Saturday, January 19, 2013

Bringing communities together

I've spent significant hours since 2001 on a testing community: FAST - Finnish Association for Software Testing. The words we use in Finnish are not so much about association, but more about a special interest group. And we focus on bringing together testing - in Finland, for Finland, from Finland. Not just testers, but anyone who wants to know about testing.

We have people who identify as "members". They've given their email addresses on our annoucements-list. I checked just a few days back that there's 1037 emails. Inactive ones get automatically dropped after a couple of bounces, so that should be pretty accurate.

We started a group in LinkedIn (in Finnish) a year ago, and it has turned to occasionally active place to talk. With 722 people, most are still just lurking to see what comes up.

We renewed our web pages last autumn. We've had 4496 clicks since, and best ever day since then has had 523 clicks.

A week back we joined Facebook, with now 55 people liking us there.

And, as per the people I meet in our sessions, we have people who are not on any of these lists but will show up in our sessions when their contacts inform them about something good happening. Like the fellow who won EuroSTAR supporting organization free attendance some years back - he became listed as he had already won. 

We are a community of people, without an official structure. We're organized around a bunch of active people, some of which remain, and some of which change. I for one has been "one that remains". We're not an organized non-profit, but operate as a special interest group for a non-profit called Sytyke ry, which in its turn is a part of the Finnish Information Processing Association. Some of our members are members of FIPA and Sytyke, while others are not. We've agreed with Sytyke that we can also be a special interest group of some other non-profit - testing doesn't belong to one exclusively.

We have no membership fee. We've organized a lot of different things over the years, since 2001, and what we organize is free of cost, other than the time you put on the community. Without people, there is no community.

The idea is, that any member of the community can set up a FAST session without asking the board for permission within rules - it's a session about testing, and it's free, and it aims for inclusion rather than exclusion. Marketing sessions of tools or consulting organizations tend to not be considered these, as they don't allow for conflicting views and exclude some people ("just prospective customers, no competition).

We've managed to have an active community without any official budget and all-free activity by encouraging the companies to feel part of the community. They give us premises & coffee, and we have great sessions on various topics. I'm right now preparing one for 500+ people, where the premises come from Helsinki University of Technology and the coffee breaks are sponsored by a few companies, and we have a relatively large test lab track running on the side of two talk tracks of 300 + 300 seats. We do book circles, testing dinners, trial courses, peer conferences, 100+ conferences, test competitions, testing dojos and actively discuss in our native language online.

I feel the core of this activity is that we have no budget at all. People who speak don't need to go for a decent cut of the profits. Companies are a relevant part of the community letting us their premises for  the sessions and buying the coffees. Many companies have showed, with these actions, that they have people who care about our cause enough to keep the sessions running. Testing is important. That makes this possible, even relatively easy.

If we would have a membership fee, the dynamics would change. Members would expect service, instead of being the ones serving the community. And speakers would expect to get their share.

I'm an idealist. I've refused significant amounts of money in working for non-profits for fairness arguments as I would be eligible due to official position, and the others contributing wouldn't.  I don't need the free lunch, I need the invigorating conversation. I need the community.

So, I'm looking at how to integrate this community and these principles with other, more international communities. Reaching the people that can and want to be reached with the activities we're anyway doing for this community. And allowing this community to grow from looking inside Finland to real, internationally contributing hub it could be.