When I first started going to the Dallas Ruby Brigade (DRB) I was silent. I might as well have been invisible. A fly on the wall. I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
At the time, I was working in Perl and PHP and I wanted out. I tried a few languages and found myself really enjoying Ruby. I wanted to learn more about it and this group could teach me. I wanted to teach and present and this group could watch me. I wanted a job doing Ruby and this group could get me hired.
I also knew that to do these things effectively I’d have to network. You can’t network if you don’t talk.
After each talk, people would walk around and chat. I tried to mingle but I was terrible at it. If you do anything, like open a laptop, people assume you’re busy and won’t bother you. Instead, I’d saunter through the room or sit and look around hoping someone would talk to me. If I was lucky I would see someone looking as awkward as I felt and strike up a conversation.
I slowly started to meet people. Some came back. Some didn’t. I started remembering faces and eventually names. Then I’d meet people they knew through introductions or random conversations. The mingling quickly became one of the best parts of the meeting. I’d listen to the experienced devs talk shop. They’d discuss libraries they liked and which patterns they preferred. I also found other people who were learning and we’d shared good resources we’d found.
It wasn’t too long before I found a company looking for developers and I was in. They hired me as their fourth dev and my Ruby career began. As we grew we continually looked back to the DRB for devs. Getting to know people in the group is almost like a pre-screening. It gave us a better feel for the person and their skills than an interview alone. We built a good reputation through hosting, presenting, and helping. When it was time to hire we always had a applicants from the DRB.
My first presentation was a talk about the perils of dates, times, and timezones to a room of about 40 people. It was the first of many talks I’d end up giving. Local user groups are a great place to practice. I can always get honest feedback and I don’t have to worry about it being perfect. We’re not recording these and blasting them out to the world. Mistakes are easily forgiven and the crowd is friendly. Giving talks locally built my confidence and has led to conference talks like the one I gave at RubyHACK in May.
Even now, as an experienced Rubyist, I find my network continuing to help. I know lots of people and companies in the area. A couple of years ago I decided to leave full time employment and freelance. My first contract came from a freelancing friend I met there. He gave me a rundown of what to expect, helped me pick a rate, and got me an interview. When that contract was up I emailed a couple people from the group and quickly had another. I’ve had people talk to me about positions before they were publicly available. I’ve gotten job offers without an interview. Attending DRB gave people a chance to know me. They’ve heard me speak, chatted with me, and gotten to know me. I’ve also gotten to know them. I’ve heard about what it was like to work here or there. Which places are good to work at and which ones aren’t.
Along with the networking, I’m also learning how to run a group like the DRB as an organizer. I recommend finding a local user group for whatever language or technology you’re interested in. These groups have a lot to offer. Unlike watching a talk online, local user groups let you ask questions and join discussions afterwords. Unlike a conference, you’ll really get the chance to get to know people over time. Local user groups are a chance to network, dive deep, get help, and grow yourself. Don’t show up and make the mistake I did. Don’t be a fly on the wall. Talk to people. We’re pretty nice.