My Lunch Story
In 2009, when I was still writing Java software, I decided to start a monthly lunch group of Java developers in my local area. I figured it would be enjoyable, educational, and I might make some connections that would be useful in my career.
There was already an online discussion group for Java developers in my area, and monthly meetings, and I was quite active with both, so it was a simple matter of merely making an announcement on the online group and see who responded.
More than anything else, it turned out to be the beginning of new friendships. Ten years later, we still meet. Many of us have moved on to other languages and activities, but the connection remains.
As a return on investment, the few minutes a month I spent getting us together were wildly successful. The great thing about lunches like this is that there is virtually no preparation involved. Nor is there any cost, other than the cost of your lunch.
Why do I bring this up? Because there have been many times when I’ve heard stories such as these:
1) My spouse had to move for his/her education/career so we moved to city X. I don’t know anyone here. It’s lonely and I miss the technical community I had before.
2) I’d really love to go to the monthly meetups but I live far from them and due to the traffic it’s not practical for me; and yet I would love to partake in some kind of technical community.
3) All the meetups are in the evening when I have take care of my children. Is there no other way to meet my colleagues socially?
4) I’ve been working on technology X, and have not found any technical community around it. I don’t have the time and funds to start a meetup but I’d love to meet other people also working on X.
5) All the meetups in which I’m interested seem to center around alcohol, and I’m not comfortable with that.
6) I work remotely, alone, and need human contact!
What I’ve Learned
Here I will share with you what I’ve learned about what has worked best for us.
The venue can make or break the gathering. Here are some things to consider when deciding on a venue:
- Variable Attendance - it will probably be difficult to predict the number of people who will show up. You’ll want a place where they won’t bug you about being only two people, but will have the capacity to support your maximum turnout if that number turns up.
- Reasonable Cost - keep in mind that some people have more discretionary funds than others. If the venue provides low cost options, your meeting will be financially feasible for more people, especially those who are not currently in a paying job, who likely want or need to participate more than anyone else.
- Culinary Diversity - it’s possible that everyone in your current group will love eating hamburgers and French fries every month, but if that’s all your venue serves, you may be excluding new entrants who would otherwise want to join you. In particular, and at the other extreme, many people these days are vegetarian and vegan. It’s not enough to serve a hamburger with lettuce and tomato without the hamburger! I’ve seen other awful imitations of vegetarian food, such as a plate of colorless Iceberg lettuce. But even outside of the red meat vs. vegan divide, there are many tastes that can be accommodated. Try to find a place with diverse offerings, or use multiple venues (see below). This said, I don’t recommend choosing a place with a narrow set of choices (e.g. only vegan) in the interest of inclusivity, because that wouldn’t be inclusive!
- Low Noise Level - some restaurants these days are crazy loud. These are not good places to meet, since communication would be difficult. In addition to the obvious obstacle to communication for normal people, some people who are hard of hearing have a much harder time in noisy environments than quiet ones.
- Table Layout - places with round or long tables (or where tables can be moved together) are best, to maximize the number of interactions in the group.
- Separate Checks - nothing kills a group as much as the organizer getting stiffed by people who leave without paying their share of the bill. It’s best to choose a place where people will naturally pay separately (for example, a place where you order and pay at the counter), but second best is to inform the group and the venue that there will be separate checks, and (sadly) keep an eye on unfamiliar people.
- Cultural Sensitivity - taken broadly, this means choosing the venue to be as inclusive as possible. While you are not necessarily responsible to do this at every meeting, it would be nice to select a venue with Chinese or Halal or Kosher food at times, as applicable to your community. (The people who care about this may not be expecting it, so giving extra notice time may be helpful to them.)
- Not Too Crowded - it will be easier to accommodate variable numbers of people, and the venue will be more likely to tolerate that variation, if you meet at a time that is not crowded. For example, we avoid Friday. You could also meet at 1:00 instead of noon if necessary.
- Location Diversity - it’s likely that your venue will be much more convenient to some of you than to others. You can mitigate this inequality by meeting at multiple venues; for example, alternating months at two places.
- Approaching Management - it’s not absolutely necessary, but in some cases it can be helpful to speak with, and even cultivate a relationship with, the restaurant management. You can speak with the manager in advance and explain your group situation, especially the attendance variability. Then he or she will have the information needed to help you out should you have problems at the time of your meeting. The staff might also be kind enough to set aside space for your group at future meetings, despite the uncertainty of the numbers. We had one restaurateur reserve his large round table for us at every meeting.
- Transportation Accessibility - it should be near public transportation and/or have adequate parking, as applicable for your community
- No Time Pressure - it should be a place where the staff will not be eager to push you out to make room for other customers
- Timely Service - it’s likely that some of you will not have the flexibility to stay there a long time, so you need a place that will not take too long to serve the food.
