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Originally published in The Smalltalk Report, October 1997.
Smalltalk User Groups
by Barbara Yates
A lot of people are under the impression that Smalltalk is in big
trouble. That we're in a battle with Java. Some even think the battle
has been won by Java, and that we Smalltalkers should stop whining
and go with the winners. We disagree. We feel, as do many others,
that Java still has a long way to go to provide the mission-critical
problem-solving capabilities that Smalltalk provides.
Around the time of Smalltalk Solutions in March the morale of many
in the Smalltalk industry was at a low point. How could we get the
Wall Street analysts to stop making their dire predictions about the
death of Smalltalk, and get them to hear about the huge numbers of
Smalltalk successes? A number of people in the Smalltalk vendor,
products, and consulting community held an informal meeting to
discuss the issue of Smalltalk's bad press. We talked about lots of
ideas, including revitalizing the Smalltalk
Industry Council (STIC), publishing more success stories if we
could get the companies and organizations to "go public" about using
Smalltalk, expensive advertising and public relations campaigns, and
trade shows like the Java World traveling show. All the ideas that
required a huge cash outlay are still unimplemented. There is so much
competition instead of co-opetition among Smalltalk companies, it
appears that STIC is the best choice to put effort into.*
The meeting got us to thinking about a different avenue of
approach. What are the barriers to Smalltalk's wider adoption? One of
the big ones is the perception that there is a scarcity of
Smalltalkers and that there is a long learning curve. How can
managers be disabused of this perception? Trade rags aren't any help.
They need to see a pool of people who know Smalltalk, send their
people to meet them, get some ideas about what it takes to come up to
speed in Smalltalk. Besides conferences such as Smalltalk Solutions
and OOPSLA, where can they meet such pools of people? At Smalltalk
User Group meetings! But what about user groups? How many are there?
Where are they? If there isn't one near me, what would it take to get
one started? We wondered whether user groups had suffered due to the
morale hit we'd been seeing. Were they disbanding? Going into
hibernation? We did our research on user groups in order to try and
answer those questions.
In June we emailed a questionnaire to 28 Smalltalk user group
leaders whom we identified via the world wide web and with assistance
from readers of The Bytesmiths Report. We also found some groups via
meeting announcements in the comp.lang.smalltalk newsgroup.
There are user groups scattered across the United States. There
are groups in Australia, Canada, Switzerland, the UK, Belgium, and a
European group. The non-US groups were unanimous in their cooperation
in completing our survey. We got about 60% completed surveys from the
Various web sites have links to Smalltalk user group web sites. We
found that a number of the groups who have web sites appear to be
inactive, based on all email to contacts for a group bouncing, or the
site not having any new material in over a year. The accompanying
Directory of Smalltalk User Groups
provides the latest information we could verify about groups; if the
information came from their web site but was unverified, we note
How They're Organized
There are three forms of organization for user groups. The legal
entities have gone to the trouble of forming a non-profit
corporation. This provides them with the ability to have a bank
account for the group, and it has tax ramifications. Typically groups
that are legal entities said they incorporated for the purpose of
managing their treasury. Some groups are special interest groups
(SIGs) of a parent organization. The majority of groups are affinity
groups--they keep the by-laws and management in general as simple as
Some groups hold elections of officers, others are run strictly by
volunteers. Even in the case of elected officers, they often run
unopposed. The basic theme repeated by almost all respondents was
that it's important to find leaders who are willing and able to do
the duties of their role. Finding the time to do the work is the big
Five of the 18 responding groups have membership dues. Five have
corporate sponsors or corporate members. Five other groups said that
various companies have assisted them with meeting space and
refreshments or seed money to start the group. Three of the groups
who do not charge dues and do not receive corporate support ask for a
donation at their meetings, usually to pay for the beverages and
History of the Groups
There are several answers to the who and
why of starting a user group. The who ranges from a
single Smalltalk evangelist or small group of a few dedicated
Smalltalkers through Smalltalk distributors and even a Smalltalk
vendor sales representative. Almost everyone said that the main
challenge in forming their group was getting the word out about the
group's existence, and finding the companies and individuals to
contact about the new group being started. The obvious choice for
announcing a group's formation has been comp.lang.smalltalk. The Twin
Cities Smalltalk SIG had help from Digitalk to find people who would
be interested when they started their SIG in 1994.
