VSJ – September 2008 – Work in Progress

In a modern media age where IT vendors of all shapes and sizes are able to hit us with product-driven messages designed to sit in our subconscious, it is refreshing to know that the developer-user community has lost none of its momentum. Providing software engineers at all levels with invaluable ‘real-world’ feedback and engagement possibilities are groups such as VBUG. VBUG’s Vice Chairman, Tim Leung, MIAP talks about the UK developer community and looks to the future with a respectful eye on the past.

Whether you are a recent graduate or a seasoned IT pro, did you know there are numerous developer groups meeting in towns and cities across the UK that could help you with your professional development? It is perhaps no surprise to learn that those focusing on Microsoft technologies often collaborate together, resulting in what we have today, a thriving UK developer community – the liveliest it’s been since records began! Many people are unaware of this community and the benefits that it brings. If you want to know more about how you can benefit from being involved with these groups and how you can get involved – then read on!

For the past eight years, I’ve been actively involved with one of the UK’s most established and forward thinking groups, VBUG. My contact with VBUG has been immensely rewarding on both a professional and personal level. So I want to talk to you about the future, past and present of the group and the reasons why you should become involved.

Group benefit: what this means to you

Participation in a group brings many benefits and we all probably have our own personal areas that we enjoy most. Generally, group meetings are organised during evenings and this provides an excellent opportunity to network and to meet new people without having to take time off work.

The kind of people who give up their free time to attend meetings are, by and large, some of the most talented, passionate and highly motivated individuals you could hope to meet in our industry. So such events provide excellent opportunities to get together with like-minded, high calibre professionals. Many people say that they also them help think about their next career moves as they start to get exposed to a wider group of individuals from different workplaces and vertical industry sectors.

Groups also often receive support from third-party companies and there are plenty of chances to win prizes and freebies. As an example, VBUG organised a series of events throughout the country this year focusing on the launch of the new Microsoft Visual Studio suite of products.

Free software? But of course!

At my group’s recent meeting in Bracknell, all attendees received a full copy of Microsoft Visual Studio 2008, which has a retail value of over £250. In addition to this, our collective strength means that discounts on software and services can often be negotiated on behalf of members.

Looking back, VBUG has a pretty impressive history. The three key founders of the group were Dilip Mistry, Jeff Cabrie and Matt Nicholson. At the time, Dilip was the Microsoft UK product manager for Visual Basic and Jeff was the chairman of the Clipper user group (a dBase derivative for those who remember).  In 1994, Jeff organised a conference in Bristol focusing on VB. Following the success of this event, both Matt and Jeff knew that VB would be big and shortly after, the Visual Basic User Group was born.

In 1997, the group’s name was officially changed to VBUG, as the incoming Chairman, Graham Parker, recognised the industry’s need for a new acronym. It seemed to make sense because, by that time, the group was supporting SQL Server, Access, C++, Oracle, Delphi, FoxPro and other developers too. This shift was compounded following the release of the Microsoft .Net framework in 2002. The language of choice shifted towards C# and increasing levels of online resources meant that developer groups had to rethink their approach.

VBUG: not just VB, but wider

VBUG now focuses on professional developers who use any Microsoft-related technologies (not just VB, as some people imagine). Today, it is not unusual to attend a meeting with a focus on C#, SQL, Windows Mobile, SharePoint or Biztalk. In adapting to the online climate, we also introduced online meetings, the first of which took place in 2005. These were conducted using Microsoft LiveMeeting, the biggest advantage of which was the ability to reach members living in more remote parts of the country. The early days of these meetings provided valuable learning experiences and they grew to be hugely successful. By taking advantage of the technology, we’ve been able to involve technical experts based in the UK, US and mainland Europe including the Microsoft VB.Net team.

Following a group election in 2007, Andy Westgarth and I took over the helm of VBUG. In autumn that year, the Peterborough group was born bringing the number of regional groups up to 12. We now have a presence in all major UK cities from Edinburgh down to Brighton. In addition to this, we have fostered good relations with other user groups throughout the country. In the north, we regularly partner with the SharePoint user group and organise events together.


We are members of INETA (the International .Net Association) and during the Microsoft TechEd conference, both Andy and I participated in INETA activities. This summer, VBUG also became official partners with the Institution of
Analysts and Programmers. I am proud of this achievement and I think it will benefit both our organisations greatly. As a group, we are delighted that VBUG is now recognised by a professional body and we very much look forward to working with the IAP over the years to come.

Looking to the future, a key part of the VBUG calendar is the annual conference. Traditionally, this takes place at Microsoft’s Thames Valley Park headquarters in Reading and attracts around 200 attendees. There are usually two tracks of technical content covering the two days, given by top class speakers from the UK and US. At a previous conference, the presenters of hit radio show .Net Rocks attended and conducted a show based upon the content. This year’s conference will take place on the 4th and 5th of November.

So to summarise, it makes good sense to join a professional developers group and to become active in the community. For a comprehensive list of UK user groups, vist http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-gb/aa905717.aspx. To learn more about VBUG, visit http://www.vbug.com and we hope to see you at an event soon!

BOX OUT: A third party opinion

I often get asked about the relative worth of developer networks, user groups and professional certification. Are they a good idea? Well, the short answer is almost certainly yes isn’t it? Personally, I feel the greatest benefit they offer is ‘community’ i.e. the opportunity to network with peers and share ideas, opinions on emerging technologies – you know the sort of thing. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have stepped out of technical presentations at developer symposiums and asked the person next to me whether they got any value out of the content of the session – they almost always say, “to be honest, I didn’t learn much from that.” When I ask them again at the end of the week what they enjoyed most, they typically cite the chance to have networked with some likeminded individuals and chew the fat. This is the channel that developer networks and user groups should be opening up. Let’s make it global and keep the ideas bouncing around the globe.

Adrian Bridgwater, Freelance Technical Journalist and ZDNet.co.uk CORE TECH blogger

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