Microsoft Online Support Groups Thriving
In the immediate aftermath of the Code Red and Nimda worms, many concerned Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 administrators turned to Microsoft’s online discussion groups for assistance and reassurance.
Some of them, like Windows NT administrator Tom Welch, found what they were looking for. “I jumped on the newsgroup … and found that we were not alone! There were others experiencing the same attacks at the same time,” he said, immediately in the aftermath of the Code Red I attack. “Although, this did not change the fact that I was being attacked, it did relieve me to know that people smarter than me were on the hunt for the fix.”
There is anecdotal evidence that Microsoft has recently increased its official presence in the discussion groups. While most users express satisfaction with the thriving community experience of Microsoft’s newsgroups, some also grouse that the software giant could be doing more to improve the quality of its own online support offerings. In particular, these users cite the still limited participation of Microsoft representatives in many discussion groups, along with what they perceive as an overall lack of qualified support personnel, as two areas that need improvement.
“A lot of the problems in their USENET area go unanswered by them,” complains John Selph, a network manager at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas. Still, Selph says, “If you are lucky enough to get a response (from Microsoft support personnel), it's usually well thought out.”
John Roberts, a LAN administrator currently employed as a contract worker assigned to Bank of America’s Windows 2000 migration, agrees.
“I would like to see [Microsoft] support personnel who are proficient –- i.e. [have] real-world experience -– in a particular [Microsoft] product manning the [newsgroups],” he asserts.
Microsoft’s initial dalliance with the online community occurred in 1993, when it sponsored several product-oriented discussion groups under the auspices of CompuServe Information Services. The rub, of course, was that CompuServe was a proprietary ISP, which meant that its discussion groups weren’t accessible via the Internet. In 1996, then, Microsoft announced formal plans to establish open Internet newsgroups.
Since that time, Microsoft says, company representatives have consistently monitored its discussion groups and have in some cases tendered assistance to users. Microsoft also confirms that it has assigned “dedicated leads,” employees with no other job functions, specifically to monitor many discussion groups. Company officials maintain that these representatives are taking a more active and visible role in problem resolution, as well.
“[Microsoft’s] online technical communities are thriving and there have always been Microsoft employees listening to customer feedback,” says Tom Moran, Microsoft’s director of global services automation. “Because of the ever increasing number of customers who are participating in the online communities, [Microsoft] employees are starting to also participate more actively.”
Although Microsoft refuses to confirm or deny whether or not it’s made an attempt to beef up its newsgroup presence in the post-Code Red timeframe, some newsgroup regulars say that responses from individuals who identify themselves as Microsoft representatives are more common today than they were as recently as six months ago.
“I think [that Microsoft has] increased their presence … in recent months, and that's only in response to complaints about security,” says Ouachita Baptist’s Selph. “They've hosted forums for user interaction for some time now, but you could never really bend a Microsoft employee's ear until just recently.”
David Dickinson, a Windows 2000 administrator with Evening Star Information Services, says that he began frequenting Microsoft’s IIS newsgroups in August 2001. Since that time, he notes, he’s seen “more involvement by Microsoft employees in the groups.”
And Luis de Barros, a Windows administrator with a Canadian health care network, speculates that Microsoft has concentrated specifically on reaching out to IIS administrators through its IIS-specific groups.
“I do find I see more Microsoft.com staff [on] USENET,” he comments. “My guess is that they've been sent to jump on the Microsoft USENET groups and do damage control and/or educate the masses in proper administration of IIS.”
Other Microsoft representatives, some with even more diversified responsibilities, are interacting more frequently in the software giant’s online communities, as well. Take for example Eric Schulze, a senior technologist with Microsoft’s trustworthy computing initiative and the manager of Microsoft’s HFNetChk.exe hotfix management project.
Two weeks ago, Schulze unveiled a new HFNetChk newsgroup (microsoft.public.security.hfnetchk). Since that time, he’s been a fairly regular contributor, and he even provides users with an e-mail address, email@example.com, to which they can address their concerns.
“I personally respond to each and every e-mail,” he says.
Microsoft’s dedicated support specialists aren’t its first, nor necessarily its most important, lines of defense in the online community, however. Since 1993, Microsoft has relied extensively upon the contributions of a core of volunteers dubbed Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVP). The group is charged with monitoring and, in most cases, assisting, users with questions. MVPs receive no payment for their services and are apportioned anew on a yearly basis.
There’s something else that you should know about MVPs – they’re survivors. On October 22, 1999, Microsoft announced plans to officially disband the MVP program. In its stead, the software giant proposed to staff its online communities with dedicated Microsoft support personnel.
“Due to customer feedback and requests for more direct Microsoft involvement, we are changing our newsgroups strategy,” wrote Joseph Lindstrom, Microsoft director of business development, at the time. “Effective 12/1/99, we will be moving to a program in which technical newsgroups are staffed by Microsoft support professionals.”
