Do not call it a user group.
VBUG, a UK-based professional organization for Visual Basic programmers, wants to be known as much more.
"People see user groups as having members in these meetings, all bringing their machines together, having woolly jumpers and cardigans," said Graham Parker, VBUG chairman. "It gives the wrong kind of image."
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Parker said his Visual Basic User Group (VBUG), based 20 miles west of London in Farnham Royal, is trying to put forth a more corporate-friendly image of its nearly 750 members. They are mainly professional developers who work throughout the UK in a wide variety of industries.
VBUG's main focus is to help developers share knowledge and ideas. It is a concept Parker has been advocating since he took over the group in 1997.
"What we're basically about is putting developers in touch with each other, helping them to network in small groups around the UK. We actually use our developers as a resource," Parker said.
In addition to its Web site, which serves as a free resource to anyone, VBUG sponsors bi-monthly meetings in eight cities across the UK. Parker said the meetings are a great way to make sure his group supports people rather than merely the programs.
"One of the first things we realized was VB was not a means unto itself," said Parker. "Most people used Visual Basic with a database, like SQL Server or Access, and we really wanted to try to support development across a wide range of development tools. We wanted to focus on supporting the developer not a product."
VBUG further supports members through its customized knowledge-management database. When Parker and his staff are unable to answer technical support inquiries themselves, they use the database to seek out others in the group who can help.
Tackling developer issues
With Microsoft's new .NET strategy on the horizon, VBUG is looking to aid its members through what will likely be a difficult but worthwhile transition into Visual Studio.NET.
"I think it's a major architectural change, and developers are going to have trouble bringing themselves up to speed very quickly. The language has changed in VB, and it's going to make it hard to upgrade Visual Basic 6 projects into Visual Basic .NET because of some of the language changes," said Parker.
VBUG has scheduled an October conference to discuss the implications of .NET. While Parker predicts a steep learning curve, he said it is an exciting time for developers beginning to build Web services and objects that can be accessed over the Internet.
Taxes are another important issue to VBUG members. A change in UK tax laws no longer allows a developer working independently as a one-man company to gain a tax advantage.
While Parker said the new British tax code is fairer for corporate employees, he feels it has depressed the independent contractor market and forced developers to look for ways around the law.
"Suddenly all the rules have changes, and they have to rethink what they're going to do. A lot of those people have decided to go back to full-time employment," Parker said.
Independent and expanding
Even though some VB programmers have given up their independent status, Parker feels VBUG is respected because it is fully self-supported through member fees.
"I think one of the main issues is getting hold of accurate and reliable information. Our developers are happy to use our services because they know they're getting advice from an independent organization. So they're actually getting accurate information, even though it might not reflect well on Microsoft," said Parker.
In the future, VBUG will continue to develop its Web site as a wide-reaching resource for developers. It also would like to expand its roster of meetings and events because, as Parker said, "there really isn't any substitute to having someone explain the technology on a face-to-face basis."
While the group is not currently expanding its membership base beyond the UK, Parker said it might do so in the future.
Individual membership in VBUG costs �125 per year (US $199), and a corporate membership for up to five people costs �500pounds per year (US $799). Members are entitled to receive informational literature, attend group meetings, access VBUG technical support, and get discounts on books and magazines sold through the VBUG site.