based on specific .NET topics. For example, one subgroup may focus on ASP.NET caching, while another subgroup focuses on consuming Web Services using Windows Forms. Each subgroup is facilitated by the person who suggested that the subgroup be created. There's no limit to the number of subgroups, nor is there a limit to how many subgroups a member can join.
There are two big advantages to this user group structure. First, the issues discussed within each subgroup are highly targeted, which makes it more likely that members will get exactly what they're looking for. Second, the smaller size of subgroups enables them to meet in smaller venues, such as a small office, restaurant, or even a member's house. Members get to know each other on a first-name basis, which creates a tighter community. Without subgroups, user groups such as STLNET (which has a membership exceeding 500) could become unwieldy. There are still meetings with the entire user group, but the smaller subgroups meet more often on their own.
One of the reasons why user groups in smaller metropolitan areas have a hard time succeeding is because it's nearly impossible for them to spark local interest by booking industry experts to speak at their meetings. This is a logistical problem more than a financial one, because most industry experts are willing to donate their time to user groups free of charge. INETA hopes that with the support of Microsoft, they'll be able to create a speakers bureau, making .NET experts available to fledgling user groups to help them grow. Presentations from marquee speakers will also be available via streaming media.
I encourage you to find and join a .NET user group. If they haven't joined INETA, suggest it at your next meeting. If there isn't a .NET user group nearby, contact INETA for help starting one. Most importantly, if you have .NET expertise, share it with others through user groups. It will definitely be appreciated by your peers. User groups are a way for you to leverage the talent and real-world experience of other developers in a way that isn't easily reproduced through online media, such as forums, newsgroups, and listservs. Plus, who knows? The contacts you make might just lead you to your .NET dream job.
Jonathan Goodyear is president of ASPSoft (http://www.aspsoft.com), an Internet consulting firm based in Orlando, FL. He is a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer and is author of Debugging ASP.NET (New Riders Publishing). Jonathan also is a contributing editor for asp.netPRO. Reach him by e-mail at mailto:[email protected] or through his electronic magazine, angryCoder, at http://www.angryCoder.com.