2019 state of the ugroup

In my world, the Chicago AWS user group wraps up in early December. Post-reInvent there isn’t much time to plan an event beyond a Holiday Party. Plus, on the plane back from Vegas I was able to pour my brains onto a page.
Thinking back to last year we had a lot of hits:
  •  membership keeps growing. Over 4,200 Chicagoans
  • Moved from spotty meetup.com attendance to Eventbrite tracking – easier for hosts and security. No more ‘you can’t get in’ after jan 2018 event (sorry!) and No more waitlists!
  • More and different sponsors, hosts, venues
  • More and different talks, speakers and topics
  • 1st ever Community day in Chicago working with regional ugroup leaders
  • Growing interactions with AWS Chicago office and awesome SAs, reps
  • Serverless workshop with the Serverless group – 1st hands on, longer format event
  • More events with other Chicago groups like OWASP, serverless and DevOps
  • First ever Galentines Day event – for women/nb by women/nb but not exclusive
  • 1 full year of having website with FAQs, contact form
  • Another year with a code of conduct and no incidents or complaints
  • Slack group has grown and more active – #askexperts and #jobs most active
Rooms with improvements:
  • More diversity efforts – no women applied to speak at Community Day. More intro-level topics to welcome all levels. We’ll be adding pronoun stickers to all events to be more welcoming.
  • Community day was very Chicago heavy, with speakers and attendees. But let’s be honest, Chicago AWS users are the best 😉
  • More AWS topics like IoT, ML, AI, mobile, enterprise/work tools, topics for non-tech folks like APN partnerships, on boarding, managing, etc
  • There are tech evangelists in USA – let’s get them to Chicago
  • We emphasized in person events with no recording/ live stream but it didn’t change attendance or help anyone who can’t be there for schedule/mobility/social obligations reasons
  • Still not 100% transparent about talks vs pitches for sponsors. Need better ways to clarify with sponsors and convey value of $$
  • More repeat sponsors and speakers. Balance ‘the usuals’ and newbies
  • Website updates – blog? newsletter archive; bigger links to slides/videos past; updates; photos from past?

We did another year-end survey, and got great feedback. I’m so glad I’ve just asked people what they want for topics rather than guessing! The usual topics are always big: security and serverless. New topics requested are containers, infra as code, and AI. I’m excited to put them together.

new in 2019.001

What’s next?? 

In the works:
* Navigating the Amazon Partner Network
* Multi-test Takers Present on AWS Certifications
* Deeplens and Chicago Hot Dogs!
* k8s on AWS workshop


2018 Chicago AWS ugroup survey results

Results are in!

For the past 2 years I’ve asked the Chicago AWS user group for feedback. I am curious what’s resonating with folks for topics, format, and communication. Before I just relied on people contacting me with ideas for talks (shocker: they usually want to talk about their own tools / services). Feedback was just a casual chat after an event, some good and some bad.

Read the Comments

I like to think I know a well designed survey; I did major in Consumer Behavior and Sociology after all! One of my favorite / most boring classes was a Marketing class that applied statistics and consumer sentiment. It was really dry stuff: surveys, scale, choice, data. But my professor knew it was dry and every other slide or so had a funny thing to explain his point. I’ll always remember his explanation of how pointless scales can be in Likert surveys – he linked to the clip of This Is Spinal Tap “but these ones go to 11!” Bless his nerdy heart.

Hopefully with a well designed survey I can bear to read the comments. Luckily, all positive this year. I also didn’t have a free-form section for negative feedback either. :forehead-tap-meme:

First question – how do you get your updates for the user group? 

screen shot 2019-01-22 at 21.10.23

Pretty clear – people still dig emails. Newsletters are having a moment too, apparently.

What topics do you want to hear about?

screen shot 2019-01-22 at 21.10.52

Back to survey nerdery – mean vs. mode. Mean = average Mode = most frequently answered. I wanted to see what most people thought, and gauge the level of enthusiasm. For example, some folks are pumped about IoT but not everyone is equally pumped. It’s a solid middle-pack topic. Security is full of both passion and popularity. A perennial hot topic.

Formats – choose your favorite

screen shot 2019-01-22 at 21.10.35

Would you rather? screen shot 2019-01-22 at 21.22.31screen shot 2019-01-22 at 21.22.18

Looks like people want to give back, hear from AWS speakers and get AWS updates and maybe win stuff. Some of you crazy people want to nominate your friends to speak, so I’m gonna make that happen with some website updates – muhahaha.

