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!


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!

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” –

Devina Dhawan “Transitioning to AWS in a Hurry Without Getting Owned”

Allie Richards “A tale of 3 AWS Migrations” –

2018 Chicago AWS resolutions

I’m finally putting more into writing for my elaborate plans for the Chicago AWS user group. I started off some thoughts at the beginning of December, so I’m adding to that list.

A new AWS Chicago logo

A new logo! Pizza, with clouds as little cheese bubbles


First off, my pride of late 2017: the website. More than anything I wanted to save myself from typing and anyone asking me the frequently asked questions. A static site is easy enough for me to manage (thanks to these guides on AWS  at least). I also really wanted a place to put the code of conduct. Thankfully, there hasn’t been a conduct-related issue at an AWS event (but ask me about the Pizza Thief some time), but I wanted to be more clear about setting expectations in 2018.


I get a fair amount of people asking me to help them either find a job or find someone to hire. In the past I rolled my eyes and thought “not my job!” but an easy solution is to just put people in touch with each other directly!

Slack for the group is definitely under-utilized, but it is a good option for communicating in realtime during events, a message board of sorts for jobs, and an “ask experts” channel to tap into collective knowledge. I don’t see it being a busy Slack group, but it gets me out of the way of people who’d like more ongoing group interactions.

No more meetup. Eventbrite!

I was considering this at the end of 2017, but the Jan event solidified my decision to dump Meetup. Each host company, their building, and their security team is different. I think it’s really important to keep the venues on rotation, but a big headache is getting attendee lists of full names to building security 24 or even 48 hours early. Plus, there are ALWAYS people who want to walk up the day of.

Meetup has a field in their old UI (that’s a whole other rage-blog about their UI changes) that lets me ask people a question when they RSVP. I’ve always put something along the lines of “what is your full name (for building security only)” but only sometimes get full responses. I had a few folks tell me in Jan that they’d RSVPd with their full name, but neither of us had any record of it! So frustrating for everyone.

Plus, I have no insight into who is RSVP’ing and how to get in touch with people. Meetup only has the options to email groups (a random grouping of members, too) or use Meetup Messages to communicate.  I image few people have the meetup app on their phone, so if someone is stuck outside security at an event it’s pretty close to impossible to get in touch with me.

My answer: eventbrite for all AWS ugorups. Yes, another sign up. It’s not as easy to find as searching meetup groups, but honestly I want to keep folks to come back to the same events rather than all new people. For now my solution is to create 2 events and post the list to RSVP on Meetup, pointing to the real RSVP on Eventbrite. Still far from perfect.

New RSVP policy: 2 weeks or nothing

Comparing notes with other ugroup leaders in Vegas, Chicago has a pretty major drop-off rate. In 2016 members soared, up to 3,500 Meetup member, but only about 40% show up. It’s a shame when venues can only fit 100 people, over 200 people RSVP, but some of people who are in the ‘yes’ group don’t show while waitlist people miss out.

My rememedy, also suggested by the Germany ugroup leader, was to start RSVPs 2 weeks before. That way people don’t just hit ‘yes’ 2 months early and never think of it again. Hopefully between Eventbrite and the 2 week policy more interested members can come to events!

Emphasis on IRL

Another point that came up in Vegas was the emphasis on real life value of the user groups. Some groups are online only – South America has a huge and very active Spanish speaking online group. Other groups in Chicago have well-made videos and livestreams of events. I always get questions from people about slides and presentations after the fact.

But, there is clear value to showing up and talking to people that a video can’t do. AWS has excellent tutorials, FAQs, and videos for getting started. I am emphasizing the value of real, human interactions in 2018.

Topics and feedback

At the end of 2017 I put out a survey for the group. It’s the first time I’ve asked for feedback online. If someone can’t or doesn’t want to talk to me at an event, how will I know what they want to hear? The simple Google survey was mostly to set a baseline.

