Q&A with Meetup Organiser Steph Locke (CaRdiff & MSFT…

This is the first of a series of Q&A interviews we’ll be holding with meetup organisers based in South Wales. Want to be interviewed? Let us know!

First up we have Steph Locke (@SteffLocke) of Locke Data, who runs multiple meetups in Cardiff.

Hi Steph! First of all, please introduce yourself and your business.

Steph Locke cartoonHi! I’m Steph Locke and I run a data science consultancy here in Cardiff. Education and skills development has been a huge part of my life for the past decade with user groups and whatnot so I extended that into my business. I help organisations upskill, recruit, and implement data science instead of doing it for them. It’s a great experience growing my own business and helping others grow theirs.

What meetups do you run? Please tell us about them.

I run CaRdiff, an R user group, and MSFT Stack, a general Microsoft group. I’m currently growing new teams to take these over as I’ve been running MSFT Stack for seven years now.

Which meetup did you start running first, and what inspired you to start running a meetup in the first place?

I technically started running MSFT Stack first, although back in the day it the SQL Server user group. I took over the SQL group when Adam Morton moved out of the area. I was 23 at the time and clearly had “mug” written across my forehead! I’ve been organising it ever since. A while back I felt like there wasn’t enough provision for R users like myself and .Net devs. I set up the R group and co-founded a .Net group with Mike Hole. When I was contemplating adding an Azure user group too, I thought I’d better consolidate as running 4 user groups would be insane.

What was the transition like between you and Adam? Had you been to many of the previous events before you took it over, and did that help with the process at all?

The transition was definitely a trial by fire! I’d been three or four events (they used to run quarterly) before I took over. Adam gave me a stack of past feedback forms, got my on the UK SQL Server UG Leaders email distribution list, and left me to it. Thankfully, Eversheds were a venue who were happy to keep hosting us and Gene Morgan (who’s now moved to a different part of Eversheds) really helped keep it easy to run the group by hosting us for free.

MSFT Stack meetup
One of the MSFT Stack meetups in 2017 (photo credit – Steph Locke)

What’s your favourite moment or proudest achievement when running a meetup?

Hands down my proudest moment was when someone who’d been attending the group and attended the first ever conference I ran said how much the events had reignited his passion for his career. It had felt like a job and he wasn’t enjoying it anymore but the new knowledge, including the professional skill sessions, really turned things around him. Having that impact on people is simply amazing.

On the other hand, what’s the biggest mistake you’ve made (or the biggest disaster moment you’ve had) when running a meetup?

Probably the moments that have been worse for me were the times I tried to arrange times for folks to come and get involved with group’s organisation or give feedback. Most of these times nobody showed up. It can be pretty gutting to realise that lots of people want to learn but very few people want to facilitate that learning for others and have the time to do so. Thankfully, I’ve been finding people who are taking on the organisation of the groups so it’s no longer a one-woman-show.

That’s a good point actually. Do you think it makes a big difference whether a meetup is run solely by an individual or by a group of people? It’s a lot of work for just one person, but on the other hand, do you worry that you might lose control or things might go wrong if tasks aren’t handled correctly?

A user group can be pretty easy to run. At minimum you need two things: a location and content. Those don’t have to take up a lot of time. Adding other stuff like marketing, food, growing local speaker talent, getting sponsorship, etc. make the workload much more substantial. The bigger the aspirations for the group, the more effort and people required to help make it succeed. It’s also great to have a team because life happens. For a long time, I was a permanent employee and was able to arrange groups around my speaking engagements and vice versa but now that I run my own consultancy I travel way too much to be responsible for everything. If there was no one to help, the groups would have to close.

Has running meetups helped you to become a more confident speaker (and likewise, has speaking at events helped you to improve the events that you run)?

I think both have helped the other. From being an organiser I get to hear the feedback about other speakers to see what works and doesn’t, which helps inform my talks. From being a speaker I get to go to events around the world and see what great things other organisers are doing so I can incorporate them into my events or pass the info on to other organisers.

Similarly, has running meetups helped your business at all?

Steph Locke ChibiI try to keep my business pretty separate, though I can’t resist bringing my laptop stickers along for anyone who wants them, but I definitely think the large network I have locally as a result of being an organiser has helped me out.

What do you think of tech meetup scene in South Wales? I know you do a lot of speaking gigs UK-wide (and even worldwide)… How do we compare to other places, in your experience?

I love how many groups we have locally now. It’s tough that we have to overlap each other some times but great that so many folks are sharing or investing in their knowledge. The number of folks attending is often considered small compared to places like London but we have 0.3m people in Cardiff versus 8m in London – we get roughly a quarter the people attending but do it from less than 5% of the population. We rock at tech groups!

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of setting up their own meetup?

My best advice is start small. You don’t need beer, pizza, a big venue, a big name speaker to make a great group. You can start off with a video or remote talk in your office after-hours. You definitely should get on Meetup.com but you don’t need to pay to get started. Every organiser on meetup can be organisers of up to three groups. I have a spare slot on my organiser account so I host PyDiff and used to do this for unified.diff – seek out another group’s organiser and ask if they’ll support your group for no extra cost to them.

Thanks Steph! Follow Steph on Twitter: @SteffLocke.