Got thoughts? Wanna give feedback more than 1 time a year? Eager to nominate speakers? There’s always the contact form on ChicagoAWS.com 

User group communities at re:Invent – Inspiring me to up up my Chicago AWS game

This is the second year I’ve been invited to participate in the global community of fellow user group leaders. This is the key part that makes re:Invent a must for me. It’s like going to summer camp – I see folks who run user groups around the world and even though we spend about 36 hours together we have a very strong connection.

I didn’t realize how much I had to both share and learn from other AWS ugroup leaders until last year. Ross Barich, the grand poobah of all things Community at AWS and an all-around awesome person, invited me to do a quick 5 minute talk to fellow ugroup leaders at last year’s event. He just asked me to share my thoughts on what makes Chicago unique and if there were any tips I thought other leaders might benefit from, especially the newer leaders.

The leader session was Wednesday night off in the Palazzo and the 40-50 person room was packed with people from Japan, Germany, Thailand, Salt Lake City, South America, and everywhere in between. Everyone was very nice and quick to introduce themselves. I sat between the ladies who run Thailand groups and a guy from Southern New Hampshire. What a mix! My talk was what is important for the Chicago ugroup to keep it going monthly – check it out here.

This year, like last year, after the short talks Ross had us suggest a few topics and break into little discussion groups. A few of the same topics come up again: how to get sponsors while also not letting talks become sales pitches; how to get reliable attendee numbers (do we charge fees?!); catering events to groups like students or women-only nights; etc. The breakouts do quickly devolve into just chatting with other leaders about what works best and swapping experiences.

I personally learned about Community Days from the Japan user group (Japan AWS, or JAWS, the coolest megagroup out there) and German leaders. They had both put on community run, community-focused multi day events. Thanks to them, and mostly to Ross, the Midwestern user group leaders got together and put on the first ever Midwestern Community Day in June 2018. The JAWS group also inspired me to up my Chicago ugroup logo game – now we have killer stickers with deep dish pizza, complete with little clouds as cheese bubbles.

Stickers from user groups around the world - JAWS Osaka, Kobe, and women; Nordic AWS, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam and Chicago!

Stickers from user groups around the world – JAWS Osaka, Kobe, and women; Nordic AWS, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam and Chicago!

Other groups inspired me to step up my game in Chicago and it’s definitely been a benefit for the user group as a whole. This year was the same, and now I’m inspired again to do even more to help my local AWS users feel involved and included in a booming group of AWS users. I’ll be printing up more stickers (and now business cards) for 2019 soon. I’ve got ideas, topics, and inspiration for next year already and I haven’t even deplaned from re:Invent.

community at reInvent 2018

Our “Inclusion in user groups” discussion group was all (short) women until (a very tall) Chris from New Hampshire joined us!

Scrum Teams Need a Mama Bear

As the original scrum guide points out, there are a few key components to “doing scrum right” – sprints, backlogs, and product owners. Teams work collaboratively on tasks from the product backlog, which is a list of everything that needs to get done. Each sprint, the team reviews the backlog and the progress they’ve made. Once teams get cranking on a backlog, they can show off their productivity or velocity stats.

Each part of these activities needs someone on the team who is fiercely protective but also a nurturing guide for the team members themselves. In scrum, this role is the product owner. I like to think of it as a scrum Mama Bear.

Vital to a scrum team’s success is their ability to focus and commit time to work on backlog items. Organizations new to scrum might struggle with the idea of “losing” staff to a scrum team and the thought of other work getting pushed aside. Part-time scrum team members are not nearly as effective – context switching is real! A Mama Bear product owner fights to keep the team dedicated to the backlog while shielding the team from unplanned work or interruptions.

Mama Bears must also protect the team by managing interactions with external stakeholders and managing the team reports. Stakeholders are usually well-meaning but might want to see results or velocity reports right away. Here is where Mama Bear must protect the scrum team from attending meetings and taking time away from the product to fill out reports. Mama Bear product owners must hold back eager stakeholders who want to track hours, productivity, or other metrics the scrum team is not focused on. Team members are free to keep plugging away on backlog items while the Mama Bear attacks meetings and reporting duties.

