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Get plugged in with an IT user group

Like birds of a feather, IT professionals like to congregate and share ideas – and perhaps gripe a bit. Get enough of these kindred souls together regularly and a user group can arise.

Brad Bird of Ottawa was looking for ways to network with peers and learn about the Microsoft IT market when he joined the local Windows Server User Group and Ottawa IT Community.

"I was looking for something more than what my workplace at the time was able to offer," he says.

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It paid off for him after he took on a leadership role, which prompted him to join Cistel Technology Inc. He is now the company's system centre and virtual machine architect, and he has become president of his user group.

User groups come in all shapes and sizes, from formal organizations with monthly meetings to online communities where users swap tips, but one thing they all have in common is a focus on a particular vendor or technology. Career growth and the occasional new job are but happy side effects.

User groups may be local, like Mr. Bird's, or part of an international organization. Montreal's Chris Koppe, director of marketing and business development at Speedware, is president of HP's largest enterprise user group, Connect, a 53,000-member organization with presence in 60 countries worldwide.

One issue that Connect is focusing on is the organization of a user protest against Oracle's decision to stop supporting systems with the Intel Itanium processor, used in some HP setups. Should that support cease, some Oracle-using HP customers would face difficult and expensive transitions. "It's very selfish from an Oracle perspective," says Mr. Koppe, who suspects Oracle is making the move to support its own flagging hardware business.

In addition to its advocacy efforts, Connect also sponsors training events and an annual conference, and with HP they fund an international scholarship. "HP really gets it," says Mr. Koppe. "The value to them is the loyalty of the customer."

Other vendors get it, too. Microsoft is a strong supporter of its user communities, offering assistance in establishing and running groups through its Microsoft User Group Support Services.

Ruth Morton was an independent IT professional in the Waterloo, Ont., area when she started a user group. She wanted to connect with peers and bring speakers to the area so she wouldn't have to make the trek to Toronto. She approached Microsoft for sponsorship so the group could provide resources to its members while keeping events free, and the company obliged.

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"Networking is important, and these groups provide an environment to do that," she says. "They give IT professionals and software developers the opportunity to keep up to date on the latest technologies while finding technical assistance and expertise among their peers. Group members will often end up working together on IT projects or hiring from the group."

Ms. Morton also learned about an opening at Microsoft that led to her position as technology adviser with the company.

"Think of it as an investment in yourself and your career," she advises. "However, you'll get the most out of it when you start contributing."

Infrastructure support analyst Sean Kearney contributes to ITPro Toronto by making presentations, educating fellow users and serving on the board. He originally joined to meet new people, but he found that membership helped him gain experience presenting and gave him a community to be involved in. He is gauging interest in forming a local Microsoft Windows PowerShell user group, and can't recommend user groups highly enough.

"There are sometimes benefits such as lower costs to events, free training and that sense of community that many people may not have," he says.

"Be sure to put it on your résumé," adds Kate Gregory, founder of the East of Toronto .NET User Group. "Employers know about the kind of enthusiasm it takes to learn more on your own time."

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Ms. Gregory, a partner at Gregory Consulting in Peterborough, Ont., also speaks at other user groups across North America. She values the experiences that members share – what works, what doesn't work, how they save time and money. She has hired people she met at user group meetings, and a job opening announced at such a meeting, she says, is apt to attract great applicants.

For anyone considering joining a user group, her advice is simple: "Don't even think twice about it. Go. Take your business cards. Arrive early so you can talk to the other attendees during the 'social and pizza' time. Arrange your schedule so you can hang around at the end to talk to the speaker, the organizers and so on.

"If you get an opportunity to volunteer with the group, take it! You will meet people you might otherwise never meet – authors, speakers, employers, experts. And don't be afraid to give a talk some day; there is no more supportive and helpful atmosphere in which to give it a try."

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