Beverage Subgroup: The Why and How

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:

  • First, we chose a different night of the week – The regular meeting was on a Wednesday, so we chose Tuesday. This let people stay involved even if they always had the kids on Wednesday or were taking a class this semester.
  • Next, we schedule it far from the normal meeting – The regular meeting was the second Wednesday, so we set the Beverage Subgroup on the fourth Tuesday. Therefore, no matter how the month fell, we were never closer than 13 days.
  • Next, we chose a physically separate location – The regular meeting was in downtown DC while the beverage subgroup met in Northern Virginia. This made it convenient for people in the Virginia suburbs who didn’t want to deal with downtown on a weeknight.
  • Finally – and most importantly – we choose a name to set the tone – Many technical groups have SIGs or “Special Interest Groups” but I decided to take it a different direction with “Beverage Subgroup” or DCPHP BS. To enforce the distinction…
    • I declared myself the BS President.
    • Each month, I sent out a BS reminder and agenda.
    • The next day, I sent out our BS minutes.

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:

  • It is not a formal meeting – There is no formal agenda, speaker, etc. This is a time to get to learn about people and the area, not a specific topic.
  • It is not sponsor driven – It is for and by the group. If you have sponsors, it sets expectations that there is a monetary value. Without strong leadership and boundaries, the sponsors can hijack the event. Even the best meaning sponsors can do it.
  • It is not a pitch/recruiting event – This is not the time for you to sell anything. Don’t pitch, sell, or recruit here. Exchange cards and continue that conversation at a more appropriate time.
  • It is not exclusionary to any particular group – Yes, even recruiters should be allowed assuming they follow the “no pitching” rule.
  • It is not a “drink up” – This is not your opportunity to get drunk and make a fool of yourself. Some people may prefer soda, coffee, water, etc. Respect that. The point is to meet and interact with other people in the same field.

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 WordPressDrupal, 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.