A few months ago, one of our user group's members wrote a blog post regarding his "newbie" experience within the SharePoint community. (You can find Bob Dundon's original blog post here.) He explains his discontent with the SharePoint community, more specifically, the annoying sales people at conferences. He noticed SharePoint ISV's (independent software vendors) and consulting firms are promoting their products and services at every conference and user group. Even though he ended up not being able to attend the SharePoint conference he originally signed up for, his registration information was distributed to these sales people anyway! Now he is being contacted by these sales people on numerous occasions. Bob = annoyed.
Is this right? How does this happen anyway? Is it like this in other tech communities?
The SharePoint community is unique in my opinion. After all, SharePoint is a collaboration product with a community built around that very same factor - we all want to collaborate! When I first started participating in the community about 5 years ago, SharePoint Saturdays were free. Today, most SharePoint Saturday's are still free, but the shift has occurred where operating costs have reached exponential levels with more attendees, conference space fees, food, etc. This is where the sponsors (comprised of the ISV's and consulting firms) come in. The SharePoint community needs these companies to provide thousands upon thousands of dollars to help ensure these events continue to run. I run the Women in SharePoint DC user group and trust me, if it weren't for our sponsors, we wouldn't be able to have a user group at all. Even though I help organize the group in my free time and get no financial benefit from it, there are other operating costs. We advertise our sponsors in return for the help they provide us financially. Sure, some people hate sitting through the "sponsor talk" at the beginning of a user group meeting but others can get something out of it. For example, let's say an ISV can provide you with a migration product that will help your organization move from SP 2007 to SP 2010 in a quarter of the time it would have taken for you to do it with SharePoint alone. By the time you factor employee costs, it might be cheaper to purchase that 3rd party solution for your company, right? Sponsors utilize this kind of exposure to demonstrate their products. (I know I wouldn't buy anything without seeing it in action first.)
So back to Bob's original problem - he just wants to learn more about SharePoint. Yes, reading SharePoint books are a great way to learn, but you don't get the real-world feedback/conversation you are looking for. This is where user groups strive and conferences don't. A user group session contains less attendees, has only one (or a few at most) speakers and allows for a conversation after the speaker has concluded his/her presentation. (Hopefully over a beer at a SharePint!) Conferences usually contain many speakers, are on a limited time allotment and don't allow much time for the in-person interaction you need. I'm not saying that connecting with SME's within the SharePoint community is impossible at conferences, it's just harder. I can say this though: most speakers/SME's are willing to provide their contact information to those who attended their events. If they are "closed off" and don't like responding to questions outside of their time on the soapbox, then don't bother prying them for information. Find someone else or get in contact with the leaders of your local user groups. They should be able to point you in the right direction and connect you with other people who care about spreading their wealth of technical knowledge.
Bob attended a FEDSPUG user group meeting last fall. Coincidentally, I was speaking. My presentation was about Microsoft InfoPath form design and integration with SharePoint for beginners. In response to Bob's post about the product I presented on, it is part of the Microsoft Office Suite so it's easily accessible. I was saddened by his comment regarding the fact that he foresees that he will never use it, but hey, forms development isn't for everyone. My final advice to Bob, and to anyone new to the community, is to be open, ask questions, and welcome all information you can get your hands on. The possibilities are endless...