User groups are a kind of informal club that focus on technology, and they are one of the great traditions in the short history of computing. One of the earliest, and certainly most famous, was the legendary Homebrew Computer Club of Silicon Valley. It's members included founders of Apple Computer, Osborne Computer, Fairchild Semiconductor and more.
They still exist today. In fact there are probably more groups meeting about more technologies than ever before. Even though so much information can be (and is) exchanged over the internet user groups thrive, and new groups continue to be created to serve new technologies, opportunities and regions.
Participating in user groups is educational, informative and a great way to honor a computing tradition. If you are serious about technology going to a user group can feel almost like going to church..
User groups also present a great opportunity to affordably and effectively find, evaluate and recruit technical talent. At little if any cost they get you into a room with talented people that you can observe as they interact and exchange ideas with their peers.
The first step is finding the group with people that meet your needs. The best approach is usually Meetup.com. Meetup represents almost twenty million members in almost two hundred thousand groups in almost two hundred countries. It is the largest network of local user groups and the best place to start a search.
The search features and filters on the Meetup website make it easy to find appropriate groups. For example maybe you have an idea for a mobile app and are looking for a someone to help you develop it. You would search for something like "Mobile App Development" and specify your location and a radius. Below you see a search for iOS developers within a 50 mile radius of Boston.
If you are near any major city and interested in a popular technology, you are likely to have many available groups from which to choose. Read the group descriptions carefully – some will be very focussed on your area of interest while others only touch on it. Look for the best possible match.
One of my favorite groups is SOFA (the Southern Ontario FileMaker Alliance). It is a great group of FileMaker developers run by Doug Gardner of Exoteric – an outstanding FileMaker solution development consultancy in Toronto.
In advance of the meeting you'll see the names of the people that have committed to going and links to their bios. Read these carefully, looking for potential matches that you think might be a good fit. You don't want to go to the meeting and fall in love with someone that has not chance of being available for your company or project.
Focus on the most likely candidates. Make a note of their names and try to remember their faces – all members should have a photograph and you'll be watching them closely at the meeting.
Here is a (somewhat irreverent) example from Charles Delfs, a very talented FileMaker developer I connected with through the SOFA meetup.
Meetings often begin with the organizer asking if there are any announcements. This can be a great opportunity for you to introduce yourself and explain that you are looking to hire someone. It can prompt the members who are looking for work into seeking you out later, and it will often nudge them into being more active during the meeting.
That is exactly what you want and the real beauty of recruiting in this kind of scenario. You get to see how a potential recruit works and interacts with peers (the other attendees) and authority or "management" (the organizer). It is a very valuable perspective that is hard to get in an interview setting.
You also get a good sense of the relative expertise of the members. Some participants will be highly respected and you will notice that everyone inches forward in their seats when they speak. Other members will clearly be more junior, and that most of their questions are answered easily by the rest of the group.
This kind of peer evaluation is very helpful, particularly if you aren't in a position to judge technical expertise on your own. And don't forget – it's not always the most senior or experienced person you want. If you have a specific, very complex problem you need help with then a highly experienced "fixer" may be just what you need.
But senior often means expensive, and your project not require the highest level of expertise. Yyou may be better off with less expensive/less experienced talent that can come back to this group and get answers to tough questions if/when they need them.
User groups usually end up with a social period. Sometimes for example the members hang around and mingle over pizza. This is your chance – seek out the people you think might be a good fit.
It's fine to be direct. If you are looking for a freelancer it's perfectly OK to just introduce yourself and say something like "Hi. I enjoyed your comments. Do you have any hours available?"
Whatever the reply have a card ready give it to them even if they aren't interested/available. Things change quickly, and it's also likely they know other techs. Just ask that they keep you in mind if they – or someone they respect – ever has some time available.
Often groups skip the pizza and move right to a local pub. This can be a better venue to approach potential hires but try and catch them beforehand, as the meeting is breaking up. Make sure they are coming along and joining the group at the pub.
If they are... perfect. Tell them you hope to speak with them there. If not get down to business right away – don't miss the opportunity to speak and have to wait until the following meeting.