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Java User Groups: Changing the World, One Line of Code at a Time!
by Daniel deOliveira
The value of JUGs to members, to society, and to the Java ecosystem
Picture this: your very important project is already over deadline, and your solutions aren't working; your boss is breathing down your neck every five minutes; you cycle futilely between "Dilbert" cartoons, search engines, impostor syndrome, feelings of helplessness, and hacking about in all directions; and nothing breaks the deadlock. Finally, a colleague tells you to check with the local Java user group (JUG) and...it works! This happens all the time, all over the world.
Technically speaking, the primary function of a JUG is to promote the platform and fully support developers through volunteer work. A JUG generally is independent of vendors, is free of charge, conducts monthly presentations and annual meetings, has dynamic discussion lists, discloses technical information, and broadcasts community novelties on social networks. Cool, isn't it? But how does that work?
To answer this basic question, this article will tackle some different—and sometimes strange—aspects to help you understand the JUG ecosystem and governance: structure, statistics about the JUG population, the importance of focusing on people not on technology, the life and death of communities, JUGs as learning engines, and the importance to society of increasing the participation in JUGs.
JUGs (virtual or physical) are basically structured in four layers, as shown in Figure 1:
Figure 1. The four-layer structure of JUGs.
The first layer is the core group—that is the JUG leader, coordinators, moderators, mentors, and facilitators—who are responsible for the group governance and the social aspects of the community. Also in this group, for the technical aspects, are the gurus, the thought leaders, the well-respected practitioners, and experts whose knowledge and reputation are the brain-trust and who help legitimize the community.
The second layer consists of the active members of the community are the reason for the existence of the group. They are the regular participants in the activities of the group; they are the users who contribute (at least once a year) to face-to-face meetings and/or to online activities associated with the group; and they represent only 15 percent of the community.
The third layer consists of the peripheral members: They are the lurkers (they don't visibly participate), and they represent around 75 percent of the community. As a form of membership, lurkers are a very important element in the JUG ecosystem. They are not free-riders or a heavy burden to the community, as some leaders think (at least, I thought that a lot!). They are the large, silent majority of users.
They don't participate because they feel uncomfortable about posting their thoughts. After reading some uglier flames and the tone and hostility in public forums, I complied some lurkers' comments from the web. Here, Julia gives her testimony: "I am afraid to post because of the incredible arrogance and hostility among some people on sites like this. I'd like to learn Linux, but I don't get the feeling that these people would help me. They would just make me feel stupid."
Bruce Mason said, "People who lurk do so because they do not feel competent to post" ("Issues in Virtual Ethnography" in Ethnographic Studies in Real and Virtual Environments: Inhabited Information Spaces and Connected Communities, 1999). JUGs are naturally social interactive computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) environments; however, often lurkers don't participate because they are self-protecting, and some of them are introverts. Healthy JUGs are groups that understand what lurkers want, naturally accept them as a reality, and create an accepting environment, so that this vast silent majority can feel welcomed, comfortable, and protected by the community.
In "The Strength of Weak Ties", which analyzes social networks such as JUGs, the author, Mark Granovetter, provides another interesting interpretation of these peripheral members, showing that they are important because they bring novelties to the community. Some lurkers could be lurking in several groups and be active in others—observing, learning, looking for interesting information to bring to their own communities. In this case, lurkers are the "innovation vectors," because by having weak ties to a group and no hard attachment to any community, and by sometimes participating in several JUGs, they are a bridge transporting information between groups.
So, if you run into a problem and need solid information, important advice, or support, look for people in the core group, which is where the knowledge is clustered. But if you need fresh ideas or innovation, look for the people in the periphery.
