Time for tech-y talk

When the clock has struck midnight and the programming problem you’ve wrestled with all day is still unsolved, where can you turn for answers?

Tek-Tips on-line forums would like to be one destination. The site contains more than 800 professional forums where people can post questions and get free advice from other IT individuals. And posting queries to the site can save hours of time which may otherwise be spent on trial-and-error solutions.

The site was created by Plymouth, Mich.-based Tecumseh Group to help people by creating a buddy system for problem solving. Tek-Tips allows IT professionals to participate in confidential forums centred on their areas of interest, without intrusions from marketers or recruiters.

CEO David Murphy said people tend to gravitate toward areas they have an interest in. “If they can help someone out they do,” Murphy said. “So the Web site does tend to have people who are ‘net question-askers and ‘net question-answerers.”

He added the consensus among users is the more questions they answer the more they learn. Murphy noted most posted questions will have more than one response posted.

Members log into the site and then search the database for a specific forum. The forums are a series of questions and answers from members, and range from Microsoft Access to Novell to Javascript.

Murphy explained that the large number of forums means each member may only visit seven or eight. In order to help the other people on the forum, each member, when registering, must choose a professional description, such as Vendor, Programmer or IS Tech Person. The newest addition is Technical User.

“One of the main reasons to do that is, if you are in a forum and say you are a programmer but you have a question about Microsoft NT, then the IS folks tend to cut you a little bit of slack. They know you’re not a network guy, you’re a programmer who got stuck administering a network,” Murphy said.

He also noted that neophytes tend to shy away from the forums, leaving the field to the more technically inclined. “We’ve found that people coming on as Technical Users are pretty polite. They don’t really go to the Cisco Switch forum, and they shouldn’t. It’s not our job to tell people what Microsoft DCOM is or what ASP is. If people don’t know what it is already, they tend not to go into those forums.”

One user is Kim Christensen, an electronics technician with Victoria-based RadioWorks. Christensen said the site should bring in more users, as some of the forums don’t have a lot of activity.

He likes the ease of use on Tek-Tips and commented that it is user-friendly while having a good selection of features that can be toggled on or off. “I would definitely recommend it to others due to its relaxed atmosphere,” Christensen said. “As opposed to Usenet where newbies are flamed regularly.”

He normally goes to the programming forums and at the moment is answering more questions than he is asking. Typical questions in a programming forum could include, “Where can I find X information? Here is my program listing and what am I doing wrong? What is the best programming language to use?” according to Christensen.

Murphy added that another feature of the site is the ability to mark interesting threads. “This means every time there is another post on that thread, you get an e-mail.”

Tek-Tips is a very private site, Murphy said, in that employees stay out of the posting boards, unless there is a post that has been red flagged.

“If you see a post where someone is selling something, or there is something offensive on it, you can type a little post to Tecumseh Group and we will go check it,” he said.

He noted there are only one or two red-flagged posts out of 1,000.

The site was traditionally financed by banner advertising and private financing. However, Murphy stated they are now offering a service to marketers called Message Forwarding System, which gives sales people the opportunity to send a message to people in a specific post.

“It allows companies to target into specifically niched groups of technical people,” Murphy said, adding all messages have to go through Tecumseh Group first.

“It’s basically a query system of our database of members. We don’t ever tell them your e-mail addresses, but we allow them to scroll down to almost a focus group and then we will mail to them,” he explained.