Creating high quality communities


Gerard Sans speaking at DevRelCon San Francisco 2019

Gerard Sans

Gerard Sans is Senior Developer Advocate at AWS and has built meetup communities from the ground up. In this session from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019, Gerard runs through the key elements in growing a successful tech community around meetups and events.


Okay. So what we can see here is that I spend way too much time on my cover, which I mean, if there’s any CSS people, you will be missing some animations because I’m playing it safe. So I just removed some animations, you know, just to make the talk, you know, best experience without any lagging.

This is probably the most important slide of this talk. It’s a little bit fading. I’m way too old for this job, but I work for AWS, I’m a developer advocate, and I want to go right in.

So I want to share with you my experience creating a community from scratch. And this is my second try. So my first try was AngularZone. This is a community meetup that I created in London. And I struggled quite a lot and I learned from, we have seen from previous slides, you learn mostly from your mistakes.

So this was my kind of aiming for the awesome in a meetup group. So probably that’s not something for everyone. I wouldn’t try this, kind of meetup right away, but you can see how it may look like and probably if you are thinking to starting the work necessary, you will see what’s involved.

So let’s look into it. So we are in 2016. And maybe you have heard about this technology, or maybe you didn’t. This is GraphQL, and at the time, it wasn’t that popular. It had been around for a year, and, of course, as developer advocates, we are, like, really, really early adopters.

We take risks

Probably you are using some technologies they are going to be successful maybe in the next couple of years. And this is what we do. We take risks. So I decided to take the risk with GraphQL.

I wanted to create, like, some kind of a grandiose idea which I did because I was self-employed. So I could be free to imagine anything that I wanted to create. And this was the first meetup.

And you can see that I also had to do, like, some, like, visual design. And this is very important. Unless you have a big team that can support you, you will be doing like a startup mode. You will be doing, like, literally everything. You will be doing marketing, you will be doing, like, kind of sales, like closing sponsorships for the long term, so you don’t have to do the research every single meetup.

And one of the things that make me try for this meetup was that I had a really good venue. And this is CodeNode in London. Maybe you heard about it. This is a great venue.

You have personnel at your disposal. You have audio, you have video. They will record every single meetup. They will give you people that you can call. There’s also a desk walk-in that they will hand these name badges. It’s like proper meetup. Of course, you don’t have to go for this level, but that’s something nice when you have been doing community for a few years.

Use your opportunities

So I founded this November 2016. This was probably one year and a half after GraphQL was announced in React Europe in Paris, and by some random chance, I was there. I was an Angular developer. And why I was at the React conference, well, some colleague couldn’t go, so I took his place. There’s a lot of opportunities when you are doing these kind of activities, use every single one.

So this meetup was about GraphQL technologies, and maybe if you are not a developer, it will seem a little bit risky to just go for one specific technology. But actually, this is what I recommend.

Driven by passion

You don’t want to be messing around, you want to share a really strong message, so people, when they go to your meetup, they know what they are going to get. And in this meetup, people, we’re going to get awesome.

And why? Well, because in my experience, passion is what makes things succeed. This sounds, I mean, if I was a salesperson, this would be like, “Oh, my God, what are you saying, Gerard? This is like total BS.” No, I totally believe it, and I stand by it.

And what I mean by passion is these little things that happen that makes you so happy. And I’m going to share some of these. Usually, social media. I hope these are not fake accounts and things like this because they have a strong effect on you.

So I had some goals. I mean, you need to put some goals. You don’t want to spend too much time. At the time, I was doing a lot of speaking, public speaking and traveling, so I couldn’t actually do my one-month days that I was doing with my other meetup.

The nice thing is I could record the events. I mean, if you think about the effort that you put organizing a meetup, you really want to have a recording of it. I mean, you want to lose all that energy and effort bringing, like, nice content and speakers? Obviously not.

Recycle everything you can

There’s a lot of recycling. So think this, recycle every single contact, every single thing that you can, you recycle.

This was more like a challenge. I wanted, like, great speaker and content. I mean, these can go together or not. Of course, we are getting into, like, some tricky area because it’s subjective. I mean, I don’t know if you realize so far, maybe a talk is good or not, it just depends how many people like it, and maybe they don’t even know why they like it. It’s really difficult to find out. And that gets linked with passion. I think if you show passion, people will relate to that.

And then, of course, you always want, like, great atmosphere, a nice venue. You have hospitality, like, someone is welcoming your guests and that brings you a great meetup.

So how was the community back then? This was like a very modest community. I mean, we are talking London, and 150 members is not a big group. It’s just starting. And we can also see that I didn’t have that much success. I mean, success in the terms of attendance.

