With the COVID-19 world we live in now, many meetups and community events are moving to virtual gatherings. The conversion is being evangelized and shouted from the mountain tops. The ability to gain audiences that normally wouldn’t be available to organizers is too tempting. At Austin DevOps we aren’t any different, we moved virtually as of April 13th, 2020 and this blog post is some lessons learned about running our first and surprisingly successful virtual meetup. At the (initial) writing of this, we haven’t had our larger retro, but I want to capture some thoughts to hopefully help out future organizers of meetups and events. Maybe I’ll take some time after the retro to either expand this on things at least I hadn’t realized without the brain trust.

OK, let’s get started.

You can’t drop your typical agenda for your physical meetup online. It won’t work.

At Austin DevOps, we’ve famously run multiple hours over our allotted “2-hour meetup.” Our official times are from 6 pm to 8 pm, but some of us show up early and we normally have “BeerOps” afterward. We could continue the conversations at a local resturant till easily 10, 11 pm if we weren’t careful. Get a bunch of nerds together to talk about their passion and it’s amazing what can come out of it. Needless to say, we wanted to keep this core portion of our meetup, but it just didn’t work. We had people join early, we even had some people stick around after the talk but it wasn’t the same. We attempted to use the breakout rooms, but we didn’t have enough people to make sure the rooms weren’t lopsided and we even had some feedback to move from 5 to 7 or 8 minimum per break out room. I really wasn’t expecting that, it makes sense, around 7:30, people need to get fed or feed families, they might be around and listen, but not speak. After the “allotted time” we did have about 10-15 mins discussing how the meetup went, but it seemed people just wanted to turn off their machines and getaway. In this new working from home world getting away from your laptop makes perfect sense.

Add some screenshots on how to use your software you’re using to meet.

I just assumed people knew how to use Zoom. Zoom isn’t the only meeting software out there, and sometimes people have never used it or even installed it. When you have a workflow and say “raise hand” and people have no context on what that is, that isn’t enjoyable for anyone. So for the slides to introduce everyone, give context, we are going to add some screenshots on where to find the different buttons to interact with the software. You don’t need a cheat sheet for a power user or anything like that, but you need something so someone can unmute themselves, raise their hand, or if they wanted to share their screen, they know where the main buttons are.

Meetups are used to recruit/look for new jobs but anonymity causes hesitation for people to say they are looking.

This one surprised me the most. Something meetups are used for is simply “My company is looking for people with X skill set. They have a meetup with people interested in X, and it’s an opportunity for me to find a group of these people who have some level of skill there.” And on the flip side, “I’m a person with the X skill set, and I know if I got to this meetup there’s a chance I might find a company looking for that skill set and I could get a new job.” We got some feedback that well, not everyone had their camera on: “There was no chance I was going to stand up and say I’m looking.” That makes perfect sense, you have no way of knowing if your coworker, or hell even your boss was there. So we are dropping the “Who’s looking” part of the Meetup. On the other hand, we are going to lean heavier into the “Who’s hiring” portion. Maybe even ask for a slide before the meetup so we can ask them to announce, say what they are looking for with contact info, and then ask to be messaged via slack or email for the people who are looking. It seemed like a reasonable compromise, and we’ll see if it’s successful in practice.

The “Mute All” button is more than one person’s job.

I didn’t realize you could have multiple hosts until halfway through the second talk. Having people raise their hand than have to unmute them, worked really well but trying to Emcee and zoom host was…challenging. Be sure to have multiple hosts where they can communicate real-time and work together so it’s smooth. Also, with the issues with drive-by Zoom bombers, and honestly sometimes people being just unhelpful, the “Mute All” is a good standard. How many times have you had that one listener forget to mute and decide to make a smoothie? This way, by default everyone is muted, and if they want to speak, they raise their hand and get unmuted. It’s a little “elementary school,” but it’s for the smoothness of the group.

These are just some lessons learned from the first meetup we did. Some seem reasonable and downright obvious but you don’t realize until you’ve gotten through it at least once. Hopefully after reading this and you find yourself in this situation this blog post has made your virtual meetup a tad bit easier.