A few minutes ago a discussion on twitter about the importance of the users in VMUG meetings led to a statement from @dutch_vmaffia that I disagreed with, or more precisely I don’t accept. The statement was something about the fact that “VMUG (meetings) are ruled by vendors”.

Actually, @dutch_vmaffia raised an interesting point. The same issue has been discussed during the VMUG lunch in Copehagen (during last VMworld Europe): many leaders admitted that meeting sponsors happen to have a “strong voice” about the meetings content. Even in the VMUG IT steering committee we have been discussing about this a few times. After all, without the vendors/sponsors it would be VERY difficult to organize meetings (location, etc. ain’t cheap!).

So, as Scott Lowe pointed out, this is an important discussion, at it heavily steers the quality and direction of the meetings, which are a fundamental part of VMUG activities. I’m so convinced that this is SO  important that I’ve stopped on my way home to write this post on the road (in a parking lot, actually ;-p).

Good News! There’s a solution! 🙂

Luckily, in VMUG IT we’ve been debating about this since the very start, and together with my board members (Note: my fellow board members kick ass!), we decided to define a strict policy about how the sponsor can and should contribute to the meetings.

Simply put, we require that vendors provide an end user/customer that speaks at the meeting about his own implementation of the specific product/technology. Pre-sales, Marketing, Sales guys are not allowed to go on stage. Period. We allow people from the vendor/sponsor to be in the meeting room, but they’re allowed only to answer specific technical question that may come from the members attendig the meeting. Other than that, we allow the vendor/sponsor to have booths/etc OUTSIDE the meeting room, so it’s upon the users to get in contact with them, only if THEY want to.

Sounds difficult? Well, It is. But it can be done, and we’ve been doing it since the first meeting.

The most difficult part is to convince the sponsor that actually this is THE RIGHT THING TO DO! Let’s face it, we all attended tons of presos by vendors, and we already know how they’re structured and how they often end up as a mere showcase without much value. I can’t blame the vendors for this: it’s hard to be funny and interesting when your primary job is to sell or help sell a product.

Instead, by letting an end user do the talk, there are a lot of advantages:

– The case study/preso is a real world implementation of the product. No fireworky-preso that promises wonders. Just the facts.

– Users can hear from a user, and can ask the questions they care the most to the USER.

– Sponsors/Vendors get a BIGGER return since there’s no conflict of interest in what the user is saying. “A customer is worth a thousand presales”, so to speak ;-p

– Sponsors get REAL feedback from the users (e.g. if your product is perfect but the price isn’t… don’t worry, we’ll let you know buahah!).

– Users/Members don’t get the “usual supper”: there are plenty of meetings where the vendor has the chance to showcase his product. But this is a USER led group. Whole different story, and a chance to communicate your story in a whole different way!

 

CFP First!

It’s not only sponsor content, anyway! Beginning with last meeting, we launched a Call For Papers, inviting users to submit their presos and letting users choose what they want to hear. As Steering Committee, our role in this case is just to keep things going, and try to give general guidance about each meeting main topics (for example, next meeting topic will be “virtual security”.This is user-submitted content, and it’s the most valuable for us.

 

Exceptions? Yes, there are.

Not every product/technology may be mature enough to have an established user base, so in some cases it’s necessary to allow the vendor to speak. Be aware though… it’s a preso about a promise of what your product should do, and hearing what a user actually DID with a product is a hugely different story.

Other exceptions also involve people that may work for vendors but actually don’t do presos on their vendor product (or not strictly). The point is to avoid as much as possible shameless plugs. As an example, Massimo Re Ferre’ did a BRILLIANT preso during last VMUG IT meeting, about cloud computing concepts and common misconceptions. Well, the preso was so “clean”, and smart, and interesting, that no one even cared or knew who Massimo worked for (he could have been an Oracle emp… mmm no, wrong example ;-p). Fact is, with clever and smart people you don’t even need a policy.

Common sense to the rescue! there are some other edge cases that may force you to work around the “rule” above, but if we keep the focus on the most important aspect of the VMUG (aka the USER), it all flaws smoothly.

Believe me, this is the proverbial “win-win”. Honestly, as a VMUG leader (and I know my fellow board members agree) we want the users to WIN (e.g. to get interesting content and information), but ultimately we got a lot of great feedback from the vendors that sponsored the past meetings and that accepted our policy… They weren’t used to this kind of approach, and although many were skeptical at first, they found out the users are a LOT more interested in the content and get many more questions after the presentations than during the “traditional” “one way” presentations..

That’s it for now. Our members gave us a lot of positive feedback about our policy, but I’d like to get YOUR feedback too!

PS: Oh, and did I mention that Steve Herrod will be our special guest at the next meeting? Yes, I did ;-p

Bring back the U in VMUG!!!

 

Ciao,

PJ – @drakpz

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