Top Tips for Getting User Group Value

Hijacking, money, and future job prospects are all on the user group agenda

October 7, 2006

5 Min Read
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User groups are vying for the attention of storage managers, from the Association of Storage Networking Professionals (ASNP) to the Storage Networking User Groups (SNUGS) that are popping up across the U.S., as well as a plethora of vendor-specific groups. (See Storage User Groups Proliferate, SNIA Sponsors End User Group, and SNIA Seeks More Users.)

But getting maximum value out of a user group involves much more than just parking your derriere at the occasional meeting. Based on discussions with members and hangers-on, here's a list of key things to consider when getting involved:

Follow the money

With many groups heavily backed by specific vendors, users need to decide whether a group fits in with their best interests, according to Dan Tanner, president of the New England Chapter of the ASNP and founder of consulting firm ProgresSmart. "What you really want to do is look at the funding source of the organization and make your own determination about whether it is highly leveraged by a particular interest," he explains.

Don't make assumptions until you get the real information. A vendor's name doesn't necessarily imply support. "We have not been funded by Sun for years," adds Dave Shearer, chairman of the U.K.-based Sun User Group, which has around 300 members. "I think it's very important for the credibility [of the group]."Working out a group's financial make-up could provide an insight into its priorities and long-term goals. The Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), for example, has set up a free End-User Council for storage managers, although the organization charges up to $35,000 a year to vendors that want full voting rights within SNIA.

Don't hesitate to network

User groups may be the perfect place to share hands-on expertise and grill vendors, but they are also invaluable networking opportunities, according to Roy Rabey, IT manager at Dallas-based online gaming specialist Ensemble Studios. (See Enterprises Still Not Sold on Grid and Gaming Companies Eye Storage.)

"For folks looking to make a career advancement, it's a great way to make contacts." User groups focused on a specific vendor's technology, he adds, give storage managers great visibility into firms that may be on the lookout for new staff.

This scenario, according to Rabey, is much more likely to play out in a local user group where IT managers get a clearer insight into their contemporaries' pain points.Consider your budget before joining

At a time when corporate IT budgets are coming under pressure, Rabey urges users to get involved with groups that offer free memberships. "I think it's pretty important," he says, adding that, in an ideal world, user group attendance should not affect IT budgets.

Not all user groups offer free membership. SHARE, for example, which serves the IBM community, charges a one-off $500 membership fee per organization. The ASNP, on the other hand, offers free membership to IT managers, systems administrators, CIOs, and CTOs with storage responsibilities and budgets.

That said, the ASNP is supported by QLogic, EMC, Cisco, and Brocade, although vendors cannot actually become members of the group. Daniel Delshad, the ASNP's executive director, told Byte and Switch that he is not ruling out the possibility of introducing subscriptions for users, although membership will remain free for the foreseeable future.

Exploit your strength in numbersMultiple voices are louder than one, and this can prove crucial when bending a vendor to your collective will. "There's strength in numbers," explains Rabey. "If there's a certain percentage of the user base that's experiencing a problem and you bring that to the vendor en masse, you have a much better chance of getting that solved."

Users also have a better chance of airing their grievances directly to a senior vendor exec when they go via a user group, Rabey says.

Over in the U.K., Shearer told Byte and Switch that he has put senior Sun execs in front of his user group members. "We have had [Sun CTO] Greg Papadopoulos answer our questions for us," he says. "It gives the end-users, through the user group, access to talk to some of the back-room guys."

Beware hijackers

"It's important that the user group isnt taken over by a special interest group," says Shearer, adding that users should look for groups with broader-based goals. "Sometimes, for example, some people may just want to talk about financial applications, whereas other members may want to talk about containers within Solaris 10."Users, according to Tanner, can also run the risk of becoming blinkered around certain technologies if their group follows a pack mentality. This, he explains, happened in the Computer Aided Design (CAD) industry in the 1980s, when many users totally missed the emergence of low-cost, desktop-based products. "The established vendors and their customers were so concerned with refinements to well-known stuff [that] they were blind-sided."

Look locally

If you want to develop strong relationships, look for a group in your local area. "Choose a group that's near to where you work," says Shearer. "It's the fact that it lets you meet more frequently, maybe once a month, and it can enhance the rapport with local vendor support teams," adds Rabey.

But, over at the ASNP, Delshad warns users not to get too regional in their thinking. "Users outside the U.S. are facing the same issues," he says, adding that ASNP has recently added chapters in Italy and China.

There are currently 25 U.S. and 9 international SNUGs. The ASNP, for its part, has around 18 chapters located in the U.S. and is into double figures overseas.— James Rogers, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

  • Association of Storage Networking Professionals (ASNP)

  • Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD)

  • Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • QLogic Corp. (Nasdaq: QLGC)

  • Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA)

  • Sun Microsystems Inc.

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