Ali Lemer: What gave you the idea to start MelbJS? What were you hoping to get out of it?

Anette Bergo: I was always interested in front-end development, and I was curious as to why there was a lack of rigidity and discipline around it – I had not come across the kind of practices that back-end development used. So around early 2010 I started looking for a place where I could learn more. Usually there’s a user group to be found, but in Melbourne there was only a very dead mailing list. Some people had tried to start a group but had only held one meetup, about six months earlier, so there seemed to be an open niche to fill.

Tammy Butow, a woman I was acquainted with through Twitter, got excited about the idea, and I knew that ThoughtWorks are quite supportive about getting involved with the developer community. So, I asked Chris Murphy (the Managing Director at the time) if I could start such a group and use the office after hours as a meeting space. He looked a bit confused as to why I was even asking and said, ‘Yes, of course!’

I was hoping for a place where I could learn more about JavaScript. I had a feeling that web development was about to get a whole lot more advanced – and it did.

How did you start it? What were the early meetings like? When did it start gaining momentum?

Tammy offered to sort out a speaker, so I organised the food and drinks and the place to hold it. Our first speaker was Michael Mahemoff, at the time a developer evangelist for Google Chrome. He was actually able to share with us some breaking news – we were some of the first people in the world to hear about the Chrome store. It wasn’t exactly a scoop as such, but it did make me feel like there was a big, bright future coming up in web programming, and that I wanted to be on that wave.

For the first meetup, we reached people mostly through Twitter and the existing mailing list from the first group. We ended up with about 20 people, which was a really good turnout. Some core people showed up to that first one – Ben Pearson, Tony Milne, Mark Dalgleish, Ben Birch; I’m not sure if Ryan Seddon was there that day, but he certainly became a fixture later. After that, we kept using Twitter and the mailing list; I also advertised it on the ThoughtWorks mailing list, as well as through whichever client I was working with at the time.

The second meet-up dropped to 15 people, and it stayed around 15 for a while. But after about six months, it slowly started getting bigger – we needed more chairs, the pizza bills were soaring, and it started getting easier (or at least less difficult) to get speakers. There were a few good people who had taken over organising it while I was away for a few months, and by the time I came back it had grown so big that we had to look for a new space.

What was the first obstacle you encountered? How did you work around it?

We only really ever had one obstacle: getting speakers. We had settled early on a format of roughly two short talks, about ten minutes each, and a longer one; getting three speakers every month was really hard work. I asked around as much as I could, bullied my colleagues, got other people to ask their friends and so forth. Sometimes I could only get two speakers, but we managed to keep the momentum going – I don’t think I ever had to cancel a meet-up. We would take anyone who wanted to speak, really, and leave it up to them whether they wanted a long or short time slot.

What’s a typical meeting like? Who comes to MelbJS meetings?

Typically, people arrive straight from work, have some pizza and a few beers and then head in to listen to the guest speakers talk. Then we break off, with some people heading out to the pub or out to dinner. It’s quite a sociable group. I tend to bump into these people at conferences and other events as well – it’s nice to already know someone in those situations.

Our members are basically hipster web-development geeks – people who take front-end development seriously. Some were colleagues or clients that I knew beforehand, but most are people I didn’t know before they showed up. These days, we get about 70 people for a regular event and over 100 for special events.

What are some of the most successful events you’ve put on? What about some of the less successful ones?

The best event we held was a joint event with a large development conference, Web Directions. They had been giving us discount codes in exchange for brief mentions at the meet-ups, and suggested we put on a joint event just before the conference. We ended up with about nine of the conference speakers, most of them very well known in the JavaScript community, in a panel discussion. It was the biggest turnout we had ever had up to that point – over 70 people. We had such a good feeling afterwards – we felt like we were a force in the Australian JavaScript community.

Over time, I developed a very good relationship with the organisers of Web Directions, John Allsopp and Maxine Sherrin, and we’ve since had some more great joint events with them, and also with the YOW! conference. Web Directions puts on two great conferences a year as well as a number of smaller events, and they always give a shout-out to MelbJS. MelbJS members also get a substantial discount on tickets, and many MelbJS speakers have gone on to speak at one of their events (including myself, on two occasions).

Once we got to a certain size, however, we started getting interest from sponsors and companies, and our least successful event was one time when another developer evangelist came to speak. I was a bit hesitant about booking him in, but up to that point we had taken anyone we could get, so we gave him a slot. He spoke for a long time, but it was all glossy advertising and absolutely no content. The vibe afterwards was bad; I felt like I had sold out. After that we decided to try to avoid speakers with commercial interests, i.e. from software companies.

What do you know now about running a user group that you wish you’d known from the start?

It is super hard work! I thought it would mostly be about ordering some pizza every now and again, but dealing with the arrangements and the marketing, getting speakers, maintaining a web site, filming talks and putting them online – it all adds up. Fortunately, the people that I mentioned earlier are all contributing in one way or another now, taking on some of the burden as the main organising group.

Have your ambitions for the group succeeded? What are your future plans for it?

MelbJS isn’t my baby any more: I haven’t been the main organiser for over a year and a half now, and I have no say in how things are running anymore, but I’m actually really content with that. There are over 70 people who show up regularly, we’re putting on joint events with the biggest developer conferences in Australia, and speakers who started out at MelbJS are now regularly speaking at large conferences all over the world. I have seen and used tools built by MelbJS members in many places. It’s so satisfying to see that the thing I built is going stronger than ever without me.

Tips for Starting a User Group

  • Find a subject you’re passionate about that lacks an existing group and see if you can find others interested in it as well.
  • Choose a venue that’s easy for people to get to and has the facilities to support a meeting (e.g. chairs, tables, projector, etc.). Have every meeting at the same place and time to make it easier on people’s schedules.
  • Find other people to speak at meetings – don’t make the group depend on you to provide the talks.
  • Curate for diversity – avoid a monoculture by mixing up experts and newbies, long and short talks, people from different industries and backgrounds, etc.
  • Hound people you know to talk – ask what they’re working on and if they would present it at your group.
  • Give speakers a little appreciation to thank them (such as free beer on the night).
  • Don’t forget the social element – chat and circulate amongst the crowd before the talks begin. This is a great way to increase your professional and social network, too.
  • Find some deputies to help you organise things, to avoid burnout and so the group won’t falter if you’re sick or away on holiday.
  • Avoid the influence of sponsors. You may need to offer some small advertisement in exchange for hosting or paying for food & drink, but don’t allow commercial enterprises to influence the content of the talks.