Finding strength through numbers
User groups help vendors and users
By Michael MacMillan
Phuoc Ho is a passionate supporter of
Informix products so much so that he decided to start his
own user group. And that's when things got interesting.
Ho, head of Informix services at Alcea
Technologies Inc. in Ottawa, Ont., said he never imagined
that starting the group would be so difficult. Particularly
challenging is making sure that everyone who attends meetings
finds what they want.
"It's tough because you have a very broad
audienceso you have to make sure that you keep everyone interested,"
Still, he's optimistic. Although the Ottawa-area
user group is only a few months old, he already has plans
to incorporate it into a larger organization encompassing
user groups in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. And he has a
clear vision of what the group's mission will be.
"In the past, user groups were more
focused on, 'Hey, I have a problem and I need some answers.'
But I think they need to do more than just that, they need
to be able to support, to provide answers, to be able to get
together with the company and exchange ideas."
Ho points to Informix's recent user conference
in Seattle as an example. There, the vendor thanked members
of the International Informix User Group (IIUG) for helping
guide the company toward the development of a Linux-based
But whether it's encouraging a vendor to keep a particular
offering alive or helping the vendor educate more users about
a product, user groups have a valuable role to play, according
to A. Alfred Ayache, president of both the Scarborough, Ont.-based
Last Byte Inc. and Toronto Delphi Users Group (TDUG).
"Vendors can take advantage of a
pool of potentially influential users of their products(and
in our case) not necessarily Inprise. It might be a third-party
Having a voluntary group of users dedicated
to a particular technology is a boon for any company, Ayache
said. In TDUG's case, it gives Inprise Corp., makers of Delphi,
something to point to when selling to customers. A 10-year
veteran of user groups, Ayache said most TDUG members are
independent contractors looking for training otherwise unavailable
to them. Members with corporate backgrounds also use TDUG
to make contacts and keep up with Inprise technology.
He likes the idea of giving feedback to
the vendor. "I like to coax Inprise towards certain strategies
that will help them and would certainly help our members and
community," Ayache said.
Wende Boddy, associate manager of the
Toronto Users Group for Midrange Systems (TUG), an IBM Corp.
AS/400 organization, agrees that prodding IBM on certain issues
is one, but not the only or even the most important, mandate
of her group.
"I don't know if we have any sway
in that area at all(though) no one is afraid to point fingers
at IBM to say, 'You're not doing this right.' We're critical
of them as well as anyone else is."
Boddy prefers to think of TUG as a forum
for AS/400 education, where IBM plays an important but not
critical role. She describes an almost paradoxical relationship
between TUG and IBM, one that is close but in some ways distant.
IBM has to pay dues to maintain its membership, but at the
same time supplies speakers free of charge and keeps group
members apprised of product decisions.
TUG's official IBM liaison, who sits on
the group's board of directors at the request of TUG, said
IBM appreciates the association's value. "One of the nice
advantages is the feedback we get from the user group collective
about what their concerns are, either product concerns, industry
concerns [or] trends," said Tom Hoover, consulting IT specialist
with IBM Canada Ltd. in Markham, Ont.
IBM also has an interest in seeing users
learn more about the AS/400, something TUG does through monthly
meetings and a magazine distributed to members. Hoover said
IBM does mention TUG when selling to particular clients, as
an example of user success.
But everyone agrees that to get something
from a user group takes effort. "I basically tell people that
it's a users' group," Ho said. "It's not my group, it's a
users' group. And by getting together there will be a voice
and you will be heard, and you can provide feedback."
Ayache has advice for anyone thinking
of starting a user group: be ready for a lot of work. "(And)
don't do it by yourself. I'd advise anyone to go out and do
this, but it's way too much work to do by yourself." He said
group leaders must learn to balance the needs of users, vendors
and even other user groups.
And don't expect it to take off overnight,
Boddy warns. "The hardest part is getting people out to the
meetings. You have no funds when you start outyou have to
[meet] at companies that your members belong to."
Staff Writer, ComputerWorld Canada