The fourth layer consists of outsiders. As we learned from X-Files, "the truth is out there." Outsiders are not members, but they are a very important component of the community. They are the external visitors, invited speakers—sometimes from other JUGs, or industry specialists employed as evangelists. All come to spread the word on relevant or new aspects of the technology. They are the "alpha-geeks," the powerful globe-trotting information brokers who, as itinerant practitioners circulating worldwide, spread and synchronize technical knowledge for a global, common understanding. In this process of cross-pollination, they take the role of "bees" sharing knowledge within the community and making a bridge between different groups.
Searching several sources on the internet, I found 367 JUGs all over the world with 894,000 members and, interestingly, we can observe that they behave exactly the same way, regardless of geography, gender, religion, or physical differences.
Other authors and researchers have analyzed the open source and Lua developer communities in the California Bay Area, Brazil, and India, and they compared them with the Java ecosystem. They concluded that those groups all had a similar makeup by age, culture, and gender, comparable to the results described for Brazilian JUGs (see box below).
This is, in part, due to the use of the same material resources and the shared culture/symbols and discourses/meanings that emerge because the different groups are "facing similar problems and solving them in similar ways, relying on the same set of concepts, calling relevant objects by the same names, and making many of the same jokes along the way." (Takhteyev, Y. Coding Places: Uneven Globalization of Software Work in Rio de Janeiro. Berkeley: University of California, 2009.)
All these academic works led me to think that we can generalize the data from Brazilian JUGs and apply it to the Java community worldwide. To confirm this hunch, I began to research Twitter, and I found that 77 percent of all JUGs around the world use this social media tool to broadcast their messages (see Figure 2, which came from this video).
Figure 2. More than three out of four JUGs use Twitter to communicate with their members.
Between 2001 and 2004, several Brazilian National Java Surveys were held involving 38 national JUGs and about 1,200 participants. The composition of the Brazilian JUGs at that time was quite young (44 percent were 19–24 and 34 percent were 25–30) and predominantly male (91 percent). 88 percent had college degrees, but Java was self-taught for 48 percent, and 68.3 percent didn't have any certification.
The participants were all professional developers who used Java in their daily work (68 percent), mostly with Windows (75 percent) and Eclipse IDE (63 percent). 91 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement that learning was their main motivation for participation in JUGs, which highlights the importance of JUGs as a learning environment.
In 2015, during the Java 20-year celebration in Brazil, Fabiane Nardon—a fellow computer scientist and Java Champion—inferred from online behavioral analysis that the community has aged (25 percent are now 12–19 and 44 percent are now 33–60), but it has not changed significantly in gender makeup (88 percent male) and it is still highly educated. On the other hand, Windows dropped to 40 percent, Linux has the same 22 percent as 10 years ago, and Mac OS emerged with 18 percent.
Figure 3 shows that JUGs are distributed in six of the world's seven continents: 7 percent are in Africa, 14 percent are in Asia, 40 percent are in Europe, 13 percent are in Latin (South) America, 23 percent are in North America, and 3 percent are in Oceania (Australia and proximate islands).
Figure 3. JUGs by continent.
Figure 4 shows that the eight countries with more than 10 JUGs each represent 56 percent of all JUGs in the world. Countries with more than 10 JUGs are as follows. Four are in Europe: Italy (in yellow), Poland (in red), France (in light blue), and Germany (in dark green). Two are in Asia: Japan (medium green) and India (dark red). One is in Latin America: Brazil (light green). And one is in North America: the US (purple). The US alone has more than the double the number of groups than the second-place country (Brazil). The rest of the world (dark blue) has 45 percent.
Figure 4. JUGs by country.
Since the first tweet from Tulsa Java Developers Group on May 31, 2008 until August 2015, a total of 160,178 tweets were sent. They were used to produce the map shown in Figure 5, which indicates the transfer of Java knowledge between JUGs.
The right side of Figure 5 shows the JUG world network, with Java information flowing between connected JUGs. The left side shows JUGs hibernating and (at the bottom) some active but isolated JUGs.
Figure 5. Transfer of knowledge between JUGs.
