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 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” –

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: