Friday, December 7, 2007

For RUGs, it's a bigger picture!

In 1988 I was kicking around the Sydney offices of Tandem with not a whole lot to do. I had returned to Australia from North Carolina and had pursued a job with Tandem Computers with the intent of returning to the US just as soon as I could. I had been working in Raleigh, North Carolina on an L1 visa but had to re-apply for a new L1 visa and for this I had to return to Sydney.

It was while waiting to get to Cupertino that I was encouraged to work with some of the local users – folks from the banks as well as some local ISVs, etc – and to see if we could form a user group. I jumped at the chance and over a couple of really lengthy lunches, we came up with the business plan for OzTUG.

By the time the group held its first meeting, late in ’88 I recall, I was working as a Program Manager within the Distributed Systems Management (DSM) group, and I had my new L1 visa. The picture here is of me about to drive down to Monterey for the weekend - a dreadful car by today’s standard but back then, living in California with that convertible – what a blast!

But RUGs have remained my passion, and readers of this blog will have read about me participating in many RUG events this year from SATUG in South Africa, to N2TUG in Dallas, and more recently VNUG and FinTUG in Scandinavia as well as attending both the major ITUG events in Las Vegas and Brighton. It is with RUGs that you can see what’s going on at the grass-roots level!

I have often been asked what makes a successful RUG, and how do you maintain community interest in RUG-related activities, and after all these years I have a pretty good idea. Recently, I had followed up with a number of folks actively engaged with RUGs and their opinions aligned pretty well with my own thoughts. Three observations really stood out from the rest.

First, it’s all about the users themselves. There has to be a real desire by a couple of key users whether from the end-user stakeholders or the vendors. And there has to be a sustained commitment from them over many years. In a recent email exchange with Bill Honaker, a former ITUG Chairman, he pointed out “RUGs have always been very dependent on dedicated local volunteers”. And then he added “I still think it’s the best ‘bang for the buck’ for a company that relies strongly on NonStop technology for business continuity and that there simply isn’t a better place to keep current on the usage trends of customers around the world”. Steven Moriarty, another former ITUG Chairman pretty much took a similar stance, and then added “if our RUG members are isolated and do not see the overall purpose or understand the mindset and business of their IT environment, they will miss opportunities to better integrate and use their NonStop equipment”.

Second, there just has to be an enthusiastic supporter in the local HP offices. Dave Russell is really very supportive of BITUG and I have observed how much effort he puts into making sure that there’s always good content at the meetings. He emailed me recently to say “I always ensure there are appropriate HP people presenting at the SIGs, and often help with user speakers”. He then added “I arrange the SIGs room, coffee and lunch, the badges, and so on”. But HP does support regional liaisons whenever they step forward and volunteer. Diane Funkhouser of HP Dallas, and deeply involved with N2TUG responded to my question and told me “I get good support from HP for my RUG – they provide a location for most meetings, often provide food as well as speakers, and have given us some really good give-aways (a camera, an IPOD, even clothing)”.

And then finally, content is important. Aligning the presentations and organizing discussion groups around the interests of the local community is just so important. For years, ITUG has known that “content is king”, but in the process of putting together the program for a global event, often has had to cut back on some topics. Hartmut Hoffmann of HP Germany, who has been involved with GTUG for as long as I can remember, wrote to me to say that “GTUG is the event for all German manufacturers, retailers, and logistics customers as they are not covered by other HP NonStop events - we do not have many standard application solutions in the German marketplace and I need to encourage them with their own development and with their work with local technology ISVs”. Bill Honaker added that “our SOAP education course last month was almost full – the largest we have held – and we’re planning a first quarter meeting around SOA in general”.

We come together at RUG meetings worldwide for many of the same reasons we attend global ITUG events – to talk with each other about our own situations, to be educated on the latest from our primary vendor, and to participate in forums where we can join with others to advocate for change. It has been these three activities that have contributed to the success of ITUG and they have been reflected in the local activities of the RUGs.

But there’s mounting evidence that the condition of each RUG varies enormously today as I have seen the emergence of four or five super-RUGs at a time when others have slid back. Some RUGs are not even functioning any longer. It was 2003 – 2004 when we peaked with active RUGs at about 35 and looking realistically at further growing to 40 – but since then, with the loss of a number of key individuals, the drop off has been significant.