Video: JUGs around the world
People Not Technology
When a JUG is started, the goal must always be to transform people by changing lives one code line at a time, to support the members' needs, and to create a friendly and amazing experience for knowledge sharing.
Well, I'm a geek, and since childhood, I've always been involved with all types of gadgets, wires, bits, and bytes. This is the environment in which I felt comfortable and had fun, which naturally led me to study science at college.
Later, when I started the Federal District Java Users Group (DFJUG) in Brazil, the idea was provide to the community the same joy I have when programming, to learn from and with other members, and to share our discoveries. Talking with other JUG leaders around the world, I find that this is a common experience. It's interesting how many JUG leaders were Boy Scouts (some still are).
DFJUG started as a Java Certification Study Group—all technical stuff, only bits and bytes. It took us a lot of time to realize that technology is cool, but people are the main reason for the JUG's existence. In other words, if you don't like people, please don't start a JUG; you will fail miserably. You need to love people in order to have a successful JUG. Shocked? Don't get me wrong; the necessity of this fundamental love was learned from an übergeek: a Nobel Prize candidate talking about the biochemistry of cell networks.
So, how do you build a healthy community? Well, this is the million dollar question and the answer is...with passion. The JUG leader is important, although she or he can't do all the necessary work alone. Everything is teamwork. It is the passion of the core group that makes a JUG healthy. If you want your group to survive, you need to love your community with passion, and your energy will be an inspiration and infuse the ecosystem. Developers will come because they feel value in your actions, and they will follow your dreams. It is a virtuous cycle, the Long Tail, the Matthew effect where the rich tend to get richer. The more developers you attract, the more who will come. I know, because DFJUG has become a JUG with 47,000 members.
However, the most fascinating thing I've learned in all these years of activism in the JUG ecosystem is that, regardless of the country, religion, race, gender, or culture of JUG members, all JUGs worldwide behave the same way. Incredibly, they all exhibit the same patterns, always focusing on support for the members' needs. As John Gage once said, at one of the first JavaOne conferences, while talking to an international multicultural community: "Don't be ashamed; here we all speak...Java."
JUGs' Life and Death
Keeping the JUG daily dynamic is difficult. You need to embrace a lion every day and, unfortunately, not all JUGs will survive. (Sorry; it's no longer politically correct to "kill" lions, even rhetorically ;-)
For instance, today there are 30 active JUGs in Brazil, but in the last 20 years Brazil lost 27 groups, and this phenomenon is happening all over the world. What are the reasons for this death rate of 50 percent? For me, this number is shocking! Could the causes for the disappearance of these groups be present in our own JUG?
Unfortunately, JUGs are very dependent on the JUG leader, but people who want to lead are rare. Volunteer members of your community will happily support all the activities you ask for...as coordinators, moderators, mentors, and facilitators; however, they don't want to carry the flag. Nobody wants to carry this "piano"; it's heavy, and it requires lots of insane work and responsibilities, and it must be done on a volunteer basis.
Eventually, JUG leaders become tired, change jobs, and decide to change to other technologies or to have children. In this situation, JUGs slowly stop their activities and enter a latent phase. The group is there, neither alive nor dead, just hibernating. However, one day someone completely different (not linked to the previous original managing group) who is bothered by this situation of non-activity, decides to pick up the flag and carry on the group again. This phenomenon can be seen in several different places around the world, including in one JUG that has passed through this situation three times; today this group is managed by a very active leader and has become one of top JUGs in the world.
The goal of a successful community is to reach harmonization; when the opinions of the leader and members are in sync, they are in harmony. You can measure the health of your group—its success/fail factor and, eventually, its life or death—as described here. Leaders need to have a "crystal ball" to "read" what lurkers (about 75 percent of the community) are demanding from the JUG, without actually hearing from them. Some leaders do, but others fail, because it's hard!
