August 24, 2005

Meet your local LUG

Author: Rob Reilly

Are you a businessperson or non-techie who wants to learn more about Linux and computers, but don't know where to start? One excellent place to start is a Linux user group (LUG).

A LUG is a non-profit group that provides support and education for Linux users. LUG meetings are a great place for inexperienced users to learn about the latest computer technology, networking, the Web, and how these can all make life easier. They are also inspiring examples of competence, creativity, and accomplishment in action.

Before you rush out and jump into your car, you should know that LUG members tend to be confident, outspoken, and sometimes blunt. This can be intimidating and cause newcomers to shy away from future meetings. Remember, though, that LUGs are viable volunteer organizations because those same people are also generous with their time and expertise.

With a little meeting prep and understanding, you'll see the benefits of contributing to a LUG, and look forward to attending. Marketing/sales, public relations, home users, and business people will find ample opportunity to add their skills to the mix while learning about computers from some true gurus.

Meeting types and benefits

LUGs can have several different types of regular or special interest group (SIG) meetings. These include:

  • Weekly one hour meeting -- News and commentary on Linux and open source software, plus a presentation on a specific topic of interest.
  • Certification SIG -- Training sessions that prepare members for Linux certification tests.
  • Programming SIG -- Presentations that cover programming topics, such as shell scripts, C, PHP, or SQL.
  • Two hour "big" meeting -- General Linux news, plus two guest speakers on related topics of interest.
  • Install party -- A day-long session, where non-members are invited to bring in their machines and work with LUG members to get Linux (and other open source operating systems) installed for free.
  • Special events -- LUG-sponsored sessions, showcasing industry leaders, special guests, and vendors.
  • Conferences -- Conference sessions and specialty workshops, led by LUG members.

Since each club has a different meeting schedule, it's best to check the group's Web site or email or call ahead for meeting times. Some groups meet weekly or monthly, while others get together only once in a while. College-based clubs usually take a break over the summer.

If you can't make every meeting, some LUGs, like the Melbourne (Florida) Linux User Group that I attend, have virtual meeting capabilities. Since I live in Orlando and Melbourne is 60 miles away, I sometimes need to participate online. I can log in via Internet Relay Chat (IRC), listen to an MP3/Ogg audio stream, and even watch the presenter's screen via VNC (remote desktop viewer). Details to get it all working can be found on the LUG's Web site.

Many LUGs hold "after-meeting" meetings at a local restaurant or frosty cold beverage establishment, which provide a great opportunity for socializing. Where regular LUG meetings focus on the topic at hand, after-meetings can cover any number of topics, and usually do. A word of advice: Cruise the big techie news sites before you go.

To find a LUG near you, fire up Google and look search for "Linux user group" in your area. Yahoo! has a long list, and you can find others at linux.org and the Linux User Groups WorldWide project.

Meeting protocol tips

If possible, get to meetings a little early to introduce yourself and mingle. Try to steer clear of the flurry of hardware/software activity at the front of the room as the presenters are setting things up.

Many LUGs have wired or wireless networking available during a meeting. Most groups won't mind if you bring your laptop and hook up. It's fun to sit in the audience and participate in IRC with your laptop. Remember that people logged into the IRC channel may be in another country, and you can help them better experience the meeting through your online conversations.

If you don't have Linux installed, at least get yourself a CD-based distribution, like Knoppix or MEPIS, to run during the meeting. LUG members are too polite to make fun of Windows-only laptop users, although you might get some friendly encouragement about switching to a real operating system. If you're not quite ready to dump Windows, you can always use a dual-boot installation.

Even though you may be bubbling with enthusiasm for your newfound discovery of Linux, try to limit your questions during a presentation. The number of questions to ask will depend on the topic and how much audience participation is requested. For in-depth discussions or specific problems, it's better to get on the LUG mailing list or IRC. Try solve your own problems first. If you get stuck, then politely ask for some direction.

Non-techie ways of helping

The organizational structure of LUGs can vary greatly. Some groups are highly organized with non-profit status, club officers, dues, and board of directors meetings, while others are loosely configured, with one or two main people attending to the majority of administrative duties.

Clubs can attract a diverse group of characters. Many prefer to participate in support roles, such as giving talks, bringing the projector every week, or supplying a meeting space. Some members prefer to just donate money.

Herein lies the chance for the businessperson or non-techie member to step in and help. LUGs, like any volunteer group, always need help with marketing, organization, and expanding membership. For those who enjoy setting up events, coordinating meetings, public speaking, or running a promotional campaign, joining a LUG can offer some great opportunities.

One good way to start is to approach the LUG president and volunteer to help with administrative work. He will appreciate the offer and probably take you up on it. Other jobs that are often available include running the IRC computer or recording and publishing the minutes.

As you gain more insight into the workings of the group, you might even consider giving a presentation. You might cover how you can apply a Linux program to one of your business problems, or effective ways to use a Linux contact manager. PR types might put together a series on LUG promotion techniques. Naturally, you'll want to use Linux or open source tools during your presentation.

If you're a hotshot PR, recruiting, or marketing person, planning a LUG-sponsored special event or conference workshops could be right up your alley. It would be a great way to promote the group and make contacts in the industry at the same time.

This gives you some idea of what to expect when venturing into a LUG meeting. You can put your business, marketing, or organizational skills to good use for the organization, and meet interesting people and solve technical problems for yourself.

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