As for the reasons for starting a group, Mark Windholtz of the
Cincinnati Smalltalk Users Group had this to say: "In talking to
project leaders I tried to determine the obstacles to Smalltalk
usage. Some I talked with told me that they have had success in
smaller projects in their companies but when they tried to scale
Smalltalk to larger projects upper management would stop them because
of a perceived shortage of Smalltalk programmers. I want to provide
any project leader in Cincinnati with a list of willing and eager
Smalltalk programmers in order to counter that argument. I would like
a place where project leaders and managers can come and hear local
success stories from the people who did the work." Kelly Herrity of
the newly-formed Cleveland group said, "My hope is that the group
will help generate interest in area corporations and help Smalltalk
grow in this geographical area."
We were curious to find the group that was active longest. The
European Smalltalk Users Group has been around since 1991, with the
Swiss and Belgian groups close behind, starting in 1992-93. We also
wanted to find out whether the original organizers are still involved
in the groups. 84% of the respondents said at least some of their
original organizers are still active members.
Assuaging fears that Smalltalk is declining, we found two newly
formed groups--the Southern California and Cleveland groups were
started in 1997. The Milwaukee and Vancouver groups revived
themselves in 1997 after a period of about a year of inactivity.
When only one or two people do all the work of running a group, it
takes its toll. Survey responses implied that having a number of
people with different responsibilities for running the group helps
the group to remain active. A couple of groups responded that they
are currently inactive, with causes attributed to schedule pressures
on the leaders, a normal summer hiatus, or the need for new blood to
take the work load off the long-time leaders. Our guess is that
several of the non-responding groups whose web sites show no recent
meetings are also in the inactive category.
Meeting frequency varies quite a lot. The European group meets
only occasionally as a birds-of-a-feather session in conjunction with
an OO conference, but they hold an annual Smalltalk summer school.
The Belgian group meets approximately twice a year. Other groups meet
quarterly, bimonthly, or monthly. One respondent mentioned that they
thought their meetings suffered from lower than expected attendance
because they were not held on a regular schedule.
Meeting lengths vary from 1.5 hours to a half-day, with the
majority in the two-hour range. About half of the groups hold their
meetings in the same location each time.
The respondents were almost unanimous about the reasons that
people join user groups and attend the meetings. They want to network
with other Smalltalkers, learn about what others are doing on their
jobs, and increase their knowledge about Smalltalk grogramming and
tools and OO technology as it rapidly changes. The topics covered in
talks at meetings range from vendor demos and technical
presentations, through experience reports, through patterns, to new
technologies (internet-related, distributed objects, Java
comparisons, and product reviews). One respondent suggested that
meeting attendance is heavier for vendor presentations on new
products, and that established product demos get a smaller turnout
because people assume they are familiar with them. Several
respondents mentioned the difficulty in getting members to make a
presentation about their own work (an experience report), although
that type of talk is what the members say they are very interested
in. One group is planning to have a networking-only meeting soon
because the members feel they don't have enough time to get to know
Communications and Services
All of the groups have a web site or are planning one. Aside from
their web site, groups keep in touch with their members via email
notices of upcoming meetings, newsletters (online or printed), and
even by telephone. Some use newsgroups and PPD and IBM Compuserve
forums to make announcements. Jonathan Pletzke of the New Jersey
group says his group also passes out fliers at the larger area
corporations who have a lot of Smalltalkers. Paul Ferris of the
Australasian group says they also communicate with members via
Stefan van Baelen of the Belgian group said they tried to have a
newsletter but that it was difficult to get members to write
articles. Judging from the infrequency that some groups update their
newsletter on their web site, this could be a common problem. The top
two tasks that respondents said required the most work were meeting
planning (identifying topics and recruiting speakers) and
communicating with members. The communications task is not as
difficult as it is time-consuming.
In addition to holding meetings and communicating Smalltalk news
to their members via their web site and email, several groups offered
additional services to their members. The Belgian group has arranged
for their members to receive discounts on some products and books.
Several groups post job openings on their web site or announce them
at meetings. A couple of groups manage a members-only email list to
facilitate member-to-group communication. Mark Windholtz said he has
"tried a code archive and job postings, but they don't seem to be
doing as well as I thought they would."
Groups that have been established a while and have a seemingly
tireless group of leaders have gone beyond holding regular meetings
and have organized various special activities and events for their
membership. The Smalltalk SIG in Connecticut ran two half-day Intro
to Smalltalk classes. The Chicago STUG ran a hands-on Distributed
Objects Workshop that met every two weeks and was very popular
according to Bob Hartwig.
