Support Local User Groups

Sometime about 16 years ago, when I still had all my hair, I was the Digital Equipment Corp. central region RSTS support person. Most people today don’t remember old operating systems such as RSTS and RSX, or old hardware platforms such as PDP-11s, but they were wildly popular in their day.

Lots of customers actually ran production timesharing operations with 50+ users on 16-bit machines with CPUs less powerful than an Intel 386 with less than 1 MB memory. These systems cost at least $100,000 each, and the going price for dumb terminals to interact with them was roughly $1,000.

This is the part where us old folks usually stick out our chests and brag about the days when men were men and we had to walk 10 miles to and from work through blinding blizzards -- uphill both ways, of course.

Part of my job involved taking on problem escalations. These were usually the tough problems that needed corporate engineering help to fix. Although Digital had what I thought was a rigid hierarchy, I rarely followed it and generally called anyone I thought I needed to get things done. This was controversial, and I made a few managers mad, but I don’t think I would do much differently given the chance to do it all over again.

I remember a discussion I had one time with a group of engineers. One of my customers had a particularly nasty problem, and the engineers assured me the problem was something the customer was doing wrong. Their product had no bugs in that area, and I could confidently tell the customer the product was stable.

So I went back home and arrogantly told the customer the product was fine, because engineering told me the product was fine. A couple of months later, a patch came out from engineering to fix the very bug that I had assured the customer didn’t exist. This was one of my early tough lessons in humility. Never blindly take anyone’s word when they have an incentive to cover up a problem.

So why would anybody in late 1998 care about this little trip down memory lane? Because the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today’s technology is vastly improved in many areas, but human nature is still pretty much the same. Vendors -- and really, the rest of us -- still present a biased view of the world, and consumers should be wary of blindly listening to anyone with an ax to grind.

That’s why user groups are so important in our industry.

The idea of local user groups to get a bunch of people together, who really use the technology in the real world, to share ideas, swap stories and influence vendors. An active, vibrant user group can be a powerful tool for both customers and vendors. It’s powerful for customers because different people who use the same technology can swap ideas and techniques to solve problems in a mutually beneficial way. It’s powerful for vendors because it’s a wonderful opportunity to get real-world feedback from real people who really use the products.

The problem is that all good things come with a price. A vibrant user group depends on people who are willing to share time and information, and this is tough to do in today’s fast-paced world. Any user group is only as good as the people who support it.

Here in Minnesota, we have a local NT user group and a local Digital Equipment Computer Users Society (DECUS) chapter. I’ve attended a couple NT user group meetings and presented once. I found them to be informative and enjoyable. I’ve also been involved with our local DECUS chapter for several years.

If you can find a user group for NT or another technology of interest in your area, support it. Volunteer to deliver a presentation about that tough problem you solved last month. If you have a server lying around, host the Web page to publicize it. Get to know your peers and build a reputation for sharing liberally everything you know. It will be good for you, good for your community, and good for your company. Give a little bit and get a lot back in return. -- Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.