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Tech communities offer more than just a quick fix

IT professionals who join tech meetups and online communities might find there's more than just troubleshooting help available when they invest their time in a group.

As an IT professional, your time is limited. Is it worth your while to get involved with IT communities, both online and offline?

There is no shortage of technical groups on the internet and in real life on almost any topic and technology that matter to IT pros. Vendors big and small provide specialist forums for their software and hardware products for customers to discuss problems and find resolutions.

We've all been there. We have a problem that needs a quick fix, so we jump to Google and run a search and eventually stumble across a discussion that fixes for your exact scenario. But it's worth considering looking at more long-term engagements in these groups. We'll look at why you should, but where do you start, and how do you decide where to get involved in the seemingly endless communities that exist?

Different types of tech communities have their pros and cons

Because free time is not a luxury for many of us, connecting with an online group is an easier task than going to a user group in person, but they also meet different needs.

For online communities, you can choose to be anonymous, which can help people feel a bit more confident. You won't hold back when you need to ask that basic question you might be otherwise afraid to ask. You might have an easier time sharing your opinion that will only exist in a bubble and not connected to your real identity. You're also much more likely to find a group that works for you due to the scope of options, which are available to use at any time.

Meetups or user groups have different benefits that online groups can't provide. As long as you can find one in your area that aligns with your interests, you can actually talk to like-minded individuals, as well as listen to a talk or demo on something you'll likely learn more about.

Online groups also have their catches. Just like most interactions on the internet, you have trolls, arguments and personality clashes.

Meeting people brings more of a participatory feeling and a sense of belonging when you go to an event where the community that has the same interests as you. Meetup and Eventbrite are among of the most common online booking systems for user groups.

Contacts, acquaintances and friends can be made in either type of environment. It's great to find others who have similar goals and challenges to yourself, as well as being able to bounce ideas and problems off each other for suggestions and guidance.

Of course, there are also drawbacks to joining a community. For in-person meetups, there's a much bigger demand on your time. At a set time on a set day, you need to travel somewhere and hopefully get value out of the event, whereas online you're free to contribute as little or as much as you like whenever you want, which for many is a better choice.

Online groups also have their catches. Just like most interactions on the internet, you have to deal with trolls, petty arguments and personality clashes. Once otherwise normal people find they can mask their identity and voice their opinions without any real-world consequences, they can lose all common sense and courtesy and ruin an online IT community. This can be an easy trap to get caught up in or difficult to handle when you are on the receiving end of someone's attack.

An investment of your time can present opportunities

You can make a lot of personal and professional progress when you take a chance and put yourself out there by giving back to your communities.

Take Sonia Cuff, a longtime systems administrator who is now employed by Microsoft as a cloud advocate. I recently asked her what she thought about tech communities. She told me the feedback helps Microsoft improve documentation and make product owners aware of issues. She also said her participation in tech meetups got her a Microsoft MVP award and played a role in getting her hired at the company. 

IT pros have a number of areas to give and find help

Personally, I run a local user group. Although it requires some of my time, it's given me a platform to improve my speaking skills, access to many knowledgeable people who want to share the things they've learnt, and a bunch of great contacts where we can call upon each other for advice and assistance.

I'm also involved in a few online communities, such as the Windows Admins Slack group where there's a bunch of very helpful people in different channels that are broken down by product, such as Exchange Server or Office 365. It's a tremendous resource to find people who can give you advice and answers in real time, some of which are not easily found with a Google search.

Finally, there's social media that I spend time on, specifically Twitter. Most IT pros are all over this platform now, and if you invest some time into following the right people, you can have a constant feed of news, tips and discussions on trending topics, such as the latest problems with certain patches. I even created a Twitter bot that automatically tweets items it finds based on Microsoft related RSS news feeds to make this information easier to find.

If you don't have the time to give, you will get very little back from communities online and in person. But if you do make it a part of your job to invest in them, you'll hopefully get back even more than you put in.

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