Clyde Cutting of the Twin Cities group wrote: "We have for three
years organized and run an annual conference called Common Object
Practice and Experience, or COPE conference. The first two years it
was held over two consecutive days, this year it is a lecture series
consisting of three evening events. These will be held in place of
our regular monthly meetings from 6-10pm in May, September and
November. All of these conferences have been well attended and have
drawn an impressive list of nationally-known speakers in Object
Technology and Smalltalk." For each of three lectures by speakers
including Adele Goldberg, John Pugh, Larry Constantine, Jim Coplien,
and Kent Beck attendees paid $25. The May lecture had 160 attendees.
For more information see the COPE site, http://www.oolab.stthomas.edu/otug/cope97.
The European (ESUG) Smalltalk Summer School is the biggest special
event we've learned about. It is held annually in different locations
with five days of tutorials, hands-on lab sessions, and vendor
presentations. This year it was in Sophia Antipolis near Nice,
France. Annick Fron wrote that organizing the summer school is the
task that takes the most time for their group (not surprising!). It
is the only regular meeting held by the ESUG. This year there were
nine organizing committee members from five countries. For more
information about the summer school, visit the web site: http://www.emn.fr/dept_info/fran/esug97.html.
We asked whether the user groups were currently tackling any
challenges. Several people responded that their current challenge was
to get more participation by group members. They need members to
volunteer to do some of the work in running the group. They also are
trying to think of ways to boost meeting attendance.
David Ingersoll of the Southern California VisualAge group said
their challenge was "to find speakers and subjects for the wide
variety of users in the group, i.e., distributed, embedded, to SQL
databases, Web, MVS, etc." Timothy Dion wrote that the Massachusetts
group is changing the format of their meetings and moving to a
quarterly schedule. He also mentioned low meeting attendance in the
Jonathan Pletzke of New Jersey said their challenge was "the
demoralizing impact of the Java hype on the newer Smalltalk
programmers (i.e., they aren't sure about learning Smalltalk.
Smalltalk doesn't seem 'hot' anymore, so why should they learn it)."
In a similar vein, Greg Stellflue said the Milwaukee group is
considering combining with the Java group or doing a joint project
with them. The Australasian group has a positive approach to the Java
challenge, according to Paul Ferris. He wrote, "[our challenge
is] moving with the current interest in Web. Smalltalk is ideal
to build complex and critical apps. The skills are generally better
learnt than those new to (say) Java. Our members should be able to
take the market for Java type development." Mark Windholtz said the
Cincinnati group is "trying to organize the teaching of Smalltalk in
local colleges and high schools. We believe if we get kids involved
in Smalltalk in this area, they will be less easily won over by Java,
Words of Advice
The Puget Sound group has on their web site a full description of
how they run their group, and the various leader roles'
responsibilities. If you are looking for ideas about how to organize
your volunteers, we recommend you look at http://www.halcyon.com/podenski/stug/how.html.
In fact, if we were starting a user group, we'd visit
all the user groups' web sites. See the accompanying
directory for their URLs.
Many survey respondents were very generous with their advice to
people who are considering starting a new user group or reactivating
an inactive group. Here are the highlights of their advice.
- Take the initiative.
"To anyone who wants to organize a group: Just do it. Post to
comp.lang.smalltalk. Send letters to anyone you know in your
geographical area who is doing Smalltalk or who may be interested
in the users group. Talk to your colleagues about who is doing
Smalltalk in your area. You will be surprised at how many people
are interested in the users group and were just waiting for
someone to organize it. It really just takes one person to make
the initiative. Most people who are interested in becoming
involved are willing to help, so you will not have to do it all on
your own. It does not take as much time as you would think."
"Be prepared for something of an uphill struggle. It is really
useful to get the backing of your company (or at least your boss)
to be involved. Also, get the vendors on your side--they can
provide a great deal of help which would be really difficult to
get elsewhere. They are also always willing to provide speakers."
"Be prepared to organise things yourself--no one will give you
useful instructions on what needs doing next. Expect to feel
nervous before the meeting (will anyone come along?)." (Paul
- Find out members' interests.
The Cincinnati group asks people who are attending one of their
meetings for the first time to complete an interest survey. You
can see the survey on their web site: http://www.infinet.com/~mwind/survey.htm.
The Massachusetts group also has a survey on their web site:
- Communicate with members.