RSVPs are misleading

If you look at this number and you have been running meetups, you know that this is not RSVPs, which is very interesting. And I don’t want to use RSVPs because it’s very misleading. There’s a lot of people using, like, big numbers of RSVPs. When you go to the vendors, like, 15 people, like, where is the other people? What happened there?

So what’s the format I went for? I went with, as I was saying, top speakers, top venue. And this comes from the last talk, treats. Do all the treats that you can, prizes, raffles, you can use them in promotions, you can use them to just share contacts that you have with conference organizers. Maybe you have discounts.

Look for these treats and share them in the meetups. Of course, this is to create some kind of hype, which I really love. But this is more my personality. If you are building your meetup, you want to match your own style. You don’t have to match mine.

So then there’s drinks. This is revolutionary. I didn’t go for pizza, I went for burrito. Look at me. These are things that if you are not an organizer, it’s like, “Okay, whatever.” But when you can bring, like, a nice food which makes no sense, I mean, that’s fun.

Putting all your eggs in one basket

So how is the GraphQL community today? Look at this. This is a awesome community. I mean, I put all my eggs in one basket, and I was lucky. I mean, this is, you know, this is a lot of dev rel work.

You may put your efforts in one place, and it’s like, “Oh, oh, oh, don’t look at here. Don’t look at here.” But, of course, if you are not brave enough to try things, then you won’t get the big success. I mean, big success in the terms of achieving your goals.

The community today, it’s quite impressive. I think it’s the largest meetup community focused exclusively on GraphQL. The attendance was really good. It’s been not active for a while because of my public speaking commitments. But I was able to bring some more people.

And this is always nice. Actually, I bring some people from Prisma, they organized GraphQL Europe. And before that, I also get some kind of relationship, like, long-term relationship with recruiters.

And, I mean, let’s be honest, there’s some people that they don’t get it, but you need to build a relationship, so you can both benefit. You need to put some kind of lines. You don’t want them to abuse the meetup. You don’t want them to take, like, 20 minutes of some kind of sales speech. But that’s on you. That’s not on them. I mean, you can put the rules.

How a community is made

So what’s the second formula? I’m going to show like a very… I mean, I’m a developer, and maybe this makes no sense to you, but it makes total sense. So take pictures of this, take it home.

Book a venue, contact speakers, start promotion. I know that some of you don’t like promotion, maybe the sound of it, this is actually not promotion in the sales or marketing, it’s more getting the message across.

I mean, if nobody knows that there’s an event happening, I mean, why are you even doing this? I mean, it makes no sense. It’s silly. Of course, the message, you don’t want to put, like, some, like, real BS marketing stuff in the message, you want to take care, you want to connect with developers. You don’t want to be seen as unauthentic, but the promotion is just getting the meetup, the date, and time across, and then you run the event.

Yes, this is my boss. “You did great, Gerard.” I mean, this is what happens when nobody pats you on the back. You need to do it yourself. “Thanks.”

Okay, venue. Let’s go fast. Difficulty. This is kind of a game. Okay? Some kind of ’80s game. Difficulty: medium. I will add some Mario Bros. sounds the next time I do this talk.

Location, location, location. This is obvious. If you want to get people, you need to make it easy for them. You don’t want to make it, like, in the, I don’t know, in zone 5 in London, you need to do it, like, in City Center, at least.

Check in on security, these are some goblins. They are hiding there. You will only find out the day that you go and run the event. Oh, the security, I forgot to send the RSVPs. Everybody’s like waiting, queuing, and there’s a big disaster.

Technical setup. This is a big thing to take care. You want to host your event within a third party because they are going to take care of that. Taking care of that, it takes a lot of effort.

And then catering details and, you know, “Oh my God, this looks like a small conference,” which is completely another level.

And then you never think about this, but there’s space, setup and cleaning, who put the chairs there? Who took the chairs out afterwards? Who cleaned your mess? All of the stickers. All of the pamphlets. Don’t do that. Don’t be nasty.

Venue basics

So you think, “Oh this is super easy.” Well, it’s not. It’s not. Look at this matrix. Okay, good capacity. Real easy booking. You send an email get hospitality, recording, no hype. Everybody goes there to run every single event. There’s no hype. Okay.

Let’s make it a little bit more interesting. You try going to Twitter offices. Okay. This is hard. This can take, like, two months of emails, insane level. But location is very good. And then you get a lot of perks, food, drinks, recording. Hype, a lot of hype. Yes. You see why it’s important to get these elements?

Facebook, this is not only hard, but also small which could be exclusive in some way, so you may decide to use it some time.

And then also General Assembly because they do these boot camps, they see these as a way of reaching to some developers that will be interested, but probably is not a good match, but you want to introduce some venues to give it some change.

Speaker guidelines

Speakers. This is very hard. I mean, I don’t know if you have tried to reach top speaker. I mean, why they would listen to you. They have these, like, crazy agendas, but look at this. Look at the next level.

Developer advocates, they are paid for it. The company’s going to fund the traveling. They usually have, like, really good content. Top speaker will be Sarah Drasner. Developer advocate is myself. So it’s not that difficult to book me.

And then this is an interesting one. I call it conference speaker snitcher. So by some reason, there’s a conference in your city, you know, because you see the schedule. So you’re going to contact these speakers and invite them, and most of the time, they will come. And this is exactly how I got the creator of GraphQL coming.

Network. Of course, use any opportunity. Use the venue, the context that you need to reach for new venues. Use the networks for sponsors. They have business contacts, reach them. Of course, don’t compromise the quality of the event, check about the content that they are planning to show.

Promotion tips

Promotion. This is something that I think that it’s so easy to do, and a lot of people perceive it as noise, as annoying. But actually, it’s common sense. You would organize a birthday party without telling your friends. I mean, what is that about? This is unpolite.

You get, I don’t know, you get a famous actor coming to your birthday party. You get Beyoncé. You want to tell everyone, no?

Sponsor update. We’ve got burritos. You never expect it in a free event to get, like, free food. I mean, maybe you do because you’re all spoiled, but this is not easy.

Reminder. How many people forget? Send a reminder, it’s just polite. Day after message. This is a little thing to post your pictures. I don’t know if you are very social media celebrities, but you should. You should start. Create an account today. Just make a lot of noise.

Of course, I mean, if you are developer advocate for a big enterprise company, you need to align with the strategy, etc. But I was an independent developer, so I was quite free.

These are some examples. Somehow, I managed to put that animation on the background, which look, look it’s speeding up. It’s awesome. Probably people looking at this is like, “What is happening? Gerard, what are you doing?” “I’m having a lot of fun.”

Event steps

Event. This is medium difficulty. There’s a lot of, like, admin work. Maybe you can leave it to someone at the venue. That’s the best option.

Hosting and schedule-keeping. This is the people saying like, “Okay, one minute, two minutes.” This is important because at ten in the evening they kick you out, and they are very rude, and you don’t want that to fall into your attendees. I mean, this is like your birthday party, everybody’s being kicking out, they don’t even know what’s going on because you didn’t share that the party was ending at certain time.

Prizes. You want prizes, you want to give away tickets. You want to contact organizers, you want to contact vendors, you want to give discounts. You want to give these to the people that is coming to your events and also anyone. I mean, you want to share this because you have the context, you want to share this value with everyone.

Socializing and pictures. I mean, this is also part of promotion. There’s a lot of people that they will look at the pictures and saying, like, “Okay, this is a disaster. I’m never going to go to this meetup.” But if it’s an awesome meetup, it has the opposite effect. Of course, you need to be sensible about how you decide this and probably, you don’t want to use like stock pictures. I mean, that would be like really bad.

Okay, so maybe you remember this picture. This is from Twitter offices. It seems like every single office has this because that was on the background of the last talk. And this is a nice thing, so look what is happening here.

This is some attendee, and he’s really excited. It’s, like, it’s not even a good tweet. A Twitter for GraphQL London meetup. It’s like, “Okay, okay you use the Twitter account, forget about the hashtime game and…” but the picture is wonderful. And this is what you get when you go to places like Twitter offices.

Okay. This is another picture, and I’m wearing, like, a silly hat. It’s not a cap, it’s, like, some funny thing I bought in Japan, in Shibuya, I think it’s called. And look, look, this one use hashtag. Wow. I want to message him. It’s like you get it, you get it, man. You get it. And this is, you know, marketing side of things.

Top ingredients

So what are the top ingredients for myself that I want to share with you? And, of course, this is my flavor of meetup. You don’t actually have to follow any of my recommendations, but if you want to go for a meetup style in this way, totally go for it.

Ambition, bigger venue, bigger speakers, silly things happening during the event. Raffles, prizes, conference tickets to GraphQL Europe to GraphQL people. It’s awesome.

Passion. Did you get now? Passion, why it’s important? Why it doesn’t matter if the talk is completely rubbish, if it gets the people excited and you get, like, some kind of instant translator that tells you that this is not a banana? It’s like, yes, that’s how you get the people excited, and that’s how you get, I think, developers looking at your platforms and looking at how they did it.

And of course, everybody has said this, have fun. Of course, I mean, this is a lot of work. If you are not enjoying having a good time, maybe a change up.

Okay. This encapsulates the whole talk. Ambition. This is a cat in the universe. Playing DJ with a pizza because it’s just cool, and some emojis there, and groups like hip-hop groups. Yeah, it’s awesome.

Yeah. I mean, this is myself. This is my personality. Just don’t listen to me, I’m a little bit crazy, but totally go and create a community that will benefit everyone in that community. Animation. Thank you for listening.

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