Product owners do need a sensitive side for their team members. Just like a Mama Bear with her cubs, product owners must listen to their scrum team to empower, coach, and boost each member. As the sprint moves forward, the product owner keeps tabs on each backlog item. If a team member volunteers to take on an item but is struggling, the product owner is the one who must step in and offer help directly, bring in another team member to help, or refine the backlog item to better fit the task. At sprint events such as retrospectives, it might also fall to the product owner to ensure feedback is productive and blameless to not hurt the team members. As the scrum team matures, the Mama Bear allows team members to learn through pairing and develop cross-functional skills.

An effective scrum product owner should both protect their team from outsiders and also be caring toward their scrum team. This Mama Bear mindset must help teams get focused while the product owner fights off external demands and unrelated tasks. At the same time, the Mama Bear product owner should deeply care about the progress of the backlog and the development of their team. Scrum masters run the daily meetings and promote scrum, but a strong product owner will foster growth in a protected environment.

Originally posted on the BreakFree Solutions blog on Aug 15 2018

First ever AWS Community Day Midwest

Mostly because of AWS community rock star Ross Barich, the AWS user group leaders in  the Midwest are got together to make an über community event. Ross got the idea rolling at re:Invent at the end of 2017, and I jumped at the chance to start the planning and find a venue. By default almost we went with Chicago since it’s the largest city and user group but mostly because I was the most hands on for the venue search.

After the holidays and folks got back into the swing of 2018, I had a list of a few options and ideas. We met with leaders from Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, the ‘burbs, and Columbus. After a few calls we narrowed down what kind of event we wanted to have, when, where, and brought in more leaders from St. Louis and Cincinnati.

Our key event parameters:

  • full day conference in downtown Chicago
  • talks and workshops by users and community members
  • AWS sponsoring food, swag, and any event costs to keep it vendor-free
  • A $10 sign up fee, refunded only if people attend and check in
  • some schedule talks, with an ‘unconference’ space for open discussions

We caught the biggest and most decisive break when CIO Mike Allen of Morningstar volunteered their space in their offices. We’ve had Chicago AWS events there before, and it is an amazing space on a full floor of the building, with a big theater-style auditorium and a 2 story atrium space that fits about 300. Boom, free venue space with built-in A/V and a great location. That freed up a lot of planning and budget for us to focus on content.

The most important part of the AWS Community Day for us would be that the content be from the community. We selected and planned the talks and presenters from our AWS community.  We shared a link to an informal Google Form to collect talk ideas, emailed out to our groups and users. There were a few submissions that were clearly self-promotional and from vendors but a bulk were great, user-based talks that came from experience.

By this time it was early May and the event was set for June 7. We didn’t have much time to sort through and create an agenda from 30+ talks. We decided to ask a few submitters to squish talks down into lightning talks. From there we divvy up talks into 3 tracks to fit the rooms – the auditorium fit 200 while the other 2 were closer to 30 or 40.

Ross and AWS were awesome sponsors. They paid for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and happy hour. They brought in name badge printers, lanyards, socks for giveaways, handouts, signs for each room, and even shirts for volunteers that named us “community ninjas”.

We had way more people interested than able to attend, and it is always a tough call to turn people away. It did cause problems with lunch, crowded rooms, and loud “hallway tracks.” I know I can’t keep everyone happy but I’m always bummed to hear negative reviews – talks were too technical, talks were too basic, someone didn’t get lunch, others couldn’t hear.


Notes for next time:

  • Give more lead time between picking talks and the event start. It was all a bit rushed to get it together, but I wish we could have let speakers know and rsvp then promote speakers for about a week before selling tickets. I hope that might bring in more out of towners for next time.
  • Print / share full talk descriptions for all the talks. Some titles were vague, even for us deciding on the agenda. It would have been helpful to have talk descriptions for attendees to choose their day a little easier.
  • Signs for the bathrooms. Silly, but each volunteer got asked for directions about 20 times.
  • A plan to share and announce that slides would be shared with attendees. I forgot to ask speakers beforehand if they could share slides so I had to wait a few days after to collect them all. We could have also announced that we would be sharing slides in the notes for the event and at the kick-off. More than the bathrooms, volunteers got asked that about 400 times!
  • test A/V for smaller rooms. We had a lot of unhappy folks who couldn’t hear in the smaller room sessions. Luckily Morningstar folks brought in some giant speakers to boost room #2. This was probably the biggest legit complaint.
  • More lunch. Not really anyone’s fault, except maybe the caterer should have known better. We estimated about 130 attendees for lunch and they brought only enough for 130. That also lead to hungry meat eaters taking veggie / Kosher / etc options and leaving very limited choices. And an emergency Jimmy Johns run. Oy.
  • Talks overlapped with each other or weren’t in big enough rooms to fit all the attendees. A problem of too much good content!

