The art and value of meeting up using meetup.com

The Thinker by Rodin

Meetings once consumed my life. It was hard to get actual work done because I was too busy attending meetings. Shuffling from conference room to conference room all day drove me nuts since so little of the conversation was productive. Over time and mainly due to changing jobs more of my meetings became virtual. There were still plenty of meetings but they mainly involved conference lines and Webex sessions while you sat at your desks. Teams stared at virtual shared screens, where usually someone was pasting notes, but often we were off to look at websites collaboratively. When we were not in meetings there was continuous email and instant messaging streaming back and forth. You tried to work while all this was going on.

Mostly this went away when I retired. At first it was welcome but over time it felt weird. I am not wholly retired. To keep myself busy I started consulting part time. My work happens from home but my clients are all over the Internet. Mostly I use email, but occasionally when I need some face time I will kick up a Skype session with a client. POTS (plain old telephone service) works too for my clients who are less technologically fluent. My instant messaging service now is just Skype and it’s mostly with family.

Meeting in person is becoming a lost art. But when you work alone, as so many of us do these days in our new telecommuting universe, too much alone time is not good. You want to meet new people but it can be hard. There are the neighbors. Fortunately I live in a very social 55+ community, so there is plenty of neighborliness to be had, including a monthly guys-only dinner night and various social events. There is church but I’ve been slow to reengage in Unitarian Universalism since I moved. There are people you might chat with at the store, on the bike trail or at the park, but these are ephemeral. So mostly I talk to my spouse and my cats these days.

Being introverted it doesn’t particularly bother me to be somewhat socially isolated, but I did miss communing with fellow tech-heads. It used to be I lived in a nutrient-rich tech universe during my working hours. Now I can read stuff online but it’s not the same as direct person-to-person exchange and collaboration.

So I have been meeting up instead. In the 21st century this means going to meetup.com and finding events worth attending where you get to sit down with people who are essentially strangers and chat about something you have in common. Locally there are all sorts of meet ups I could attend, some of them pretty weird. For example, there is a Dr. Who meet up that I’ve encourage my wife to go to, since she is a Dr. Who fan, which I am not. There is a group for polyamorous people. For you unenlightened, this means people who feel pulled to having more than one intimate/romantic relationship at a time, ideally in the same household, and often with different genders, where ideally no jealousy is happening. Okay, whatever, not for me. Looking at my local meetup.com calendar I find that there are all sorts of stuff going on. Local atheists are meeting tomorrow night to take on Scientology. Guided mediation and shamanic drum journeying is happening on Tuesday. There is a Yoga & Beer meet up on Wednesday. I don’t know what they could possibly have in common.

Still, you go to meetup.com to find people like you. Given that I’m a techie I’m interested in techie meet ups. Surprising there is quite a bit of this stuff out here in Western Massachusetts. At first I found the experience a bit nervy, since I’m not the type to go into bars and talk with strangers. But to go to a restaurant or a meeting room in a library and talk with a bunch of tech people, well, all-righty then!

It started last summer when I ventured to a “Webdive”, which is basically a bunch of tech people (usually just guys) meeting at a watering hole in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. There they drink beer, eat bar food and yammer on mostly about technical stuff. The bar food didn’t impress me but the quality of the technical conversation did. There was quite a buzz about AngularJS, a Javascript framework, and its many virtues. I was still in the jQuery world. It was useful to know this is where trends were going in many instances. Without the meet up, I likely would never have known.

Still, it’s hard to hold a meaningful conversation in a noisy bar. I didn’t need the calories either, although it was useful to find out how much tech was actually going on here in Western Massachusetts, where it seems hidden. So I started attending another meet up in Easthampton, Massachusetts. There in an old industrial building I met others in a startup’s office interested in “full stack” development. This turned into a much more interesting meeting, as the topics were topical and relevant. Wednesday night found about a dozen of us watching a demonstration of Travis, software used to continuously compile, test and deploy complex software systems. It’s neat stuff.

Last night I was at yet another meet up, this one across the Connecticut River in Amherst, on search marketing for websites. I happened to be friends with Roger the organizer, who I did some work for. While not particularly technical it was fascinating to learn how search engines (Google in particular) rank websites and what you can do to make your website more noticed by search engines. There is a lot of misinformation out there. We all found it relevant and useful. Not one of us walked out. We were so immersed in the stuff that we almost missed the library’s closing time.

Meet ups, principally facilitated by meetup.com are turning out to be important to me, both to meet like-minded people but also to keep up my technical prowess. There is also a lot of marketing going on between attendees. You learn not just to bring a notebook and take notes but also to bring business cards, because someone or more will probably want one. Curiously, these business cards come in handy. I got a query from a local network of technical people who needed some fast turnaround on a WordPress job. I was swamped, but I pulled out the business card of a guy who gave me his at a meet up. I recalled that he had the skills this person was looking for. He got some work and he sent me a little thank you note afterward.

So meet ups can be both interesting and profitable. There is no substitute for face-to-face encounters, particularly if you work alone. Meet ups are an easy way to market yourself and to keep up your skills, as well as meet other people you might want to collaborate with on future projects. You will often learn about local opportunities or listen to some interesting suggestions on markets in the area that need to be filled.

All this, plus I feel less socially isolated. I guess I’m a meetup.com kind of person after all.