Diary of a trip to the UK and Ireland – User Groups

Dateline: Newcastle Upon Tyne, 17-April  09:44 BST

Another terrific experience last night, speaking at a room in Newcastle University to a group of professional and intrepid coders. I’m told that setting a meeting on Friday night is a recipe for talking to an empty room, so I’m very grateful to the throngs (okay, the small gathering) that showed up for Silverlight, HVP, Test Driven Development, MVVM and most important, pizza and American beer.

Speaking to Groups Large and Small

At Microsoft we tend to measure the validity and success by ‘reach” and “influence” – having a larger group of developers reporting to you is ore prestigious than a smaller, evens if a smaller group gets more done.  Talking to a hall with 2000 attendees is more “worthwhile” than talking with a group of 40.  In general this makes sense, but in the specific it often does not.

In my trip to the UK so far, the largest group I spoke with with about 300, the smallest about 10% of that.  Yet, what I’m finding is that while speaking to a massive hall at PDC or Tech Ed is very rewarding, these  smaller groups bring a few features that are hard to come by in very large groups; ones which I value very highly:

  • Very large groups such as you get at many conferences  tend to have a reasonable percentage of folks in the audience who are there because they had an open hour.  This is almost never true in user groups; it is hard to gear yourself up mid-week to trek down to the local user groups, and so the folks who are there are typically highly motivated and listening to something that matters to them.
  • Smaller groups encourage more discussion during and especially after the presentation.
  • It is typically easier to adjust the pace and even the intensity/depth of the presentation for a smaller group (though I will admit that there does seem to be a difference about how much body and facial signals you can expect from an American vs.. a British group, overall.

image In the 15 days I’m here, I’ll speak with 10 groups, spanning a very wide cross section of England, Scotland,Northern Ireland and Ireland.  One other very powerful side effect is that it is easier to catch the subtle but real differences in what folks are interested in, and how tuned in they are, in various regions. The fist thing I had to abandon was the somewhat retro notion that folks in the north were less likely to be “hooked in” to the major emerging trends.  Whether it is motivation, modern communications, the efforts made on the part of the leadership of these groups or some combination, I can’t know, but the folks in the north are doing the same work with the same expertise as the folks in the south and in the US.

Being an Entertainer

I scoff at the idea and certainly never write it down that my presentations are part information providing and part entertainment, but in fact it is time to own up.  Arbitrarily dividing the presentations I’ve given and seen into groups, I generally see a break down on three axis

Axis 1 (and the trump card): How informed is the presenter:  Clueless <-> Reasonably <->Expert.

Axis II How logically does the material proceed, and closely related, what is the signal:noise ratio:   Meandering/Confusing <-> Orderly/Systematic <-> Tangential but ultimately coherent

Axis III: How interesting is the speaker.  I’d rather be at the dentist <-> I’d rather be home <-> I’d rather be here than other presentations <->I’d rather be here than any place I can think of at the moment.  (few achieve the last of these for anyone who is under 70).

I must add that by consensus, Mike Taulty stands out as a presenter who has an easy expertise, presents his material in a logical progression only possible by knowing it cold and remains riveting no matter what he is talking about.

Other scales that I find myself measuring on, whether I care to or not include: How prepared is the speaker? How well are the slides used, How prepared is the listener to act on the information provided after the session and, to some degree most important, how much has their imagination been fired?

These days, what I try to bring to the party can be summarized, I think as reasonable expertise married to boundless enthusiasm, seasoned by rants, tangents and anecdotes. I’m startled by how different this is from the kind of presentations I made pre-Microsoft.  I spent many a many providing journeyman presentations on specific skills: how-to’s with lots of unfolding code. Today, nearly half my presentation is more about what and especially  why rather than focusing on how.

Overall, I think that is a good thing, but learning to do it as well as I’d like is a process.  Another great thing about talking with user groups is they are more than willing to help you find the right balance; for which I’m deeply appreciative.


Today, I’m off to, I hope, two castles, one, Alnwick (pronounced as if both the n and the w are entirely silent) was one of the filming sites for Harry Potter. I will begin posting photos and snaps very soon.

Finally, I am developing not so much an English-influenced accent, as a set of English-influenced quirks. Yesterday I heard myself say “thank you very mooch,” and “were you thinking we’d start at half-six?”  What is interesting is that these startling bursts of Englishisms seem to go completely by my hosts who hear only an American, through and through. Ach, mores’ the pity.

News Alert I have no intention of letting a volcano stop me from getting from Scotland to Ireland or travelling about within Ireland. If things still look dodgy, I’ll cancel the flight and take the ferry, and I’ll cancel the trains and planes, and go within Ireland by auto.  As for getting home to the States, well there are always boats 🙂

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

About Jesse Liberty

Jesse Liberty has three decades of experience writing and delivering software projects and is the author of 2 dozen books and a couple dozen Pluralsight & LinkedIn Learning courses. He was a Senior Technical Evangelist for Microsoft, a Distinguished Software Engineer for AT&T, a VP for Information Services for Citibank and a Software Architect for PBS. He is a Xamarin Certified Mobile Developer and a Xamarin MVP and a Microsoft MVP.
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