- Advance Reconnaissance - before having a meeting at a new place, it’s a good idea to check it out in advance at the same time of day (and ideally, the same day of the week) as your gathering. If it’s noisy, you can use a mobile phone sound meter app to get a dB reading that can be used as an objective measurement.
Here are some examples of places that have worked well for us (we are in the Reston/Herndon, Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, USA):
Santini’s - not expensive, high quality food, reasonable prices; order and pay at the counter; serves pizzas, calzones, sandwiches, salads; has long tables and is never too crowded for us to all sit together
Wegman’s - a supermarket with a huge variety of high quality prepared foods sold by the pound; expensive, but tables are far from the commercial area and people can bring their own food or not eat at all; very plentiful seating
Mediterranean Breeze - a Greek restaurant with plentiful seating; not expensive with even less expensive lunch specials; Greek and American offerings; very willing to give us separate checks
If you have a really hard time finding a venue, it’s time to start thinking further outside the box – a hospital cafeteria, a public park, a train station, a group member’s home or backyard…
Unless it’s all about your ego (and hopefully it’s not), don’t measure success by your group size. Large groups are unwieldy and can be logistically unworkable. My favorite group size is 6 - 8.
I like at least 6 because I find it more interesting to hear a greater diversity of experiences and thoughts.
I like no more than 8 because any larger size invariably results in multiple simultaneous conversations and less interaction. This kills group unity. I don’t want to miss hearing about what’s happening in the lives of some of my friends, and I feel that each of us deserves the attention of all the rest of us.
However, sometimes, someone near me will pull me into a side conversation against my will; or it is not me who is addressed, but I am forced by my location into the side conversation. When this happens, I might say something like “excuse me, but I don’t want to miss what the others are saying”. If I am not a direct party of the side conversation, I might add “should we have one conversation, or would you be willing to switch seats with me so that you can continue your conversation?” I’m not shy about this, and encourage you not to be either.
Of course, if the group decides collectively that it’s ok to have multiple conversations, then that’s their prerogative.
If your group size is greater than 8, I suggest moving to other places at the table occasionally if practical. Why wouldn’t you want a chance to interact with everyone who attends? Don’t be afraid to get up, go somewhere else, pull up a chair, and say “So, what’s been happening with you folks since the last time we saw each other?”
Asking for Help is OK
In addition to enjoying each other’s company, we like to be helpful to each other.
It’s perfectly ok to ask “hey, folks, could I ask you about a problem I’ve been having lately?”. Unless it’s a life or death issue, though, it should probably not dominate the entire meeting.
Job searching is another common subject of discussion for helping each other.
Getting the “Weather Report”
A “weather report” is a short report from each person as to what they’ve been doing, important events that have occurred, issues needing to be resolved, and/or thoughts that have been dominating their mind lately. It’s called a “weather report” because it’s a report that should probably be no longer than a couple of minutes per person.
Different groups will have different preferences as to format and formality, but I like going around the group and getting weather reports. (To clarify, we have rarely done this but I have enjoyed it when we did.) It guarantees that each of us will have a chance to participate (on the giving side) and that each of us will be able to know what’s going on with all the others (on the receiving side). It doesn’t take too much time and can give clues as to anyone especially needing support or discussion, or having experiences of special interest and/or benefit to the group.
Sometimes the actions of a facilitator may be needed, to ensure that the meta is in sync with the wishes of the group. By meta, I mean observation, discussion, and, if necessary, realignment of the discussion itself.
There doesn’t necessarily need to be an assigned facilitator; these responsibilities can be shared by all.
Here are some examples of situations that might require facilitation:
someone insists on discussing the same subject long after the others have wanted to move on. It’s usually easy to see the discomfort of the others by the body language. There have been times when I’ve said something like “I see you’re really passionate about this, but we only get to see each other once a month and there are other things we’d like to talk about too.” That should work, but if it doesn’t, a more assertive approach might be necessary.
participation is very lopsided and two or three people are doing all the talking; and/or there are people who want to participate, and would have much worthwhile to contribute, but are not comfortable inserting themselves in the conversation. I might kiddingly say “we’ve heard a lot from [person x] and [person y], what do you others think?”
one person in particular is very quiet, but you have a feeling that they would like to participate, and their contributions would be valuable. I will sometimes point the group’s attention to that person by asking directly “do you have any thoughts about this?”. This has been very effective in helping quieter people feel part of the group, and elevating the quality of the conversation.
politics - unless you’re sure that everyone shares the same political opinions, discussing politics is risky. Passion turns to anger and the camaraderie of the group can be blown to bits. Be very careful about this.
Forming a lunch group requires so little effort but can be so rewarding. I hope you’ll give it a try.