List of silly complaints:

  • A line for the men’s bathroom
  • Free lunch wasn’t good enough
  • Type was too small on the handouts
  • “Make people speak into microphones”
  • Puddles in the men’s bathroom

Overall, it was a great success. We’ll build on this one and make the next one better, and hopefully bigger!

The Leap

I’m taking a leap. I am leaving Cohesive Networks and headed to BreakFree Solutions as a Solutions Engineer.

I feel a bit like Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade where he takes the literal “leap of faith” – jumping from clue to clue on invisible stones. Plus, there’s a test on the other side!

What got me here

At GreenPoint, I learned project management and tracking skills from someone more technically focused. I didn’t realize it then, but the sticky notes on the wall approach was some early kanban board stuff.  Also, I rapidly absorbed some LEED Green stuff, took the 2 tests, and got LEED AP+ accredited. It helped the project and  was a nice thing to prove that I know what I was talking about.

At Cohesive, the CEO took a chance on me. He saw that LEED AP and asked me “can you do the same thing – learn new things and apply it – but about technology?” Uh, yeah? Hired.

I’ve been lucky enough to work at small start ups where I could sponge up everything, and quickly. When I started at Cohesive I’d never even used a Mac before!* Cohesive started me in a “cohesive class” to get everyone on the same (or closer to the same, in my case) level of understanding of the industry, products, and the technology. Definitely a key characteristic at Cohesive is “elasticity”—a dynamic and flexible ability to learn.

Luckily, Pat saw that in me. It took me years to get comfortable clicking around in AWS, talking about networking capabilities, and still don’t consider myself a technical person. What I did realize was that to be a better marketer, I needed to better understand both the technology and the reasoning behind it.

Documents as marketing

I’ve also learned that documentation is some of the best – and most undervalued – marketing tools. People search for solutions to their problems, not for a certain product. One of my most valuable projects was updating documentation into both video and HTML formats. By actually doing the documentation for videos, I had to learn what the heck I was doing, and find a way to explain why.

Developers tend to know the mind of the user. They create tools to make their lives easier, so they see the solution side. Developers are wary of sales people, and usually tune out if it’s more product than solution. Sales folks usually try to move up and over developers to the budget-holding C-suite. Hopefully this dynamic will change. With the documentation project, I realized the earlier developers can get involved in the sales (or on the other side’s on-boarding) the easier it is for everyone.

AWS Chicago – not just pizza

As the organizer for AWS Chicago, I get to hear a lot of smart people talk about how they use AWS. I also hear a fair amount of sales pitches.

In 2014/2015 the AWS group in Chicago was dormant, my CloudCamp group was limping along, and 2 new groups tried to start AWS ‘cloud groups’ in Chicago. I knew everyone involved, so I brought the organizers together to split ‘cloud groups’ from the 2 AWS groups. Eventually the 2 AWS groups merged, and my buddy Upso and I organized.

Upso and Scott were motivated to do more, bigger, and better events. With their motivation and my powers of organizing, the AWS ugroup has been meeting monthly since mid-2016.

I wanted to prove that I could do more than order the pizzas, so I decided I should get AWS Certified. I took the test with minimal studying at re:Invent 2016 and did NOT pass. I tried again, this time by studying, and passed in Jan 2017. Getting certified and running the ugroup has pushed me to be more active in using and understanding AWS. I’m still far from an expert!

Sharing the knowledge

Somewhat concurrently to studying for the AWS test, I decided I should take up the project we’d talked about but had not create – a certification for networking and VNS3 for Cohesive customers. I’d written tons of blogs. There were white papers that predated me. Videos and documentation were floating around out there. All I had to do was pull it all together.

My first mistake / major learning experience was picking OpenedX. I didn’t want to pay for some outside-hosted learning management system (LMS), and I wanted to use some things familiar to Cohesive. I picked openedX because it’s free, open source, and uses RabbitMQ (created by Cohesive founders).  The downsides of open source is that you’re on your own!