Jay McLaughlin, VP of Sales with HP NonStop partner - USA, and the present ITUG Director responsible for RUGs, made some interesting observations recently when he told me: “I think it is best summed up by saying we are in a state of change. What the end result will look like is hard to say. When I first got involved it seemed the majority of the RUGs were looking to ITUG to help manage, and set the standards, for them. However, the changing landscapes of the NonStop world and ITUG, have seemed to reverse that trend back towards the feeling of a "grassroots" movement. From my standpoint, I look at the RUGs like our kids, and they each need a different level of nurturing that is constantly changing. Each one needs a different style and level of support - SunTUG (very independent) vs NRTUG (looking for assistance) for example”.

We are also seeing other changes across the world of user groups. Those that operate “close to the metal” and down at the operating system level, are seeing their membership struggle, while those communities focused on application software, are beginning to attract much larger followings. Oracle OpenWorld is now closing down parts of Howard Street in San Francisco to accommodate the crowds that flock to this event.

My good friend Graeme Philipson, who I quoted in my last blog posting, added at that time “I think the conventional user group, tied to a particular computer architecture, is past it’s ‘use by date’ – everything is so commoditized now; specialized ones still work – the Netezza event I attended in Boston was a great success, as I believe the Teradata events are as well”. Graeme then concluded with “Yes, it is a technology ‘food chain’ thing with communities around PC’s, for instance, dying whereas application software user groups seem very successful”.

Back in my September 24th blog posting “What did you have in mind, eh?” I said that I would be blogging to generate further discussion within the community on topics like platforms, system architectures, data base and business intelligence, but is it time now to really talk about where our community is headed? As we see stronger alignment with the HP Geo markets, with more Business Critical Server (BCS) centered event structure with broader participation by our good friends from Encompass, are we all happy to follow this direction? In Florida, SUNTUG has decided to cooperate with Encompass, and to include more than just NonStop in their programs.

I am beginning to see that, as the interest in what really goes on at the hardware level, with chip sets, and with interconnect fabrics and so forth, becomes less important, it is the successful integration of applications that is grabbing the most attention. Platform roadmaps will always remain important to us all as we like to get an idea about where the investments are being made, but where successful deployments are being made carries a lot more weight with today’s users.

And I do have to admit that I am not as concerned, or as unprepared for this, as I was a few years back. User groups will continue to evolve and will continue to redirect their focus, but this is only natural. We no longer discuss the merits of Assembler sub routines and in-line macros, the optimal way to sort fields, or the latest tricks with Job Control Languages. Our eyes are now lifted to more distant horizons as we contemplate the advantages we can leverage from others as we integrate business intelligence, enterprise resource planning, and so forth into the very core of our business.


JJ1031 said...

Good history and thoughts. Any comments on how Liasions can be more effective. I suggest and coordinate speakers, reserve rooms, get coffee and lunch - but if there's more I could be doing let me know. I'll have to ping Diana and see how she gets the HP giveaways...

Wallabies09 said...

Hi Richard-
Great post! I especially enjoyed reading the collective thoughts of Bill, Dave, Diane, et al. Since I am working directly with the RUGs from a Director level being able to leverage the thoughts of some noted individuals in our community is very valuable.

As a user group, we are in changing times but as you point out history shows this is not the first time and we can certainly adapt to continue providing value to our community.

By the way, that car would be really cool today . . . remember retro is in (that’s what my kids say any way!). So we are back in style again!

Steven said...

Jay's point about the reversing trend is good observation. In the early days in the U.S. and Europe, the TUGs (as they were then) were pretty independent and largely took care of their own needs. ITUG had a mission in the late 1980s and early 1990s to help start new RUGs and I think that while that was an important mission, it had the paradoxical effect of weakening some of the existing groups and diluting their importance and independence in some cases. I'm happy to see the pendulum swinging back in the other direction.

RickT said...

Good stuff Richard,
Your extensive NonStop background and worldwide adventures certainly make for a great read. While reading this and your other entries I couldn't help but think perhaps you could develop a second career around "NonStop according to Buckle"!?