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Almost six years ago now (whoa!), I was a regular agitator in the Washington, DC PHP Developer's Community (DCPHP). The community was probably a hundred people with skills ranging from total newbs who couldn't spell PHP to contributors to major open source projects. At that point, we consisted solely of a monthly presentation-style meeting and a mailing list.
And without fail, traffic on the mailing list started getting.. aggressive.
To be clear, there was nothing wrong with the group, that's just how email goes.
Email is a lossy way to communicate. You don't see the smiles or frowns, hear the tone of voice, or see the frustration that elicited that response. And misinterpretations are going to happen. Now take software developers - a culture known for being direct (aka blunt) and sometimes inappropriately so - and trouble is guaranteed.
I spent a lot of time chatting with another member - Ed Holzinger, a senior developer at the Washington Post - and we came up with a couple ideas. The one that I was the least lazy about was a regular happy hour. Our hope was to change the tone of the meetings by simply getting together regularly. The idea was simple:
If I sat across from you last month or might sit next to you this month, I'm probably not going to be a jerk. In addition, if people get to know each other, we'll all give each other the benefit of the doubt in general.
The next question was: how do we do this without cannabalizing the regular meeting?
In that regard, we decided to use this to fill some gaps:
During my three years "leading" the group, meetings ranged from a few people to well over twenty. Sometimes there were common topics like conferences and other times topics (at my end of the table) ranged from sports to kids to education to work projects to how much our jobs sucked. At the end of the day, we were just becoming friends.
And now a few things a Beverage Subgroup is Not:
Amazingly, six years later, the Beverage Subgroup is still going. Even better, it has spawned sister groups in DC and the Maryland suburbs. And when I moved to Austin, TX in 2010, I brought the concept with me. We've since expanded it to include the WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla groups.
If you decide to start your own Beverage Subgroup, I'd love to hear about it. Let me know what you tried and how you tweaked it. Let me know what did/didn't work with your group. And if you ever find yourself headed towards Austin, drop me a note. I'll buy the first round of whatever beverage you prefer.