If you’ve never been to a user group before you should definitely find your local one (in what ever it is you do for a living) and check out a meeting or two. They are a great way to network with other IT professionals that work in the same field that you do. Each user group meeting has at least one speaker who will be presenting on some sort of relevant technology. It may be something that you use on a regular basis, or something that you’ve heard of but haven’t been able to use, or maybe even something that you’ve never heard of.
Depending on who’s at the meeting, and who’s presenting you may get to meet some excellent contacts like your local Microsoft evangelist, or your local vendor evangelist. For example at a .NET user group meeting I was at in July, our local Microsoft MSDN evangelist was there, as well as evangelist from three .NET software vendors. All of which are fantastic contacts for the .NET programmers that were there.
There is also another little incentive for people who attend these user group meetings; free stuff. User groups will also have lots of great stuff to give away. The free stuff to give away will vary from group to group, meeting to meeting, and speaker to speaker (some speakers will bring their own swag to the user group on top of what the user group already has to give away). The give away could be books, 3rd party software, free training, mice, keyboards, MSDN subscriptions, Windows licenses, or other varieties of goodies. I’ve personally seen thousands of dollars worth of stuff be given away.
The .NET user group meeting I attended in July was their Most Valuable Member awards meeting where they announced their Most Valuable Member award winner for the year. The winner for this is the user group member who gives back to the community the most over the last year (the meeting is held on the birthday of the user group). During this one meeting there was over $60,000 worth of software, and books given away. Every single person who attended the meeting received something (myself and a few other people opted to not take anything because we already have access to everything that was being given away, so better that other people that don’t have access to the software and books already get them).
Most user groups meet after work, and usually provide dinner of some sort (usually pizza, sometimes not). Some groups charge a few dollar cover to go to the meeting, some don’t. It all depends on if the group was able to get sponsors to cover the cost of the room, the food, etc.
If you’ve never been able to go to a user group meeting, I’d highly recommend making it something that you try at least a couple of times. You’ll make a few new friends, probably pick up a few new pieces of SWAG, and hopefully learn something new. And all this for a few bucks in gas, a few bucks to get in the door and a few hours a month of your time. I can all but guarantee it’ll be worth it.
If you don’t know where you local user group is a good place to start is the INETA website. INETA is a group which helps user groups get speakers and resources, and they have a pretty good directory of user groups. If you are more IT Pro focused (INETA’s focus is developers) then you might want to check out Culminis. If you work with SQL Server then the SQLPASS website is the place for you. There’s a few other places you can look at, which are shown on the Microsoft User Groups Communities web page.
I hope you’ll make it to a local user group meeting, and go there often.