Three days later, following a frenetic weekend of online debate, the software giant bowed to an avalanche of public opinion, much of it from spurned MVPs, suggests Bank of America’s Roberts, and re-instated the MVP program. Since then, however, Microsoft has successfully introduced dedicated support leads whose job it is to monitor its product and technology discussion groups and work in tandem with MVPs to help resolve user problems.
Today, says Moran, MVPs work closely with Microsoft support leads, who in turn interact with the software giant’s various product groups. If users lament the lack of direct accessibility to Microsoft representatives, he continues, it’s by design.
“[Microsoft employees] partner with MVPs and act as their link to Microsoft as well as to outreach to the online technical community that the MVPs participate in. They act as liaisons for the MVPs to the product groups,” he says (See sidebar).
At the same time, Moran argues, Microsoft’s newsgroup point people are instructed to respond to user queries. “They are also there to help customers in assigned public forums [by] answering questions, correcting incorrect answers or directing customers to better online resources,” he says.
Moreover, says a Microsoft MVP who wishes to remain anonymous, MVPs are encouraged to identify specific employees who aren’t participating meaningfully in Microsoft’s online communities.
“We have been requested to make mention [if or when] we see Microsoft employees who are posting and could be doing so more meaningfully and helpfully,” he says.
Microsoft says that its MVPs undergo a comprehensive vetting process and that they’re selected as a result of the consistent and demonstrable assistance that they provide to its online communities. Veterans of Microsoft’s newsgroups say that the MVPs generally do a very good job, but some confess that they’d like to see the software giant assume a more authoritative role in the support process.
“I can't tell you how many times I've read something [on USENET] that I know to be wrong or just poor advice, so if you have someone from Microsoft stand up and say: ‘The correct step to take is this and here's the link to the KB article,’ then that benefits everyone,” comments David Montgomery, a Windows 2000 administrator and a regular of Microsoft’s IIS newsgroup (microsoft.public.inetserver.iis).
“I have nothing against the MVPs, but they are there on a voluntary basis, and sometimes they help, and sometimes they can't,” observes Bank of America’s Roberts. “However, having access to Microsoft support personnel would be a real help.”
Selph, Roberts and others say they’d even be willing to pay for increased access to knowledgeable Microsoft support representatives, preferably within the context of a subscription-based or private discussion group. “Paying a reasonable yearly fee might be a deterrent to [inexperienced users], and at the same time [would] provide a more professional venue for admins to go and get answers from Microsoft support people,” Roberts suggests. “Once again, I would like to see Microsoft employees here, not MVPs.”
When Microsoft employees do actively enter the discussion group fray, users say, they usually provide helpful advice.
“I am grateful for the support that Microsoft employees offer to … visitors to those groups who pose questions regarding the use of their products,” says Evening Star’s Dickinson. “Overall, I believe that the quality of support which Microsoft employees, as well as the support offered by other visitors to the groups which I frequent, has been good.”
The biggest problem, most users agree, is that Microsoft’s dedicated support personnel are spread pretty thin. For example, Jerry Bryant, who’s assigned as a dedicated lead to the heavily trafficked IIS-specific discussion groups, also functions as a lead in Microsoft’s busy Internet Explorer-specific discussion groups. Bryant receives a lot of help –- he frequently taps the expertise of Microsoft IIS support gurus such as Scott Stahlman, Ed Bowers, Abhuday Aggarwal, Dominick Roselli and several others –- but still functions as the primary liaison between both the IIS and IE user communities and Microsoft’s internal product groups.
Because of this, says Windows administrator de Barros, Microsoft’s newsgroup point people generally tackle the most difficult issues. “They generally don't reply to newbies' questions since users such as myself tend to reply to them,” he confirms, noting that when Microsoft product support specialists do respond to questions, they’re usually “quite helpful” and refrain from simply linking to knowledge base articles, “which is quite nice.”
And sometimes, says Hector Santos, CEO and CTO of software development firm Santronics Inc., it’s all in the way that you ask a question. Users who pose intelligent and well-articulated questions are more likely to get valid responses from MVPs and from Microsoft support representatives alike, Santos says. “I particularly learned how to post questions in such a way to help increase the odds of getting answers,” he says.
As far as general discussion is concerned, adds Evening Star’s Dickinson, Microsoft seems to tolerate a free exchange of ideas on its newsgroups, even when users express opinions critical of its products, services or policies. “I have on some occasions expressed views which are very critical of those policies, and their responses have been cordial and receptive, even if they were somewhat dismissive,” he says.
Microsoft’s stepped-up engagement with its online communities has born further fruit, of sorts, for administrators. In early September, Microsoft representatives began soliciting ideas for a series of “How-To” articles, the aim of which would be to provide a one-stop checklist for common Windows, IIS, Exchange and other platform-specific tasks. In response, users submitted dozens of suggestions.
By early November, Microsoft had published almost 100 “How-To” tips for Windows 2000 and IIS 5.0 to Technet (Click here to view the tips). The software giant says that it plans to add more tips as users submit them.
Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.