Local User Groups: Out of Date or Coming of Age?

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This article has its origins in a mailing list posting I recently saw regarding a couple of East Coast local user groups (LUGs). The news came from one of the industry's long-time voices, Don Rima, who has been as unflinching in his criticism of IBM's marketing (or lack thereof) of the iSeries as he has been unflagging in his devotion to the platform.

Charlotte, We Hardly Knew Ya!

Back in 1984, a group in Charlotte, North Carolina, known as "Future-38" was formed to serve the local System/38 technical community. Over the years, that group grew and changed its name to the "Application Systems Forum" and in its heyday boasted 60 or 65 corporate members and attendance topping 100 at some meetings.

May 17 was its last meeting. The doors are closed; the lights are off. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here....

What caused this downturn? I tried to get in touch with someone from the board of the Charlotte group to see if I could get some insights into their demise. I was unable to contact the president of the group, but the vice president, Greg Vlahos, had this to say:

"ASF existed for over 20 years. Its demise can probably be summarized as low interest in the audience base. Between key companies leaving the midrange market (some converted to SAP shops, some went Microsoft) and the diverse interests of the target audience (old-fashioned RPG coders who weren't interested in the new, versus some folks focused on WebSphere, some on Java, etc.), it seemed difficult for us to get more than 10 to 14 people to come to a meeting. The board was typically there. We tried polling folks for what topics would interest them. I believe we've had a series of good speakers that routinely spoke at COMMON. We had plenty of money left over from the heydays of the 90s. But the lack of interest made it difficult to even get feedback on what would draw people back."

The primary problem seems to be a diminishing, splintering user base, and this sentiment is being echoed in other locations.

WAM Not Exactly a Picture of Health

For example, at the same time he brought us the Charlotte news, Rima also announced that the Washington Area Midrange (WAM) LUG meetings would be moving from a monthly to a quarterly schedule. In his email, Rima cited a host of reasons for the demise of the iSeries in his particular sector, ranging from lack of marketing on IBM's part to lack of education in the colleges and thus a dearth of new RPG talent.

A lot of us have heard Rima's complaints, and since he has consistently voiced those grievances over the years, some might be inclined to dismiss them as a sort of general anti-iSeries rhetoric. Nothing could be further from the truth; if you know him at all, you know that he's as staunch a supporter as the iSeries community has, especially for those in the trenches not getting the cooperation and encouragement (mostly from IBM) that they need.

Midwest Is Going Strong

And to be honest, I can't discount Rima's comments on a lot of these things. I even presented them to some folks inside of IBM, but I didn't get an official response back. What's strange is that while we hear these dire stories from out East, Midwest user groups are not struggling quite so badly. Maybe it's the fact that the Chicago area and the surrounding "rust belt" states are great centers of IBM midrange development. I've spent my whole career in the Chicago area, and while the economy has clearly changed, there have always been companies with midrange computers in this area.

WMCPA is a great organization up in Wisconsin, as is MAMSUG, and they're doing fine. There are at least two groups and as many as five in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

It might be because we're surrounded by all these other great iSeries states, but there are only two groups in Illinois. One is my group, OMNI in Chicago, and we have great turnout. In conjunction with our monthly dinner meetings, each year we do one or two all-day "Day of Education" conferences with about 16 sessions as well as a larger annual technical conference, and we have no problem with attendance.

Going a bit farther south, I recently spoke at both the Tennessee LUG and the Birmingham LUG, and both meetings were filled with eager, intelligent professionals looking to move forward with the machine. And there are lots of other groups all over the country and the world. CSS, Inc. provides a great tool in its eServer user group page.

Tell Me About Your Community

I'm interested to know more about the general health of your user community. Is there a group in your area? Do you belong to it? Is attendance in your area up or down? Are your local user groups providing you with the information you need? What else would you like to see? Take the poll, and start a discussion.

Joe Pluta is the founder and chief architect of Pluta Brothers Design, Inc. He has been working in the field since the late 1970s and has made a career of extending the IBM midrange, starting back in the days of the IBM System/3. Joe has used WebSphere extensively, especially as the base for PSC/400, the only product that can move your legacy systems to the Web using simple green-screen commands. Joe is also the author of E-Deployment: The Fastest Path to the Web, Eclipse: Step by Step, and WDSC: Step by Step. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..