When learning to code, you’re often your own worst enemy. Speedy learning slows to a crawl and you start to wonder if you were cut out to code at all or if you were really an imposter all along. One good way to avoid this self-defeating spiral is to surround yourself with fellow coders as often as you can manage.
Of course, there’s no limit to the support you can find online, but there may be times when you really need a person there with you sharing their own struggles, helping you on bug hunting excursions, or to contribute to a project with you. If you don’t happen to live right near an existing code group, however, don’t despair. We’re makers; you can make your own!
Now, I’m sure someone out there is probably saying, “Gee, Chazona, I’m sure forming a group is easy in a big city, but there’s no way I can find interested people in my [insert suburb or town here].” And unless that person is in extremely remote conditions, they’re probably selling their area short. My advice is not to assume lack of interest before you actually try it because you’ll probably surprise yourself.
So what I’m going to do is share with you how I went about forming a local group when I moved to a village outside of Richmond, VA, and some of the things I learned along the way. While everything may not apply to every situation or location around the world, it should give you an idea of where to start if you’re feeling a little lost.
A Little Inspiration
I’m not going to claim that I came up with the idea to create a local group all on my own. As a student of Free Code Camp, one thing that was consistently recommended throughout the program was to code socially: seek out local groups, pair program, contribute to group projects. Around the same time, my family was in the process of moving from our Richmond suburb to a slightly more distant village. The nearest local coding groups were more than 30 minutes away and met late in the evening, which for a full-time parent without childcare was just not accessible. What was I going to do?
Well, Free Code Camp also had a listing of existing Free Code Camp unofficial groups and recommended that those who didn’t have a group within 15 - 20 minutes of their home just create their own. The recommended medium was Facebook Groups, largely because it’s free to use and an incredible number of people are already using Facebook for other things. So I went on Facebook, followed the Free Code Camp guide and set one up in a matter of minutes.
A Change of Tactics
Once the Facebook group was up, it stagnated a bit, growing by one or two people at a lethargic pace. As a natural introvert, I was not well-suited to heavily marketing my group, and the tools available through Facebook were not always helpful. While I had only expected a handful of people to eventually show interest in the group, I was starting to wonder if there was no interest in code where I lived.
But I wasn’t ready to give up yet. Instead, I took a look at Meetup, a web app I had considered when I’d first moved to the Richmond area but had never gotten around to joining an area group. It seemed simple enough to set a group up, so I filled out the information up to the last screen, expanding the group to be called Midlothian Code and include coders learning a wider variety of languages. I stopped short of purchasing the organizer subscription, and you’d do well to do the same if you utilize Meetup: within 24 hours of abandoning my cart, I got an email offering 50% off my first payment, which I used to pre-pay for six months for $30.
The thing Meetup did for my local group was to bring in interested people. Three days after I formed the group on Meetup, they announced the group to users who had already indicated interest in things like web development and programming, and Midlothian Code grew to almost 30 members overnight.
Suddenly I was in the position of needing to get meetings and events up and running, and of course, I had no idea what I was doing.
I started offering Coffee and Code meetings, since that was the common start for Free Code Camp-based groups. Ultimately, these ended up initially being half general meetings and half chit-chat on development topics. We wanted to start working on projects right away, and I wanted to be able to offer more interesting meeting content. I set up a set of chat rooms on Gitter and an organization account on GitHub to store code. Meanwhile, Meetup was proving not to be as useful for group communication as it was for advertising. I was not getting prompt notifications of messages and comments, the mailing list was outdated and a challenge to use properly, and it was difficult for members to know when information was posted to the message board. Change was needed again.
A Little More Conversation
As we found Meetup slowing down our group’s growth, I started looking into communication tools. We would ultimately need a website, but I didn’t seek to put one together in case our web developer members wanted to contribute to the original site. So while I registered a domain name for Midlothian Code on Google Domains, it was mainly so we could add Google’s G Suite tools to have a professional email and suite of office tools.
Instead of building out our website early on, we went with Mobilize.io, which allows for participating in discussion topics, RSVPing for events, and answering polls right from email. I could filter members by things like languages they were interested in and skills they currently had to ensure what we did better fit them.
Meanwhile, I utilized Tailor Brands to obtain an affordable logo for about $20 and some graphic design materials. Between my own code study, organizing the group, and taking care of my kids, I was having to get a little less DIY with my local group than I would have liked.
I also applied for room reservation privileges at my local library, which made our venue situation more secure. Libraries are often a neglected resource, but you should definitely take a look at what your library network offers if you’re starting a local group as it provides vital free services you’re unlikely to get anywhere else.
And yet, now we found our membership split with some still exclusively on Facebook, most exclusively on Meetup, and a few using the Mobilize site. It was difficult to coordinate members, to ensure information was up to date on all channels, and even to have an idea of how many of our more than 70 members were actually active. On top of this, as Midlothian Code was expanding, it was going to rapidly break the limits of Mobilize’s free plan and get too expensive to sustain.
A Home for Midlothian Code
It was becoming increasingly clear that getting some kind of coherent, functional website up for the group was going to need to take precedence over the pride of hand coding the site as a group. We needed one centralized place where the most up-to-date information and copies of any shared resources could be found. As much as I had tried to avoid it up until this point, it was time to look at Wordpress.org.
I had already reserved a domain name for Midlothian Code, but Google Domains did not provide hosting, SSL certificates or any of the other services you might look for in a DNS provider. Instead, I sought out an inexpensive hosting provider to transfer the DNS service to. Choosing a web host is a big decision, but because our group is still a bit on the smaller side and not for profit, I sought out the least expensive provider that offered month-to-month payments. Do not go the route I did as I ended up using 1&1 Hosting, which is a terrible provider with basically no customer service. I actually set up hosting with a new company and migrated my site over in the length of time I spent on their customer service phone line waiting for a human being. I can comfortably recommend WP Engine for managed WordPress hosting and Digital Ocean for nearly everything else, otherwise, you’ll need to do some research. Make sure you can find quality documentation for your prospective host and more than one point of contact for service.
From there, I pieced together a site that would benefit Midlothian Code while we grow. I’m currently in the process of ensuring its features meet our needs, and once it is done, we will start scheduling and hosting coding workshops. I can’t wait to see how the group grows from here.
If I had to do things all over again, I would have started with Meetup and creating a group website from the beginning, and I would give no hesitation to using self-hosted WordPress for my group’s site. I would take the time to find a better host, though.
The attention that Meetup gives groups is valuable, although I would limit our use of it to a length of time that brings in new members since it doesn’t provide a satisfactory return on investment after that.
Building a site, meanwhile, is possible almost for free while the group is still small (I’m only paying for domain, inexpensive hosting, and email). The benefit of having one primary place to direct members and have them congregate can’t be overstated. Once members can be organized, that’s when they can really get to work on coded-from-scratch projects that can be highlighted on our site.
Are you thinking about starting a local coding group where you live? Share your concerns in the comments!