"Create and maintain a good web site and email list. Take
advantage of electronic communications to advertise... it's quite
effective for a high-tech industry like ours." (Bob Hartwig)
"When Dave West and Kevin Johnson started producing and mailing
a newsletter each month attendance jumped from 15-20
to 50 or better." (Clyde Cutting)
"Communicate information to all interested members on a regular
basis. Make sure that during the formation process no one thinks
that you've dropped the ball. You may be waiting for people to
respond, but the potential members may think you've given up."
- Make meetings interesting.
"Getting people together just for the fun of it doesn't last
very long. Always include some interesting presentation." (Rene
"Finding speakers is the main hurdle. If we could have
interesting speakers (not commercially oriented) we would attract
a regular audience." (Didier Besset)
- Try to set a regular meeting schedule.
Irregular meeting schedules may lead to low
- Keep it simple. Don't be overambitious.
"Don't get too involved with by-laws and incorporating before
the community is in place. And spread responsibility. I am trying
to get activity leaders to do a lot of the organizing. That way
the group becomes a community not just the Mark Windholtz show."
- Recruit volunteers to share the workload.
"Don't expect one or two people (who have real jobs) to do all
the planning, organizing, presenting, and advertising. Share
responsibility, ask for volunteers." (Bob Hartwig)
"The local Java users group was built around one person. When
he got a job on the coast the group disbanded. The entire group
has to get involved or else there is no reason to have a group."
"If you have 4 or 5 steady volunteers you're lucky. Don't burn
them out." (Clyde Cutting)
"User groups are a powerful means of advocating a technology,
however it is time consuming to manage effectively. Ensure
yourself that the leaders have the cycles to devote." (Timothy
- Be vendor-neutral.
"Beware of the different dialects. Find a suitable way to get
some interest for each kind of user." (Rene Bach)
"Certainly we try to ensure we represent both VA and VW on
every occasion. If we have a vendor presentation, we try to ensure
both PPD and IBM get a shot. When we have talked about other
products (e.g., object databases) we have tried to ensure that
more than one vendor/user speaks and that we cover tools for both
dialects. When we did [a presentation on] performance, for
example, we covered . . . both dialects." (Andy Moorley)Ý
- Clarify your objectives.
"Be interested enough to understand why you (as a potential
organiser) want to do this. . . . Be scrupulously fair in your
dealings. Don't hope (or try!) to make money out of your
involvement." (Paul Ferris)
"Try to write yourself some clear goals and purposes--and then
try to stick to them." (Andy Moorley)
- Make it fun.
"Have fun. People will stop coming if you don't." (Bob
- Don't be too commercial.
"We have tried hard to remain a professional group, which means
avoiding taking on a vendor/consulting group trade show flavor and
keeping the focus on advancing the OT education of the members."
"Beware commercial influences (some is OK, too much will kill
you)." (Stefan van Baelen)
"Be careful to retain independence from vendors." (Paul
- Don't be discouraged.
Don't be discouraged if meeting attendance is sometimes low.
"This is an evening activity in something that people do all
day, and most have families or other interests for the
evening." (Jonathan Pletzke)
- Don't try to please everyone.
"Do not try to please everyone when it comes to meeting times
and locations. (But do try to please most everyone,
or no one will show up!)" (Kelly Herrity)
We are extremely impressed by the high degree of dedication
exhibited by the people who are running the Smalltalk user groups.
Hopefully their example will inspire some of you to start a group in
your area, or revive a group that is currently in a slump. We
apologize to any groups we may have failed to locate in our research.
We will be eager to learn about any new groups and will update the
directory of user groups on our web site if you notify us about your
group. We think the following quote from Bob Hartwig is a good way to
end this article:
"One of Smalltalk's many strengths is the sense of
community among its proponents. There's nothing like a healthy
users' group to foster this sense of community. It's the main
reason that I've attended month after month for the last three
The authors want to acknowledge the following people who completed
our survey: Kelly Herrity, Mark Windholtz, Alan Kirk, Bob Hartwig,
Timothy Dion, Clyde Cutting, Jonathan Pletzke, Greg Stellflue, Paul
Ferris, Stefan van Baelen, Ann Patrick, Annick Fron, Rene Bach,
Didier Besset, Andy Moorley, David Ingersoll, Don Brady, and Vinay
Mutha. Special thanks go to all of them for their generous advice to
* STIC has a new Director and web site: http://www.stic.org.
You should check it out.
Ý Our survey only identified one
dialect-specific user group. Andy mentioned that the UK group also
has some members who work in Visual Smalltalk.
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