I’ve been one of the co-leaders of the Brisbane VMUG chapter for around 2.5 years now. We recently welcomed a new leader to the team and it’s given me the opportunity to participate in knowledge sharing with him, along with working through what is and isn’t working. The idea of this post isn’t to whine about stuff, or criticize anyone, but rather to gather my thoughts and tell you all about what’s good and bad. You might even have some ideas on how to make it better.
According to their website, “the VMware User Group (VMUG) is an independent, global, customer-led organization, created to maximize members’ use of VMware and partner solutions through knowledge sharing, training, collaboration, and events”. VMUG is pretty careful about being viewed as independent from VMware, and they have staff and support folk who don’t work for VMware. They have a board and by-laws and all that good stuff. But at its core it’s a group that is focused on things that matter to VMware. I think it’s a good idea to bring people together with a common interest and feed them more knowledge relating to that common interest, particularly within the framework of an independent, customer-led group. That’s why model train clubs are popular (I imagine). The idea is that geographic areas with any sort of significant enthusiasm for VMware-related stuff can start their own chapter and get support from VMUG HQ.
The people are what makes VMUG work. Without a bunch of people volunteering their time as leaders, and without a bunch of people attending VMUG meetings, there would simply be no VMUG. It would instead be VMware marketing trying to organise product pitches to semi-interested users.
Without the sponsors, there wouldn’t be a lot going on at the VMUG meetings either. Every meeting would potentially just involve the VMUG leaders and / or a VMware representative talking about whatever the popular go-to-market thing is that quarter. Sponsors also bring a bit extra to the table in terms of technical content and some funding for pizza and vBeers at the event.
So What’s Broken?
From my very limited view of the world, there are a few issues with the model right now. Note that these are not necessarily problems that VMUG can easily fix, and I think they’ve been caused by a shift in the market rather than any wrong doing on behalf of VMUG.
Sponsors Want A Return
In Brisbane we get anywhere between 20 – 50 people showing up to our meetings (held every 2-3 months). It depends a lot on the content, the location, and the vendor(s) sponsoring (and whether they’ve done their own promotion). VMUG HQ suggests that the meeting be held in a neutral location (i.e. not a vendor’s office) to encourage participation from a wide range of folks. Our experience, however, has been that there aren’t a lot of community halls or the like in a central location in Brisbane that we can hire for a reasonable price. The places that do exist don’t always like it when you bring your own beverages along, or they’re a little ways away from the nearest watering hole (this is hard to imagine in Brisbane, I know). One alternative is to hire a hotel conference room or some space at a pub. These places can cost between a few hundred to a thousand dollars, and some expect a minimum bar spend as well. The problem then is that these spaces aren’t always in secluded areas, so you’ve got the sounds of punters at the bar to contend with while you’re trying to talk about blueprints in vRA.
The other problem is that sponsors often don’t see the value in putting down $2K when they’re getting 20 people through the door. It doesn’t matter that they’ll happily spend the same amount at a steak restaurant for a bunch of executives from a key client. The fact is that they don’t see a bunch of scruffy nerds as a good investment. As a result of this reluctance to pay for venues, we’ve had to hold meetings at our employers premises. This makes the sponsors happy as they have to stump up less cash, but then sometimes draws the ire of folks inside VMware. Yes, I was once told that we should be holding our meeting somewhere neutral so other partners would feel free to come along. I understand this in theory, but it came from someone who hadn’t been to an event in as long as I can remember. I’m not bitter though.
VMUG Attendees Want To See Something Interesting
Attendees are taking an hour or two of their time to come to these meetings. Sure, they might get some pizza of reasonable quality, but they want to get some value out of their time investment too. They don’t want the sponsor to just lob up and pitch their latest marketing slide. They want to hear something about how the sponsor can help them solve their problem in an interesting way that is related to how they use VMware products. They’d like to see a demo. They also want to talk to their peers about what they’re doing and the problems they’re having. Note, however, that they may not want to talk about this stuff in front of the group, or during the meeting because they’re shy, or don’t want to disrupt the flow of the presentation. Some people just aren’t into talking about this stuff in front of a group of strangers. Some of the best conversations I’ve witnessed have been after the main presentations are finished.
VMUG Leaders Don’t Like Logistics
As part of being a VMUG leader, it’s on me to organise sponsors, find a suitable venue, write up the agenda, and run the meeting, all while trying to keep the attendees, VMware and the sponsors happy and engaged. I knew all of this before I signed on as a volunteer, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy some of the logistics of the role. I’ve had people complain about the venue from time to time (because not everyone’s going to be happy). I’ve also had sponsors turn up to the meeting and tell me their budget was already fixed so they couldn’t afford to pay for the pizza. They told me this at the meeting, mind you, not beforehand. I guess some people have a different definition of the word sponsor.
Event management (as anyone who does it in real life already knows) is a real pain in the backside, and it’s hard to pull off. I’m definitely not terribly adept at it, and I learn something new every meeting. It’s like organising a dinner party for a bunch of strangers every few months, and wondering if you’ll be popular enough for them to show up (even though they’ve all said they’ll come along). Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But I like to remind people that I do this for free, so from time to time you’ll very much be getting what you pay for.
Not Everyone Is In The U.S.
This one is a bit hard to explain, particularly to people who live in the U.S., but not everyone works at the scale that key markets do in the U.S. As a result of this, we don’t always get 400 people lobbing up to a meeting, and can’t always get multiple sponsors to pitch in thousands of dollars for giveaways, venues and so forth. I’m not suggesting that anyone’s been critical of us for this, but sometimes it feels like VMUG is geared up to operate well in a certain part of the world, and it is sometimes confusing for them when it’s not the same elsewhere.
So Why Do It?
I’ve been involved off and on in our local VMUG for some time now, and I’m a massive fan of groups that get together to talk about common interests. But just like special interest groups on Facebook, there are going to be people that annoy you. And just like being a volunteer for some sporting club in your local community, it will sometimes feel like it’s a thankless task at best.
But there’s so much that can be gained from these types of organisations. And there’s so much to gain from giving back to the community. The opportunity to share knowledge with your peers, to hear about how other people are doing things in their environment, the chance to network with vendors and VMware and provide feedback on their products and solutions is priceless. Heck, we have our very own VCDX who is always volunteering his time to come and talk to people (travel schedule permitting). And there’s usually pizza. Whilst I think that some of the recent downturn in attendance numbers has been due to a shift in market interest (the Nutanix and AWS groups are pretty well attended locally), there’s still a great opportunity to get value out of VMUG. You are not alone when it comes to your experiences with VMware products, and I think it’s nice to have the opportunity to share these experiences with the backing of an organization like VMUG. It’s also nice to know that there’s a global organization of people (both leaders and members) who are enthusiastic participants in VMUG and are working towards a common purpose.
Now, if anyone has suggestions on how we can do the venue and logistics better (we’re trying something different for the next meeting), how we can get sponsors to better understand the value proposition of community engagement, and how we can get more people interested and actually turning up to meetings, feel free to reach out. We’re also very keen to get more customer involvement, either via leadership or content presentation, so please let us know if that’s something you’d like to explore further as well.