REDMOND, Wash., March 27, 2001 — Don Dargel had a problem. Every time he tried to change the display driver on one of his companys Windows servers, he received an error message telling him the drivers weren’t installed properly. It may have been an uncommon problem, but Dargel chose an increasingly common way to solve it: He posted his problem in one of the Microsoft public newsgroups.
The free peer-to-peer support newsgroups — found at news://msnews.microsoft.com/ — are just one of many technical support offerings from Microsoft Product Support Services (PSS). Theyre an increasingly popular choice for IT professionals, computer enthusiasts and other Microsoft product users, who say they find the public newsgroups to be excellent sources for troubleshooting, tips and general advice related to Microsoft products. Indeed, posts to the roughly 1,400 newsgroups have climbed 20 percent over the past year, to a staggering 600,000 per month.
“Part of what makes the newsgroups so popular is the participation of knowledgeable people who consistently share their expertise and experience with others. Theyre so valuable that weve formally dubbed these individuals Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs),” said Janni Clark, program manager for Microsofts MVP program.
The MVP designation is a yearly award presented by Microsoft to outstanding members of an online Microsoft community. This year, the MVP program has more than 500 MVPs from more than 30 countries who respond to thousands of questions posted publicly each day in a variety of languages. While many MVPs have technology-related professions, many others work in non-technology jobs including artists, authors, teachers, police officers, fire fighters and doctors.
A Prescription for Success from MVP Terry Sherb
Within hours of Don Dargels post describing his driver problem, MVP Terry Sherb responded with the suggestion that Dargel install the driver while logged on using an account with the appropriate privileges. By day, Sherb is chief information officer for the California Healthcare Association. By night, he finds time to help other computer users who post their questions in one of the many Windows NT and Windows 2000 groups. In a recent phone interview, Sherb estimated that he spends 15 to 30 minutes each evening answering questions; in the background, his wife added that it was closer to an hour per night.
Sherb has been an MVP for four years. He began his association with Microsoft by beta testing a UNIX version of Internet Explorer. When Microsoft asked him to participate in the public newsgroup for that product, he agreed. “The biggest thing I end up doing is pointing people to the right technical resources,” Sherb says. “A lot of questions have already been asked and those of us who have been on the newsgroup for a while and involved with Microsoft technology know where the answers are. We can be helpful as guides to those with less experience.” For example, many MVPs refer posters to specific content in the Microsoft Knowledge Base, Microsoft TechNet, product documentation, other posts in the newsgroups and MSDN.
And the newsgroup, in turn, can be helpful to Sherb. He says that other posters can be the best resource for solving technology problems he encounters on his “day job” at the California Healthcare Association.
MVP Don Bradner is Going to the Dogs
Visual Basic MVP Don Bradner is going to the dogs, but hes not complaining about it. As the owner of the Arcata Pet Store on the northern coast of California, Bradner has found his status as a Microsoft MVP to be helpful in managing his pet supply store and launching an online version of the store. He uses Visual Basic to create custom software to manage everything from point-of-sale terminals to shipping and inventory, and the interaction with newsgroup participants has spurred many of his solutions.
Bradner does a lot more than offer free advice to participants in the Visual Basic newsgroups; he also makes some of his solutions — including graphics viewers, screen savers and a record-keeping program for bird breeders and keepers — available free for downloading from his Web site at http://www.arcatapet.net/ .
Bradner began participating in technology bulletin boards in the late 1980s. He came across some Microsoft-sponsored forums devoted to Visual Basic in 1995, and asked questions about developing software to help run his business. After actively participating in this Visual Basic community for a few years, Bradner became an MVP in 1998, and now responds to a wide variety of questions such as how to put a control on a form, or complex questions about graphics programming.
“My story is pretty typical: In the process of asking my question on the newsgroup, I found I could offer answers to others,” Bradner recalls. “But if I werent part of the MVP program, Id still do what I do in the newsgroups. MVPs dont do this for a paycheck — we dont get paid — but for satisfaction of helping others find the answers to their problems. MVP may be a Microsoft program but, to me, being an MVP is a state of mind.”
MVP Kalen Delaney is in a Charitable State of Mind
If being an MVP is a state of mind, its a particularly charitable one for SQL Server MVP Kalen Delaney. Delaney, an MCSE, MCT and technology writer for SQL Server Magazine and Windows 2000 Magazine, signs all of her emails with the phrase “feed someone for free today!” and a link to one of her favorite charities, http://www.thehungersite.com/ . Delaney and her fellow SQL Server MVPs donate the proceeds from their column on the SQL Server Magazine Web site — about $1,000 per month — to fight world hunger. Delaney is quick to credit fellow MVP B.P. Margolin with the idea for the donation.
When a newsgroup participant gets a response from Delaney, theyre hearing from the person who wrote the book on SQL Server — actually, who wrote two books on SQL Server. But the co-author of Inside SQL Server 7.0 and the author of Inside SQL Server 2000 is not resting on her laurels.
“It can be a challenge to stay on top of the technology,” says Delaney, who has been a SQL Server MVP for six years. “Ive already taken a beta class on SQL Server with XML and Im constantly doing research so that I can respond to posters who have a question in my specialty, which is SQL Server internals.”
Delaney finds time to answer as many as 30 questions each day on public and private SQL Server newsgroups. But she minimizes the significance of her own contribution, instead marveling at fellow MVP Neil Pike — “a superman,” according to Delaney — who sometimes answers 100 messages a day while commuting to work.
Community Spirit Makes Newsgroups More Effective
Windows CE MVP Marc Zimmermann, based in Essen, Germany, primarily covers the German language newsgroup for Windows CE. Like many other MVPs, he has been active in BBS peer-support for years. Zimmermann began helping in such forums in 1988, and became an MVP in 1995 after participating in a Microsoft beta program. These days, when hes not helping posters, Zimmermanns day job is writing in-house software solutions and administering an IT infrastructure for a small manufacturing company.
“Its my strong impression that the MVP program makes the Microsoft public newsgroups a more effective place for support, because it helps build a sense of community spirit,” Zimmermann says. “Also, we have links to Microsoft Product Support Services staff, so we can use their expertise to investigate nagging problems we cant solve completely on our own.”
Like all MVPs, Zimmermann says hes continually confronted with issues that havent come up before and that arent answered in technical resources such as the Knowledge Base or TechNet. “In a difficult case, you often need to give the user a hand and lead him or her through the process of troubleshooting,” he says. “This sometimes requires a couple of posts back and forth, but often fixes the problem in the end. The best part is that, in the process, the poster also learns something about troubleshooting that can be helpful the next time a problem comes up.”