First to start with an admission, I love the VMware User Group, I just think it’s brilliant. I’ve no illusions that it’s the major reason why i’ve been fortunate enough to end up working at VMware.
Act 1 – Absolute beginner
When I was first starting out in my VMware career I found it invaluable. I absorbed the content like a sponge, it was all new to me and I never attended an event without walking away with some nugget of new useful information.
Act 2 – Finding my feet
As time passed my experiences evolved; It was no longer just about listening to the speakers, it was getting access to the folks who literally wrote the book on subjects. Getting a chance to ask my questions of the people who knew it best solved some major issues for me. I still turned up at every event, suffered through the awkwardness of the breaks, and at the end of the day made a quick exit before the true networking began.
Act 3 – Going public
Then five years ago I was asked if I would be willing to join the leadership team to help run the Scottish VMUG, at that point I would guess there were probably 3-4 people max in the community who knew who I was. I really believed in the process though and it had been invaluable for my learning so I felt it appropriate to put back in what I’d taken out. Being a leader the events changed somewhat. I was able to look at an event through a prism and see my experiences seemed pretty common to how others react, we work in an industry of introverts so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. A room full of strangers all with one common unifying thread, in the most part unwilling, or perhaps more accurately uncomfortable talking to each other.
So for the last couple of years as a leader I embarked on a crusade, the 3rd act of my User Group life unlocking the connections between people. I’d stand up at the start of a VMUG and I’d tell everyone in the room, if this is your first time at a VMUG or if you just don’t know anyone else in the room, come and find me during the breaks and I’ll talk to you. At one event I warned everyone, if during a break I see you on your own on your phone then I’m coming to talk to you. I bounded up to one guy who was reading his phone, he was adamant his colleagues were just at the toilet and he didn’t need my company, but I wasn’t so easily dissuaded, in the end I don’t think he grudged my company but if he did he hid it well.
At my last event as a leader, there were lots of people in groups and there were two guys talking together but slightly away from all other groups. I knew I’d met them both before but couldn’t remember much about them and did not remember they worked together. I started chatting to them and within about 10 minutes the conversation turned to a topic of which I knew there were others that were passionate about, I pulled one person in, then another, before long there was a group of about 8 people and I felt I’d done my part and walked away. Later on that night one of the original two guys told me “you’re the nicest, of the leaders” he was right on many levels with that statement…but he then qualified it with a reason why.
Last week someone said something very similar to me about their recent experiences. I had to point out that just because the leadership are passionate about the VMUG and willing to stand at the front of a full room, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re comfortable with everything. We/They all suffer the same insecurities and difficulties, personally I’ve always been more afraid of the small intimate networking situations than I have been of speaking to a packed room.
The Lowest Ebb
I remember a few years ago being at a corporate event in London. I was late to arrive, during the breaks I was able to fake essential work on my laptop but at the post event networking event there was nowhere left to hide. It was clear there were people that worked together and other people who seemed to know each other. I found myself on the outside of every group of conversation. I loitered nearby but was never either brave enough to get involved nor was I invited in to the conversation. I found myself paralysed and completely incapable of breaking the cycle. Eventually I quit, I turned around and walked out of the building. I highly doubt anyone even noticed. It was the loneliest and one of most embarrassing moments of my career.
Now the reason he said I was “the nicest of the leaders”? He said I was the nicest one because I always seemed to go out of my way to speak to everyone, particularly the people on their own, the shy, the timid, the first timers. He’s right I do go out of my way to do that, not because I find that easy or comfortable, instead I found that being a leader provided me a safety blanket. I was able to step outside of my fears/insecurities and throw myself into a situation and channel my inner JFK
It’s ridiculous, I didn’t have any invisibility cloak of protection, it was a pure placebo but for whatever reason it worked. I remember the sobering feeling of my lowest point all too well and that powered my desire to do anything to prevent someone else from suffering such ignominy. I was able to put myself into my most uncomfortable situation not because I enjoyed it but in the hope that it might save someone else from suffering the lows I have.
The Big Finish
Adults are rubbish at talking to strangers, add in the fact we’re all introverts, it’s a potent mix that threatens to derail the true power of this community. My new career at VMware has me aligned to a number of different VMUG’s rather than just my comfort blanket in Scotland. I’ll be visible and attending 3-4 VMUGs across the UK this year and I’m hoping to carry my crusade onwards. The true power of this community is in the people, anything we can do to unlock that the better for all involved
So my ask of everyone else? Don’t be scared to talk to the person beside you. We’re all in this together, and remember just by being here there’s a bond that unites us all. As uncomfortable as you find that initial approach, you never know how appreciated it might be by the other person