The Magnetism of Meetups

Rui Miguel Forte | Workable life |

Creating and nurturing a local community of professionals working in a particular field is a great idea. This realization is particularly relevant to those of us who live and work outside traditional tech hubs like San Francisco, Toronto or London. This is why the story of the first Athens Data Science Meetup has relevance beyond the confines of those of us who spend their days on machine learning. For starters, what kind of people show up to meetups and why.

The clock on my laptop tells me it’s 6:37 p.m. The image of my title slide on the big screen confirms that the projector is working. Another projector shows our Twitter feed. I’ve tested it more than once. Can you tell that I’m nervous?

I inspect the neatly arranged seats laid out before me, there are 80. I’ve counted them. Practically all are empty apart from a few early arrivals. But there are voices, more people are trickling in. I’m relieved.

I’d been toying with the idea of a meetup for over a year until I finally decided to take the plunge. So here we were, after a couple of months’ preparation, at the first Data Science Athens Meetup.

If you were being kind, you might use the word “nascent” to describe the meetup scene in Greece. We’d booked a spacious conference room at one of the handful of startup incubators in Athens. Pizzas and drinks were due to arrive towards the end of two carefully planned presentations, one of which was my own. Yet this wasn’t a typical evening of fun and relaxation. The highlight would involve Bayesian statistics. So the fact that 300 people had signed up seemed incredible.

Who were they and why did they care?

This is what I learned and I think it’s pretty much true for all meetups (a lot of people fit in more than one category):

1. Practitioners

  • Learn from experts
  • Maintain link with academia
  • Find others with whom to collaborate
  • Find professional mentors

2. Entrepreneurs

  • Find talent to hire
  • Find inspiration for a new startup
  • Learn about a new field from experts
  • Promote their own product or company

3. Researchers

  • Find applications in industry
  • Find collaborators for a paper
  • Learn about industry needs
  • Practice presentation skills
  • Get out of the lab!

4. Educators

  • Promote their school, program or seminar
  • Attract students to their research group or lab
  • Promote their research and published works

5. Students

  • Learn real world applications
  • Form study groups
  • Secure internships and industrial placements

Ten minutes into our debut event more than 100 people inundated the room. I left the event energized and very positive about what the future holds. For me, creating this community is really about enabling people to connect with each other outside the confines of their quotidian environment, be it corporate or academic.

Here at Workable, I am constantly inspired by the level of drive and intensity behind the engineers that work alongside me. Each of us strives to achieve immersion in our respective field, contributing to open source projects, organizing and speaking at events, winning competitions among other things. My own favorite related hobbies are teaching and writing. I’ve been teaching data science to graduate students at the Athens University of Economics and Business for three years now.

Last June, I also became a published author with my book Mastering Predictive Analytics with R. More of my colleagues, like our lead designer, Zaharenia Atzitzikaki, are also writing.

There’s a crucial element to professional immersion that I think some of us tend to forget. This is the importance of being active within an established forum of peers. No matter how great of an environment your workplace is, and how much personal effort you invest in your own development, there is a much larger community out there that can help you grow and progress in a myriad of different ways.

A credible local community

An overlooked aspect of meetups, however, is the creation of a credible local community. I’m willing to bet that Athens is probably not your first choice when you think of centers of excellence in a field such as data science or even technology in general. I am on a mission to change that. Now there are some other people with me on this mission.

Granted, much has to be accomplished in order for perceptions to shift but I believe that a vibrant and outspoken community that works together to share knowledge and opportunities can be a potential catalyst. With the help of startups like Workable, which incidentally sponsors our meetup, we can give back to the local community and encourage other startups to follow in our footsteps.

Last month Workable announced a funding round of $27m, raising the bar in product design, engineering and customer service within the human resources space. This achievement not only sets a standard for other startups here to pursue, it has also given many people hope. In our meetup, we’re taking this hope and turning it into a community that will inspire excellence while learning a lot in the process.

In our next blog post, we’ll look at how meetups make sound business sense and provide rich recruiting grounds.

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Rui Miguel Forte

Rui Miguel Forte was the Chief Data Scientist at Workable. He occasionally tweets as @rmforte.

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