I did find things I expected: folks prefer mid-week evening events in the Loop. Short talks are better than 1 long talk. People also want more hands-on interaction, bleeding edge topics, and use case topics. feedback


Featured in “Business Data Security Tips: 40+ Experts Reveal Their Best Advice”

See the full article on Phoenix NAP: Business Data Security Tips: 40+ Experts Reveal Their Best Advice

Self-evaluate to keep pace with both risk and compliance

Your business is small, but risks are enterprise-size.

Top cybersecurity threats to small businesses (SMBs) are very similar to the risks all enterprises face. The stakes are much higher for SMBs because they often lack the resources to fight back and prevent data loss. Large firms have teams of data security experts and can afford extensive audits. SMBs can be more vulnerable to security risks and struggle to quickly react to vulnerabilities.

The 2016 Ponemon Cost of a Data Breach Study

Source: The 2016 Ponemon Cost of a Data Breach Study

Keep pace with both risks and compliance by self-evaluating

Frequently self-evaluating the company’s cybersecurity practices is the best way to detect and prevent cybersecurity threats. SMBs can use the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (it’s free!) as a blueprint to evaluate current security policies and remodel data protection policies to focus on preventing vulnerabilities and to set goals to improve and maintain security.

Traditional standards and protections all attempt to do the same things: protect sensitive data. The NIST Cybersecurity Framework is unique because the Framework combines the best practices of other security standards to focus on outcomes, rather than avoiding liability. SMBs should self-evaluate cybersecurity at least once a year, with participation from all business unit leaders and all of the IT team.

NIST Cybersecurity Framework

Read more on how the NIST Cybersecurity Framework can help: Why All Enterprises Should Adopt the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

Don’t become a victim of your own success – growth.

As SMBs grow and add employees and partners, they must share access to vital business data and systems. For example, a small company can rely on a single IT person to manage access to data, a server, and the company network. As the SMB grows and adds employees and offices, a “single point of failure” becomes a risk for the company. Security for data and networks should grow with the business, with precautions built into business goals.

Margaret Valtierra, Senior Marketing Specialist, Cohesive Networks

Margaret Valtierra is Senior Marketing Specialist at Cohesive Networks. She is responsible for growing business through digital and written content, public relations, and community events.

See the full article on Phoenix NAP: Business Data Security Tips: 40+ Experts Reveal Their Best Advice

Tips for monthly user group endurance

In early November, Ross from AWS asked me to do a quick presentation at re:Invent for the meeting for global user group leaders. It would just be a 5 minute, 1 slide lightning talk. It wasn’t that long, so I agreed. No problem.

Then I had to think up what I would say and what would be useful to other user group leaders! The meeting was really amazing – user group leaders from all over the world were there, and I was excited to be with “my people.”

I must say, a great thing about AWS is their hands-off approach to the user groups. I thought we were special in Chicago because no one from Amazon was allowed into the state before 2015. But everywhere, AWS encourages groups to build their own user group brands (Janpan’s AWS user group is JAWS!), formats, and leadership without any influence from AWS.

For me, I wanted to share with other user group leaders how to keep things rolling along smoothly. There’s good content out there about starting a group and AWS is willing to help. But what do you do after the 2nd or 3rd meetup? How do you get multiple sponsors?


My big 4 points: repeat, automate, change it up, and invite.

Repeat: some things stay the same to keep consistency.  For Chicago, most people work downtown and commute out before the last trains leave, around 8pm. That means the best places for events are downtown offices, right after work. Consistent timing means folks can count on being able to get to events.

The other repeatable thing for Chicago (really, for me personally) is the format. We give time for people to filter in from 5 – 6pm, grab pizza and drinks, mingle a bit, and find a seat. By 6pm I kick it off with a welcome, give sponsors / hosts 5 min to pitch, then jump into the talks or panel. People know they’ll get to the meat of the event by 6.15 at the latest, and I like to show that I respect their time. Sponsors and hosts know they get 5 min up top when everyone is paying attention.

I’ve found a predictible format is the best thing for keeping that momentum – for me as an organizer I don’t have to re-create the work each time and members know what to expect for the night.  I wrote up more about sponsors and hosts to manage expectations, and save myself from typing the same thing over and over:

Automate: save time on the little things. The FAQs I linked to above came from my realization that I was sending the same email to all potential sponsors. Posting it on the website was easier for me to link to, more people could access the information, and I wasn’t blocking group transparency.