JUGs are Teaching and Learning Machines
Communication is the process of transferring knowledge, and this process creates learning. Social network learning happens through very simple and well-known instruments in our JUGs: face-to-face periodic technical meetings, discussion lists, personal or community blogs, common shared jokes, articles in news aggregators (books, magazines, and so on), chats, emails exchanged between members, and videos on YouTube. Newsletters and social media (such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Stack Overflow, and GitHub) that advertise common activities, offers of training, employment, and best practices connect us to our community.
Through all these knowledge transfer tools, we create a diversity of learning opportunities through experiences, ideas, and facts—and that's what JUGs provide.
We learn by sharing virtual or physical conversations (text or voice) and making connections with other people. When we organize our thoughts through dialog, we make connections between concepts and develop abstract ideas, and then we learn.
All these years of activism have taught me that JUGs are a social phenomenon. It's something new; it's network learning in the twenty-first century. JUGs are teaching/learning machines. So, the goal is to understand how our communities learn.
Social Responsibility of JUGs
Communities are an inherent part of our life. As social beings, we participate in collective activities in companies, clubs, schools, churches, and sports activity groups. Sometimes we discover with surprise that out of the 367 JUGs around the world, some "go the extra mile," because the Java community cares.
Developers are always thinking about how to change the world and, as JUG members, we have a natural tendency to share, participate, and support group activities, because our community is a natural environment for collaboration. So, why not harness this synergy to do work for society as well?
JUGs have been doing social work and supporting their communities for 20 years, for example, by charging canned food (such as milk powder cans for orphanages) as a form of admission to meetings. The food is then donated. Another example is exchanging technical presentations for clothing donations.
Teaching kids Java for free always receives the enthusiastic support of colleagues. Some groups "go the extra mile" by conducting educational activities in underprivileged communities or teaching Java to the deaf, the blind, and wheelchair users, such as the work of these five groups: JUG Sardegna (Italy) with Jug4Avis; DFJUG (Brazil) with JEDI, GreenFootBR, and Rybená; and BeJUG, BruJUG, and WaJUG (Belgium) with Devoxx4Kids. There must be many other initiatives. Why not share what our groups are doing?
On the other hand, many JUGs don't have any external social activity, not because they are selfish, but simply because nobody there thought about this possibility. Maybe showing what some JUGs are doing in their communities can inspire others to do the same.
There's a World Surrounding Your JUG
Today, no matter where you go, you will find people head-down and oblivious to the surrounding world, typing, communicating with their peers, and sharing knowledge in their favorite social media tool.
JUGs must be where their members are and, if they are on social media, then JUGs must go there, too. Everybody knows that there is a lot of knowledge flowing around the internet. There is a lot of Java knowledge being offered daily on social media.
There are 367 JUGs in 88 different countries; however, sometimes—due to our daily activities and responsibilities—we are so busy with our own community work that we miss the opportunity to witness the fantastic opportunities other JUGs are offering around us, every single day.
Connect your group with the world—the JUGs' world. Follow other groups, retweet their messages, and share your knowledge. It's cool and a lot of fun to know what our colleagues are creatively doing in different corners of the world, and your members will be learning other subjects that might not be offered by your group. "The network is the computer" was the mantra in 1984; now, for us it should be "The network is the JUG."
- "User groups: community collaborative learning," a paper about JUGs as learning machines
- "Users Groups, Leadership, Life and Death and the Wife of Julius Caesar"
About the Author
Daniel deOliveira (Dr. JUG) is a JUG leader, Java Champion, and Duke's Choice Award winner. He is an educational researcher with an MSc in knowledge management and information technology and is currently working on his PhD in computer science at the University of Kent (UK) studying the dynamics of Java user groups. He is also an author and international speaker who has given several presentations at JavaOne conferences in the US and at other events in Brazil, India, Scotland, and South Africa. Additionally, he is one of the creators of the Rybená solution, a mobile app that transforms spoken words into sign language, and he is responsible for the Java Education and Development Initiative in Brazil (JEDI-BR), a free Java engineering massive open online course (MOOC) program.