Starting a DataCAD Users' Group

A good users' group can be a continuing source of good information, as well as any number of worthwhile Cheap Tricks. There are any number of role models for starting a users' group, but as the DataCAD Boston Users' Group (DBUG) is one very successful role model, we will concentrate our focus on the way it works and its primary guidelines.

It Happened One Night…

DBUG was formed in December of 1987 and consists of an enthusiastic group of users with a broad range of expertise and experience. Its purpose is to provide a forum of user support and education and a vehicle for shared resources. To reduce bureaucracy and paperwork, it was agreed to develop an open group, free of membership dues, in which a rotating list of individual members would each take a turn at hosting a monthly meeting. In this way, not only can the burden of time and expense be shared equitably, but also a range of viewpoints and experience can be brought to agenda topics and discussions. It also gives the group a way to visit a number of different offices, large and small, to see how DataCAD is used in a number of different environments and with a variety of project types and requirements. Topics of discussion at the meetings include subjects such as office standards, file management, template operation, writing custom keyboard interrupts, 3D drawings, training programs, hardware upgrades, preparation of default files, organization of detail libraries, plotter use, networking, and various drawing tips. Each meeting includes both basic and advanced lessons as well as a chance to get some basic troubleshooting advice. In addition to monthly meetings (which qualify for AIA Continuing Education credits), it also sponsors Google Group that provides ample resources for troubleshooting advice as well as far-ranging discussions about CAD issues. Just as DataCAD is designed primarily for architects, DBUG is composed primarily of architects and is a permanent committee of the Boston Society of Architects, a chapter of the American Institute of Architects. However the group welcomes any user of DataCAD in any allied field to come, share, and learn from the other members of the group. DBUG's Web Page is at world.std.com/~eshu/dbug.htm

Users' Group Principles

When Rick Gleason and Evan Shu got together with the idea of starting a users' group in the Boston area, they decided to first set down a number of guidelines on how it might work. Summarized, these guidelines can be stated as follows:

  1. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)
  2. Limit the bureaucracy
  3. Maintain open meetings which are free to anyone to attend
  4. Spread the load of responsibility

These principles are vital, because the temptation quickly arises once your group starts to develop to make a lot of rules and bylaws and try to collect dues. While these things might be well and good for a club in which everyone wants to join, bear in mind that a good users' group tries to disseminate knowledge to as many interested parties as possible. It does not try to maintain some type of exclusivity. A lot of constrictions can severely limit a group's potential for growth and make it a closed system that never gets a new influx of energy from new members. Rick and Evan decided DBUG would have a rotating host and co-Host system. Each meeting would be planned by a different host who would have wide discretionary latitude as to time, place, and agenda. The co-host would offer whatever assistance might be needed and simply be responsible for taking the meeting notes for that meeting. To help develop continuity, the co-host then becomes host for the next meeting. With this system, they took a big chance in having very inconsistent, erratic meetings that differed widely from month to month. Yet they also could bank on new energy every month and institute a good way for each firm to tell its own story. Members seemed to enjoy visiting different offices every month to see the ongoing work done by each firm. Since the group imposed no membership dues and the like, they found ready and willing members who were happy to contribute to the group in a significant way by hosting a meeting. In the beginning, usually one or two members will be willing to shoulder the load for awhile. But putting together a meeting every month can be quite a strain and burn out is a common occurrence for many a users' group president after a year or so. With their system, Rick and Evan offer help and consultation to the hosts as necessary, are responsible for maintaining the mailing list, and provide stationary, envelopes, etc.

What's in a Meeting?

How do you keep some semblance of continuity going in your meetings from month to month? With the DBUG system, there isn't a lot of continuity at times, but it all seems to work out okay anyway. They have a set of guidelines which they issue to each host, mainly about basic time deadlines and reimbursement procedures. They try to encourage each host to have both a "basic" lesson for new users, as well as an "advanced" lesson for everyone. They also try to limit dealer presentations to a maximum of one per meeting. Announcements can be made by anyone for any purpose at the beginning of the meetings.

Managing the Costs… Without Dues

Okay, you ask, even if you get some type of rotating host system going, there is still the matter of costs for postage, stationary, photocopying, and refreshments. Who pays for all that? The traditional approach is to institute dues and fees and you are back to needing someone to nag everyone into paying. The best approach is to find some type of sponsorship, and perhaps the best place to look is to your local American Institute of Architects chapter. Rick Gleason approached the Boston Society of Architects, who agreed to make DBUG a committee of theirs and pay for the group's mailing and photocopying costs. In return, they get access to DBUG's membership list, which includes many who haven't yet joined AIA. They also get a ready source of expertise when they have to field a computer question from one of their members. In addition, they have garnered a number of other income-generating sources from the group. DBUG has issued publications under their umbrella every year, one of which is their all time bestseller, "CADD and the Small Firm". DBUG has run two or three different seminars for the BSA each year that also generates a lot of income. It is also quite natural to look to one of your local computer dealers for sponsorship. This arrangement can work out well but try to negotiate some type of independence from your dealer (either in location or in setting of agenda.) Most users can smell a canned dealer presentation a mile away, and you will find it difficult to develop continuing loyalty to your group. Refreshments do seem to be necessary, especially if you start the meeting right after work. At DBUG meetings, the host orders a deli plate of cold cuts and rolls, along with some soda and coffee and then sets out a donations basket. It works out roughly even if you can accurately predict about how many people will be attending your meetings.

Calling All DataCAD Users…

The most important ingredient in addition to a basic organizational plan is a mailing list. DATACAD LLC is more than willing to help you contact users in your area. Simply write an introductory letter or postcard inviting users to participate in your new users' group, and forward it and the zip codes for the area you'd like to mail to to info@datacad.com. They'll pull all the names in your area from their database and let you know how many copies of the letter you'll need to make. Forward all copies of the letter in envelopes with appropriate postage to DATACAD LLC and they'll address all of them and send them out. Your mailing list from that point forward will be made up of whomever responds to your letter. Contact the DATACAD LLC Sales Dept. at (860) 677-4004 for more information. You can also contact major computer dealers in your area to see if they would help by sharing their client list with you.

Go With the Flow

The final item to keep in mind is flexibility. A users' group that can not adjust to changing times, needs, and interests can easily fossilize and die a slow, quiet death. Particularly in these turbulent economic times, you may experience large fluctuations in attendance, with many users moving from the area and many people more concerned about finding work than attending a users' group meeting. DBUG members, however, have been very willing to share work, personnel, equipment and references, and it has been quite gratifying to see them pull together in this way. If you can organize your group in a way to handle the various ups and downs of life as well as human nature, you will find that your users' group can be a wonderful, ever-flowing fountain of Cheap Tricks.

From Cheap Tricks newsletter, November 1991 1991 by Shu Associates
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