For communications, I believe more is better – within reason. I only contact group members when there’s news, and then send out reminders to RSVP. My cadence is to announce the event, then remind folks to RSVP 2 weeks before, then week-of updates about getting to the venue.

Social updates, newsletters, and emails are the not-so-automated but automatic part. I use tools like IFTTT, Zapier, Mailchimp, and Hootsuite to trigger and update news when it happens. I joked that I’m the mechanical turk for the group’s social communications.

The next 2 kind of merge together: change it up and invite. For me, keeping a healthy rotation of venues, sponsors, speakers and topics helps the group group. More people pop in from their offices if their company hosts. New people join the group every time we have new sponsors and topics.

I try to invite new speakers almost each time. I always get those well-meaning members who volunteer to speak each event, but I gently tell them to share the stage. Once I started doing meetings each moth, it was so much easier to get new companies interested in sponsoring and/or hosting. Now I’ve got a steady rotation of companies asking to contribute, and people I know I can contact for venues.

But wait, there’s more!

Other tips I’d give user group leaders that I couldn’t squeeze in to the 5 min talk include:

  • try to plan the next event before 1 month out
  • have something (future events, other groups, AWS news) to announce at the event
  • communicate, communicate, communicate!
  • always be thanking – sponsors, hosts, speakers
  • ask for help from AWS, especially for speakers

Here’s my pre-event checklist:
[ ] print sponsor & direction for the venue
[ ]  print out sponsor logos for drinks and pizza
[ ] email attendees 2 days before – remind them to update RSVPs, venue policies for checking in, how to get there, and social info for speakers
[ ] order drinks at least 2 days before
[ ] order pizza online – schedule!
[ ] confirm with speakers 1 day before
[ ] schedule tweets for sponsors, talks, host

Post-event checklist:
[ ] tweet / post slides from speakers
[ ] upload slides to slideshare
[ ] post link to slides on meetup/ email
[ ] email hopeful sponsors / hosts/ speakers I met at the event
[ ] update schedule & attendee email drafts
[ ] invoice sponsor and send receipts in PDF to sponsors

Doing this talk made me really think through how the group works. I know the Chicago group is unique, both for how the people in the city work and that I’m a 1-woman dictator. I don’t think any other group runs quite how we do, so I’m looking at what works and what could improve.

Next up, deep thoughts about how 2018 will be a great year for the Chicago AWS user group!

from re:Invent to 2018

I am still recovering from a week in Vegas at re:Invent. Seriously, I think all 45,000 of us got a cold at the conference!

It was a busy week in the desert. There is plenty to talk about in 2018! For some refreshers on the product and service announcements, see the highlights from AWS and Day 1 and Day 2 reviews on InfoQ.

Personally, I enjoyed getting to meet fellow user group leaders from around the globe. There are amazing groups all over – Dublin, Munich, JAWS (Japan AWS), and the South American AWS en Español. I’ve got so many great ideas for 2018 user group topics!

2017 lookback

From the puny stats, it looks like the group has grown by over 500% from early 2016! We hit our goal of having regular, monthly events. I’ve been working on getting new speakers, more technical talks, and a diverse lineup of presenters – still a work in progress.

Big things for 2018

Part of my master plan for 2018 is already here. There’s a new website with info for sponsors, speakers, and hosts. Plus, a written code of conduct. Luckily we’ve never had an issue at a user group event, but this is an effort to be welcoming, transparent, and prepared. Also on our website is an invite form to join the AWS Chicago Slack channel.

Up next in 2018, I’ve got plans for a few all-day, hands-on sessions a year. We’ll hear from more AWS solutions architects, and hopefully more user group members. I’ll also send out a survey to get more feedback and ideas from the community.

Stay tuned for dates and announcements in January.


If you’re interested in learning more, join us on or on the socials:

– Meetup:
– linkedin group:
– twitter:
– youtube:
– slideshare: