On Wednesday, I shut down my work laptop at 4:00 PM, drove an hour and a half to Madison, WI, went to the MADPASS SQL Server user group meeting, and drove an hour and half to get back home. It was worth every minute.

Every month, at least one person asks, why? Why would I drive so far? Why would I keep attending a user group? If I asked you to attend a user group meeting tonight, I’m sure you could give me several reasons you couldn’t attend.

  • I have to work late.
  • I have to make dinner.
  • I have to do laundry.
  • My favorite television show is on.
  • It’s a half-hour drive across town.
  • I don’t know anyone.
  • I don’t know much about the topic.

I have to ask, why not? I’ve been going to UG meetings for years. I attended the Fox Valley .NET UG before I got very involved with SQL, then the WI SSUG, and now I’m on the charter board for MADPASS. Here is what I have gained from attending over the years.

Free Training

Every user group meeting with a presentation that you attend is free training. Free. Your boss doesn’t have to pay for it (remind them of that if you need to leave work early), and you don’t have to pay for it. Most of the time, you’ll even get dinner thrown in. And the training is always high-quality. In the past two years, I’ve learned about: encryption, source control tools in Visual Studio, PowerPivot, PowerShell, Integration Services, execution plans, Team Foundation Studio, Reporting Services, new features in 2008 R2, and more. Yes, more. I’ve learned from DBAs, developers, MVPs, and Microsoft employees. For free.

It’s not the depth of PASS Summit or even a SQL Saturday, but the nice thing about one or two shorter sessions is that you have more time to digest the material, and can make changes in your environment right away. There isn’t that overwhelming “I learned a million new things. What do I start with first? And after a week of being out of the office for days. I’m never going to catch up!“ feeling you have after a longer training session.

Swag!

Yes, more free stuff! Most user groups have fantastic sponsors. Often, these sponsors send swag to give away. At My Very First User Group Meeting, I won a copy of “T-SQL Fundamentals” by Itzik Ben-Gan. I still have it. It’s dog-eared and there are notes and bookmarks all over it, because I love it. I’ve picked up other books, pens, and copies of software. There have been books, t-shirts, books, an Arc mouse, books, and more. So why not go and take a chance that you could walk away with free stuff?!

Personal and Professional Growth

This has been my journey: in September 2009, I attended my first SQL Server user group. In June 2010, I gave my first presentation to the group. In September 2010, I spoke at my first SQL Saturday. To date, I’ve spoken for at least three user groups and three SQL Saturdays, among other events. In October 2011, I will be speaking at PASS Summit. Would I be in this spot if I hadn’t been asked to get up in front of the group, encouraged to share my knowledge? Probably not.

Not everyone is comfortable getting up in front of a group of peers or strangers and talking. But if you are interested, or just want to try it, user groups are the best place to start. The group will be understanding. They want to see you succeed. They want to learn from you. They will ask questions, but they will also understand that one person can’t know everything. They will accept, “That’s a good question. I’ll have to get back to you about that. See me after the presentation.”

Teaching others about a topic also requires you to learn it. When creating a presentation, you will learn new things as well.

Speaking is a great way to foster both your professional and personal development. Warning: it’s also highly addictive. After your third SQL Saturday presentation, I’d like to see you disagree with me on that!

The People

Just after the meeting started and Angela was speaking, in walked: Chuck Heinzelman. It was all I could do not to “Squeee!” and run across the room to say hi. Chuck (twitter) is a Senior Program Manager for SQL CAT at Microsoft, a former MVP, a speaker, a huge goofball and a friend. How did I get to know Chuck? At the Wisconsin SQL Server user group. I could talk for an hour about all the other great people I’ve met at user groups. There’s Chris Switalski (twitter), a DBA who’s answered questions for me and provided feedback on my presentations. I met Tim Benninghoff (twitter) and Tony Sebion (twitter) at the WI SSUG, and the three of us got MADPASS started. How about meeting MVPS like Michael Steineke and Ted Krueger (twitter)? Last summer, I met an amazing woman named Miyaka Tabe (twitter) who was just getting into the SQL world. She’s now moved down to Texas for her first DBA position, and is attending the North Texas SSUG. At MADPASS, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of meeting people like Leonard Murphy (twitter), who has jumped feet-first into the SQL community, and Sanjay Bhatia, who always has great questions and advice for me.

I could keep going. And I’d still forget people. The best part of user groups for me, no contest, is meeting other local professionals to share training, advice, questions and a beer with. I have no doubt that if I had a question, I could pull out their cards, call them, and get help. You know why? Because I have.

Just Do It

If you haven’t been attending your local user group meeting – whether that’s a SQL group or .NET group or any other type – just do it! You will gain so much from it. Not sure if there is a local user group for you? Here are a few places to check:

PASS – SQL Server User Groups: http://www.sqlpass.org/PASSChapters.aspx
INETA – .NET User Groups: http://www.ineta.org/
GITCA – General IT: http://www.gitca.org/Pages/default.aspx

Remember: it’s your career, and your life. You are responsible for taking charge and making the most of it. UGs are one more way you can do that. I highly recommend giving one a try, or going again if you haven’t in a while.