Philly Creative Guide

Guest Columnist

Robert Hall

A Personal Experience with Philly-Based User Groups
by Robert Hall, 1 Feb 2006

Rob Hall is a Philadelphia-based independent contractor and consultant specializing in web, kiosk and mobile device development through the use of the Adobe Flash Platform (Formerly Macromedia). Check out his website and personal blog at www.impossibilities.com/blog.


On January 1st 2000, the first day of the new millennium, I packed up as many of my belongings that would fit into and onto my car (bungie cords are your friend) and drove with my girlfriend Melissa from Fort Lauderdale to Philadelphia. Just under 1200 miles and 24 hours later I arrived in Philadelphia. My original plans had called for me to stay for a few months and see if our relationship would blossom. It did, and on May 15th, 2004 Melissa became my wife. I have been here for 6 years now and Philadelphia has become my new home. I really enjoy living in this part of the country.

When I moved here from South Florida, I knew absolutely no one in the area other than Melissa. None of my own family, friends or professional colleagues, not a single soul. I was too busy the first few months discovering Philadelphia and developing my relationship with Melissa to really notice the impact of being so far away from everyone I knew and all the comforts and convenience of my old home town. After a few months it did finally hit me, I missed the support of my friends and family - at the same time I also realized I would probably be staying a bit longer than I had originally planned. In order to stay, I accepted a full time position doing web application development for a local bank. Having just left Citicorp in Fort Lauderdale, this was an easy transition and I made a few friends through this first job and started to feel at home. I still miss the warm Florida beaches compared to the Jersey shore, but hurricanes I can do without.

Philadelphia Skyline from Camden

A large part of my focus and daily work at my first job in Philadelphia revolved around utilizing Macromedia Flash, which I had been using for a short while down in Florida. My background had been in computers and artwork and I had been doing prepress and printing design for the previous 8 years, it was only recently in 98/99 that I had started using Flash. It was still at version 4 for a little over the first half of 2000. I was also using a new product Macromedia had released called Generator. Generator allowed dynamic server side integration of data directly into Flash. At the time, Flash 4 had a very basic set of scripting commands (ActionScript) and had just introduced the concept of pulling in data from the web and integrating it into your animations and designs. Generator allowed even greater integration of data into Flash projects and allowed Flash designers to begin building real applications. We utilized this combination to make a full blown online bank account interface completely in Flash. This was the very beginning of RIA's (Rich Internet Applications) that we know of today.

At the time there wasn't a great deal of documentation and examples available at the time, so I turned to a lot of online resources for hints, tricks, tips and to simply share and collaborate on information and techniques for using Flash with other developers. Flash 5 was released later that year and introduced a much richer far more advanced version of ActionScript, the floodgates opened. I began to get very involved in many of the online mailing lists, and virtual communities that evolved around Flash. I ended up writing some articles online and got involved with some publishers and contributed some chapters to a few books for the next release of Flash, Flash MX. My job at the bank had even evolved into a spin-off company where I was again focused on using Flash in new unique ways for user interface applications. Here was this great tool I was basing my career around, enjoying every minute of it, and every day it seemed to be opening new doors for me. I was meeting new people and making friends all because of this one piece of software. I had been involved in the printing industry for over 7 years prior to this, and been involved in computers in some form or another since 1984 - and in all that time, I had never seen such an active and enthusiastic community develop around any one piece of creative software. Adobe PhotoShop and QuarkXPress user bases came close to the fervor, but compared to the conferences, creativity, activity and projects surrounding Flash that I was experiencing, they truly paled in comparison. The utilization of both left and right hemispheres of the brain - being able to design, and program and intertwine together along with the delivery medium of the web was just too fascinating and exciting not to be a part of it. I had serendipitously found a new focus for my career in technology.

In June of 2002, I was in NY attending a FlashForward conference - FlashForward had become the defacto conference and industry get-together for Flash designers and developers. I had accepted an award at one, been a presenter at several, and always try to attend them to this day. It was there in June of 2002, that I ran into to two local Philadelphians who ran the Philadelphia Flash User Group, Bill Ristine and Jason Marziani. They introduced themselves and mentioned how they had read some of my articles and my blog and invited me to speak at one of their upcoming meetings. They were very friendly, and it was really nice to meet someone from my new hometown. I was excited to take them up on their offer as Macromedia had made it easy for me to come up with plenty to talk about. They had just released a new product call the Flash Communications Server for online collaboration, video, chat and realtime multiuser applications in Flash and I prepared a presentation on this new product. I went to their next meeting and really enjoyed getting to meet other local Flash developers. That August I gave a presentation to their group on the topic of using Flash for business applications, some of the projects I was working on revolving around ATM machines, Pocket PC's, and banking applications as well as Flash Communications Server. I was able to demonstrate a realtime collaboration system for video, audio and text chat with several Macromedia employees appearing virtually from across the country to the user group. It went really well. From that meeting on, I attended as many of the meetings as I could, and eventually became friends with many of the other regular attendees. It was great getting to know others in the area with similar interests, jobs, skills and passions.

Philadelphia Museum and Waterworks

Over the next two years I became even better friends with Bill and Jason, and they actually handed over the reigns of the group to me in October of 2003. I have been the manager since that time. I have really enjoyed getting to meet the varied members and attendees that come to the meetings, trade emails and share experiences and techniques and new ideas with everyone. I have learned a great deal from the various members of the group, and have learned about other local technology and professional groups in the process. I have worked with Steven Rittler the manager for the local Philadelphia ColdFusion User Group on joint meetings in the past and I have met quite a few other local professionals in the area in a variety of disciplines. PANMA meetings and Eastern Technology Council meetings have been great resources as well. Prior to moving to Philadelphia I had been involved in a handful of professional groups in Florda, the EDA - Electronic Design Association, the local Fort Lauderdale Art Guild, and Broward Counties ArtServe, all groups focused on art and design for creative professionals. Once I realized the opportunities for making new friends and professional contacts and learning new ideas and skills, collaborating with others and just seeing what others in the same field were up to, I was hooked.

The past few years I have worked with several small startup companies in the Philadelphia area that have also offered plenty of opportunities for networking and developing business relationships. I can say that the most fruitful and satisfying opportunities for me personally have all stemmed from individuals I have met through local user group meetings and attending conferences. I can't recommend strongly enough how useful both personally and professionally attending local user group and professional association meetings can be. You may also be pleasantly surprised by attending a meeting.

In the Philadelphia area there are a number of local user groups that meet regularly on a variety of topics from small business needs to specific software applications. I would encourage anyone reading this article to investigate the local groups, and if there isn't a group that fits your particular interests, start your own group. The local main Philadelphia library branch has a great meeting place for groups that qualify. Even just organizing a few friends to get together at a Starbucks or Panera Bread company or your own favorite local meeting place is a great start that could lead to something really big.

For those of you whose interest I have piqued, please take a look at the list of user groups in the Community Links section of the Philly Creative Guide.

Another great resources is the Philly Groups Community Calendar and Group Listing for an additional list of local Philadelphia area groups: http://www.phillygroups.org/community/GroupDirectory

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