What I Learned From Starting a Coding MeetUpby Bret Zawilski —
Recently, I started the “Learn to Code Dublin” MeetUp. While several other fantastic groups operate in the area, most of them appear focused on intermediate-level tech talks or expert-led mentorship. Both of those models are fantastic and fill a particular niche, but it meant that some new coders might not find their way into a community.
Many free and premium coding resources pride themselves on active communities on platforms like Discord or Slack. So, why is a local MeetUp necessary? Aside from the obvious benefits of networking in a specific location, the size of some of the most popular communities can be daunting for newcomers. While most are incredibly welcoming, it can be a challenge to feel a sense of belonging in such a large group. Especially at the very beginning of the learning process.
Local communities can be a source of support that goes well beyond their stated purposes. They can be social lifelines that anchor people to their surroundings and emphasize that they don’t have to face their struggles alone. As a relative newcomer to Dublin, MeetUps were one way I made my first friendships in the country. So, I thought something similar would apply to learning to code.
Flipping the Classroom
By day, I’m a lecturer who teaches writing and digital literacy. That means I’m familiar with the roles of instructor and facilitator. But in my courses, I recognize that learning doesn’t come solely from the person at the front of the room. Students make the classroom what it is, and their expertise is a critical ingredient for an engaging course. This taught me some important lessons for community-building.
As someone who’s learning code, there’s much I have to learn, which means that even though I’m the organizer of the MeetUp, it’s not “mine” to control. No matter what level of experience an attendee brings to a community, they should have the same right to steer conversations and lead initiatives. In short, everyone has something to contribute to the environment, and there isn’t room for the ego of a “park and bark” leader in a successful group.
That said, what have I learned from the early days of the Learn to Code Dublin MeetUp?
Don’t Get Discouraged
More People Sign Up Than Show Up. This wasn’t a surprise. I knew that far more people RSVP to an event than actually attend; I’ve done it myself on more than one occasion. Even with low attendance, the effort is worth it, if you get the chance to interact meaningfully with even one or two other people.
I know that scale is something many of us care about. We track our Twitter followers and post engagement. We measure metrics on blogs and time spent reading the articles we write. In short, we often use a quantitative approach to chart our success.
But learning isn’t purely a quantitative exercise; it goes beyond numbers. And the same is true for any community-building initiative. While “quality over quantity” may be a cliché, it’s still important because it’s important to find individuals who truly want to participate and become active contributors. I like to think of it in terms of exponential gains. With one other person, you not only gain their knowledge and experience, but you gain the ideas that come from combining your thoughts. In a group of three, you essentially “cube” your knowledge because of these kinds of combinations.
Inclusion is Critical
To learn and grow, an environment needs to be welcoming and supportive. I once joined a “premium” community because it had daily meetings scheduled for members. I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to meet other developers who were on the same path. But when I arrived, I was greeted by a wave of silence as the leader” of the group silently read through member updates before critiquing individuals who didn’t meet their expectations for clarity. After asking a question about closures in JS, I was essentially told that closures weren’t important and that I shouldn’t even think about them unless I had to.
In short, it was a cold environment and one that welcomed members as largely subservient to the facilitator’s internal model of meaning. Members weren’t co-creators of the environment. Needless to say, I left rather quickly. But it did teach me that elitism and gatekeeping don’t make for good learning experiences. Excluding or belittling on the basis of class, race, sex, gender, ability, beliefs, or expertise is a sure way to poison the well of member engagement.
Community-Driven is the Best
A community is successful based on its members. It’s as simple as that. And if you draw that out to its conclusion, then members ought to have as much say in a community as its founders. This is something I passionately believe.
Though a community MeetUp is not a classroom, the most successful teaching experiences I’ve encountered are those where students have control over what they’re doing. They have a choice. A MeetUp is much the same; if a space is only the result of one person’s vision, then there’s a good chance that vision won’t align with what other participants are seeking.
It’s important to find pragmatic ways to signal a space is community-driven. One component of the Learn to Code Dublin MeetUp that excites me is creating a collaborative website through git. Not only will participants be able to contribute to the design and presentation of the site, but they’ll also get experience using git commands and submitting pull requests.
While there’s no lack of learning communities for coding, it’s important to remember that local spaces matter. With tech, we’re accustomed to networking and conversing through social media and other devices. But getting together in a small group in person is one of the best motivators for progress. More than just an accountability resource, a local group can foster a space where creativity can flourish. Not only will you grow, but you’ll provide an opportunity for other newcomers to find their way through the sometimes chaotic labyrinth of coding.
It doesn’t have to be through MeetUp, but consider joining or creating a local community to fuel your learning journey.