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Finding strength through numbers

User groups help vendors and users

By Michael MacMillan

Alfred walking on water (not very well) 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," he said.

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 database.

Kicking back with some mint tea 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 product."

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."

Michael MacMillan
Staff Writer, ComputerWorld Canada

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