The Agile Austin Blueprint for Building a Community
Colleague Scott Killen – Founder and President of Agile Austin – is quite a unique human being in my book. He blends immense passion for Agile with great organizational skills and deep caring for the folks he works with. I asked him to post his Agile Austin story in this blog for two reasons:
- Plain curiosity: how did he go about the business of building such a thriving community?
- Sharing the ‘secret sauce’: provide actionable guidance to organizers how to build a truly great Agile community.
Here is Scott’s story in his own words:
Agile Austin is a thriving and passionate community of agile enthusiasts and professionals in Austin Texas. In less than two years the organization sprung from nothing to be a force in its community. This was accomplished by dedication and a clear focus on the organization’s mission. Israel asked me, as founder and President of Agile Austin, to relate its story, and I am happy to do so.
The idea for Agile Austin originated in October of 2006. Three individuals, including myself, formed the founding committee. We created an “AgileAustinBoard” listserv for communication. Our first action was to develop a mission statement to guide all further decision-making. Our current mission statement differs from that first attempt by two words. It is:
Agile Austin’s mission is to promote agile software development concepts such as those set forth in the Agile Manifesto (agilemanifesto.org), to create a public forum for the exchange of practice information, and to create opportunities for the professional development of members.
With a clear mission, the organizing board drafted a simple, three page charter to propose an organizational framework for formation. We felt branding was important and tasked a graphic artist to propose a number of different logo designs.
The chartering meeting was held in May of 2007 at a local coffee shop. We notified the known agile community of the meeting and very strongly urged people not to attend unless they were willing to commit a significant amount of time to establishing the organization. Fourteen people attended.
Officially formed, the chartering board set to work. We agreed to set our first meeting four months out in September 2007 to give us time to build a solid foundation. During the four months, we set up a bank account, created a website, arranged for a meeting location, solicited sponsors, and lined up speakers. Sponsorship was greatly aided by drafting a clear 4-tiered participation level letter that we could send to prospective sponsors on request. By the time we conducted our inaugural meeting, we had several speakers lined up, several thousand dollars in the bank from sponsorships, a mature website, and a PR notification system in place. To publicize meetings, we send notices to roughly a dozen other local technology listservs, several Venture Capital firms, a technology incubator, three print newspapers, several on-line calendars, CraigsList, and post on our own website.
The original charter stipulated dues for membership. There were many reasons to do so, but they all boiled down to “skin in the game”. We decided to set dues at a very modest $30/yr and we collected dues at our meetings and through a PayPal account. (Collecting funds online through PayPal was another smart idea).
With our meetings established and membership building up. The board began to focus on how to deliver the promise of our mission statement. It became apparent that our meetings only served a small portion of the agile community. We began to actively look for ways to provide value for that membership dollar and to extend our reach into the larger community. In roughly chronological order I present the various programs we introduced to achieve this goal. Unless otherwise noted, these programs are available to non-members.
Excepting the board, whose members work for no compensation whatsoever, all those who volunteer to speak or facilitate receive a small honorarium and thank you note for their help.
To promote professional development, we provide proof of attendance at each meeting that is sufficient for PMI, ASQ, or PDMA certification renewal.
We established the “GO!” program. GO is an acronym for Green dot / Orange dot. At our meetings, one places a Green sticky dot on the nametag if aware of agile employment opportunities. An Orange dot is displayed if seeking agile opportunities. This program has successfully fostered job networking and employment placement.
We search out and aggregate on our website all known agile related training offered in Austin. This effort saves our community from searching the entire web for training opportunities and saves travel costs.
We establish relationships with all known 3rdparty trainers that present in Austin. In exchange for a 10% – 20% discount on training for our members, we help publicize their training session. We do this via our website, our listserv, and meeting announcements. We also encourage vendors to send us brochures that we place on take-away tables. The economics of this arrangement are compelling. Join Agile Austin for $30/year and save $120 – $300 on training.
Sometimes, 3rd party training vendors would rather donate training seats than offer a discount. If so, we award free training seats to our members via lottery. Another compelling value proposition: join Agile Austin to become eligible for regular drawings for expensive (and local) training.
We establish relationships with book and software publishers. They provide agile related books and software that we award by lottery at our meetings. This effort is successful because we are careful to keep our publishers notified about how we use their donated products to promote their interests.
We hosted a two and a half day, free, open space conference, funded by our sponsors, to assemble our community in a forum of open discussion.
We’ve joined with another technology organization to co-sponsor a happy hour at a local bar to cross-pollinate individuals with different interests and ideas.
We regularly schedule presentations of opportunity outside of our regular meetings when distinguished individuals are available. We charge $10 an event for non-members. Members are admitted at no charge. We’ve received presentations from Mike Cohn, Luke Hohmann, Tom & Mary Poppendieck, Pollyanna Pixton and others in this way.
We created a series of free workshops to teach agile concepts. Staffed by volunteer facilitators from the community, we cover topics such as: writing user stories, estimation, retrospectives and the like. We now offer one such workshop each month. These workshops are extremely popular.
We formed an Agile Executive Luncheon. This is a group of practicing Executives, at the Vice President level or higher, that meet quarterly for lunch. Discussions center on issues important to those with corporate responsibility for agile teams. These lunches are free to attendees and are funded by our sponsors in exchange for two places at the table and a very brief introduction at the event.
Our newest program is a book discussion group. Agile Austin receives agile books from a sponsoring publisher at much reduced rates. We offer those books to members of the community at full price. A facilitator leads the group through a discussion of over several review sessions. If participants attend over half the review sessions, and publish a book review on Amazon and elsewhere, the entire cost of their participation is refunded. This is a win-win-win program. Publishers receive well placed publicity for their books, participants learn from one another at very low cost, and Agile Austin adds funds to its treasury if participants don’t fulfill their contract.
We will soon implement a program we call “Ask An Expert”. This program will make an experienced agile practitioner available once a week for two hours of consultation. The event will be hosted at a local restaurant with a separate room and wireless access. Facilitators will register in advance and their availability and qualifications will be posted for prospective attendees to review. We hope that individuals and entire teams will take advantage of the opportunity to consult with an experienced coach.
Most recently, we have discovered that our original charter and format are insufficient to support further scaling of our organization. For that reason, we are now pursuing 501C6 tax exempt status. Once again, we have established a quid pro quo relationship with a local legal firm. They help us with incorporation, and we introduce their firm, specializing in technology startup law, to our community.
As of March 2009, Agile Austin had roughly 180 paid members, 270 listserv subscribers, and 500 individuals in our Linked-In group. It is a vibrant organization, the result of hard work by its board, and the community’s passion and participation. We also benefit greatly from an extensive network of carefully cultivated sponsors relationships.
If I’ve presented the dynamic nature and flavor of Agile Austin, then I have succeeded. To some extent, this organization has grown beyond the ability of any one individual to grok in entirety. Though I’ve tried to be complete, this history undoubtedly falls short. Also, I was careful throughout not to name names. To do so, and to fairly attribute contributions, would double the size of this post.
To resonate with me, please reply to this blog post or contact me directly at: swk(a)killen.org.