I had lots of help, and I got edX up and running on an AWS-based Ubuntu server. I had to SSH into the box to do a fair amount of editing, so I got to learn that. I also got to learn the things that go with that – command line on iOS, vim, a little Django. On the edX side, I got to mess with a fair amount of HTML and their CMS/LMS formats.

Learning and teaching at the same time was pretty fun. I can say that now that I’m done with the project! I enjoyed putting new knowledge to work immediately, and I felt really useful dredging up older content that might help someone some day.

Putting it all together

Leaning in to the technical parts has really been an uphill struggle for me. It’s kind of like my math classes in school – extra hard for me to learn and work on, but rewarding when I solve a problem. In my search for a new gig, I wanted something that could blend my new skills with the marketing, sales, and community side of what I’d been doing. I don’t want to do marketing forever – and I believe it will be increasingly automated.

At BreakFree, everyone I talked to “got it” that I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing. I want to keep learning and helping others, and I get that vibe from everyone I’ve met. I am impressed with the small, agile consulting group with an eye on bigger projects. I’m excited to join the team!

* I was super embarrassed when I locked myself out of my new Mac on day 3 and only the CEO was there to help me. Yikes.

First Ever Women & Non-Binary Focused AWS User Group

Warning: back-patting ahead.

At some Chicago AWS user group events, I am the only woman in the room. Luckily, I’m forced to stand in front of the group to at least introduce speakers and emcee the event, so people do at least see one woman. It’s not the most fun to be in such a minority all the time when I know awesome women work in technology, in Chicago, and with AWS.

The motivation finally hit me at the AWS user group leader event in Vegas at re:Invent. One fellow user group leader (a man, I think?) asked what everyone was doing to promote more women, inclusivity, and diversity in their groups. My only answer was as the organizer, there’s a guarantee of 1 woman at each Chicago event.

But what can I do about it? Well, something is better than nothing.

I spend the quiet part of 2017 year-end to start planning user group events. One thing I mentioned for topics was always a “women who use AWS” topic. Once I got used to the idea that the event would happen, I started adding it into the lineup and rotation for venues and sponsors.

It hit me: Galentine’s Day in February! I really enjoy the pure joy and optimism of Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation. Her creation, Galentine’s Day is a day for “ladies celebrating ladies.”


I knew I needed help reaching lady speakers and lady attendees. I’m part of the Chicago Tech Diversity Slack group, so I asked the women there for help. I’m very glad I did. One of the first suggestions, and a point I should’ve thought of, was a to expand it to all women, non-binary, and trans folks in Chicago using AWS. The organizers of groups like Chicago Women Developers, Girl Develop It, and more offered many, many smart Chicagoans who could speak and another volunteered her company to host.

For the topic, I left it pretty open to the speakers with the caveat that they should explain any abbreviations or AWS services they mention. Above all I wanted a judgement free zone where experience with AWS was not a requirement.

Warm Fuzzies

It worked out better than I could have imagined. We got about 60% women/nb attendees at the event. The hosts made a point to mention the gender-neutral bathrooms and their company’s policies. A lot of the post-event feedback from first timers was positive. I saw so many new faces in the group!

I put many disclaimers on the event: “while this event is not exclusive for women, non-binary, and trans folks we do ask that you be considerate when you RSVP.” So it wasn’t ONLY women/nb but I really didn’t want some cis white guys to take all the spots and leave others on the waitlist. I was very relieved to see no waitlist and a majority of female names on the attendee list.

I loved how it was actually a fairly technical event. Each speaker has their own area of AWS and technology, but none of the topics were “women in tech,” “managing diversity” or any preach-to-the-choir subject. We just jumped right into the good stuff. It was a longer event, with four 45min+ talks but the Q&As were all great and everyone just seemed so exited to hang out together.

I hope the user group can become more equitable at every event. I want to work harder to get women, non-binary, racial minorities, and folks from all social backgrounds to both present and attend. Until then, I will definitely keep doing events with a “judgement free” disclaimer.

The wonderful speakers who shared their slides: 

MJ Berends, “how to develop for aws on your local machine using localstack / moto” – https://www.slideshare.net/awschicago/mj-berends-talk-women-nonbinary-focused-intro-to-aws

Devina Dhawan “Transitioning to AWS in a Hurry Without Getting Owned” http://bit.ly/2EnZU1q

Allie Richards “A tale of 3 AWS Migrations” – https://www.slideshare.net/AlexandraRichards4/a-tale-of-three-aws-migrations