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!


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!