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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.

Survey Response

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 US groups.

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 that.

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 possible.

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 challenge.

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 food.

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.

Meetings

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 one-another.

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 fax.

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."

Special Events

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.

Challenges

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 summer.

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, etc."

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.


Do

  • 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." (Kelly Herrity)

    "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." (Andy Moorley)

    "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 Ferris)

  • 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: http://www.marble.com/smalltalk/smalltalk.html.

  • 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." (Kelly Herrity)

  • Make meetings interesting.

    "Getting people together just for the fun of it doesn't last very long. Always include some interesting presentation." (Rene Bach)

    "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 attendence.

  • 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." (Mark Windholtz)

  • 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." (Mark Windholtz)

    "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 Dion)

  • 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 Hartwig)


Don't

  • 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." (Clyde Cutting)

    "Beware commercial influences (some is OK, too much will kill you)." (Stefan van Baelen)

    "Be careful to retain independence from vendors." (Paul Ferris)

  • 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)


Concluding Thoughts

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 years."
Acknowledgements

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 others.


* 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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