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Tech Meetups In A Pandemic


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Doug Meil of Ontada

I created the Cleveland Big Data Meetup in 2010 and have organized it for over 11 years, over 60 meetups, and with over 100 guest speakers. I have become an expert in the fine art of bulk pizza ordering, and I could probably have a successful career as a wedding planner as long as the guests find a cheese, tomato sauce, and dough-based entrée acceptable. I had settled into a cadence years ago of having meetups every other month. This was the right pace for the meetup (and me) in terms of planning, and an appropriate pace for attendees. Not too much, not too little. Consistency is critical for a successful meetup as sporadic meetup schedules produce sporadic attendance, and each meetup group needs to figure out what works. I had handed out advice to quite a few meetup organizers, to the point that in 2016 I finally took the time to put it in writing. While one of the primary lessons that a successful meetup organizer learns is to never take anything for granted, by 2019 I generally thought there wasn't much that could surprise me about organizing meetups. Then Covid-19 hit. I was so wrong.

I had completed a well-attended in-person meetup on January 27, 2020 at local university and by that time I had already penciled in the location and speakers for the March 16, 2020 meetup as I liked to plan at least one meetup out. I was a judge in hackathon at another local college the weekend of February 7-9, 2020. I remember one of the entries was plotting Covid-19 cases on a map, which were still mostly in Asia at that time. It wasn't a novel use of the frameworks involved but it extremely topical and nicely implemented. In retrospect, that team should have won as Covid-19 went well beyond the prior regional epidemics such as H1N1 or Avian flu. Even though we had all heard of Covid-19 by that point we had no idea what was coming. Everything at that hackathon was completely "normal" – pizzas on tables, lots of handshakes, no social distancing, and no masks.

The health situation in the United States started deteriorating in late February 2020 but I was still planning on proceeding with the next meetup on March 16, 2020 with some changes: no pizza, no handshakes. I checked in practically every day with my co-organizer, the company who was graciously letting us use their auditorium, and the speakers. We were cautious but not paranoid. Things still seemed manageable. Then the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020 and at that point everything became surreal: work-at-home orders kicked in, and an in-person meetup became an impossibility. Confluent, the company behind Apache Kafka, happened to be on the agenda and they offered the use of their zoom account for this meetup which I readily accepted and the meetup went forward online without a hitch.

Pre-Pandemic Considerations

I had wrestled with the concept of remote meetups for years, either live broadcast or recordings. The benefits meant the ability to engage more people than could physically show up for the meetup. I enjoy the flexibility of watching a recorded presentation on my own schedule. But there are some cons with recorded meetups. First, for the speaker it raises the bar awfully high, especially for new speakers or speakers working on experimental or "new material." It takes far more time to produce a highly polished presentation than most people realize. My favorite meetup presentations are when the average nerd gets a chance to present something they had been playing with or researching, or giving a demo of something they were coding a few hours (or minutes) before the meetup. When these types of presentations occur in an In-Person meetup, there is context and the presenter is understood to be curious and brave. If that same presentation is seen later on a recording and out of context, it could come across as unprepared and perhaps slapdash.

This recording apprehension applies not just to speakers, but for audience members as well. Nobody wants to be seen asking what they think is a "dumb question" on video. Similarly, being able to speak to actual people is so important for speakers to see if the audience is tracking the message. There are critical cues – heads tilted, quizzical looks – that are essential to pick up for effective human communication. While one option was to record the meetup and edit out all the questions, unfortunately that takes a lot of time. Managing the meetup was a technical hobby of mine and everybody was doing this for free. It's hard enough organizing it, much less worrying about post-production for a pro bono activity.

Pandemic Considerations

The Cleveland Big Data Meetup continued on its regular cadence, in no small part due to the Linux Foundation letting me use their Zoom account. Remote meetups were the only option, and for that I am grateful. A remote meetup is better than no meetup.

The meetup continued, but when it went fully online, attendance actually went down compared to real-life attendance, despite being even easier to access. That surprised me, and I still don't fully understand why. In my defense, a global pandemic is a fairly large confounding factor. Perhaps attendees time-shifted the meetup and preferred to watch the recording instead of showing up for the live broadcast. Perhaps attendees now had more content options to choose from, given that more content and meetups moved online. Perhaps attendees had 'Zoom burnout' from staring at a screen all day, and the thought of joining another online meetup at 6pm was too much to handle. Perhaps a section of attendees lost interest in attending because of the lack of networking opportunities in an all-online meetup.

A remote meetup is better than no meetup, but it's still not a complete replacement of the real thing.

Post-Pandemic Considerations

At the time of writing in September 2021, the U.S. is still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, so we are all still collectively working through this. But when we do, I don't think the prepandemic world can ever fully come back. This includes not just meetups as they existed previously, but conferences, too. O'Reilly had arguably the best in-person series of technical conferences, and that business was shuttered in 2020.

In spite of the present challenges, I do hope that at least a part of the pre-pandemic world can be recovered, because meeting in-person is not just an important part of building relationships as humans, but also as technical professionals there is no form of communication more efficient than two engineers standing at a whiteboard, which ranks just above two engineers gesturing wildly in a hallway — whether in an office building, meetup, or conference. Face to face is where the deepest trust is built, not just in the resulting decisions but in mindset and thought process. Video frameworks like Zoom can be incredibly useful, but are best used as an augmentation of real-world relationships. But once an online meeting gets above 5-10 or so, it effectively turns into a one-way presentation and not a discussion, and there aren't any opportunities for serendipitous breakout conversations. Remote meetups have benefits, but it's just really hard to meet new people over Zoom, which are one of the primary benefits of an in-person meetup.

As a meetup organizer, I am going to try my best to support a hybrid environment as soon as is reasonably practical and support the best attributes of remote and in-person meetings, and I encourage other technical leaders and engagement organizers in the industry to do the same. I don't know what will happen in the future, but technical communities and relationships and are worth fighting for.

Doug Meil is a portfolio architect at Ontada.  He also founded the Cleveland Big Data Meetup in 2010.  More of Doug's ACM articles can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/publications-doug-meil


 

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