When I was selling SolidWorks in the late ’90s, one of the big selling points was that SolidWorks had “community”, or whatever we called it back then. The “community” used to consist primarily of the USENET destination comp.cad.solidworks, but that has faded into irrelevance, replaced by forums and Facebook, and few rogue blogs.
On top of that, we had live local user groups. The live user groups started as just a bunch of resellers holding meetings after work, or during lunch. That evolved into users starting to take the reins of unconnected groups throughout the country. Eventually, the company started to get involved, and this made things better for a while, then like everything else, the bigger the organization, the more often it fails to connect with real people.
A real community of users is one thing that I think Solid Edge really needs in order to capitalize in the current shift in momentum in the CAD industry. I’m not saying that Solid Edge has to make everything look exactly like SolidWorks in order to succeed, in fact, there are some useful lessons SE could learn from SW failures and shortcomings. Let’s take a look at the various aspects of community Solid Edge already has in place and which areas it might need to develop.
Solid Edge has an on-line community that appears to be driven by Siemens PLM, the larger organization that includes NX, TeamCenter, and some other things such as Femap, eFactory, I-deas, and some others. Usually you would think that’s a recipe for something that’s not-so-good, but I’ve got to say I’m impressed with the flexibility of the option they have chosen.
The Siemens PLM forums are called the GTAC Support Forums, and the software underneath is vBulletin. GTAC is Global Technical Access Center, and is the organization responsible for providing support for Solid Edge, along with other Siemens PLM products.
I haven’t checked all of this out personally, but I understand that you can read the GTAC forums using an old-school news reader. My ISP has dropped support for news servers, so I would have to pay extra for access to SuperNews to test this out. If I were a regular on the SE forums, I would certainly find a way to make use of this option. News readers are a lost art, and can be configured to sort through a lot of information to bring you what you want to hear about. It’s a great option with GTAC that I haven’t seen elsewhere.
Another option is Tapatalk. You can use Tapatalk on both Android and iPhone, in addition to BlackBerry, which is a huge benefit. It is essentially a mobile forum reader app. Accessing GTAC through Tapatalk looks like this screen shot to the right.
The reason why I haven’t accessed GTAC through USENET is that access is considered a benefit of subscription. Karsten was nice enough to get me access to the main forum, which I have to admit has a very nice Solid Edge section. But to access through USENET requires some special codes. This part of the GTAC forums bothers me a little bit. I understand that the forums are considered a value-add part of the subscription service. But the content on the forums is pretty good. It’s not like there is a lot of stuff up there that PR people would want to hide. I mean there are complaint threads here and there, and some of them get rather involved, but really, the majority of conversations are positive. It’s a nice forum. Very informative. I asked a question one time, and got several very helpful answers. I searched for answers a couple of times and found answers sitting there just waiting to be discovered. So it’s valuable. It may not be as active as the SolidWorks forums, but the percentage of people who I would call “expert” is certainly a lot higher on the Solid Edge site.
I’m not sure what I would have SE do regarding making the forums more widely accessible. Maybe non-subscription people could have read-only access. In order to ask your own question or participate in a conversation would require subscription. I don’t know. I just know that the forum is valuable enough to be an asset – a sales tool if you will.
There is also the Eng-Tips engineering forums site which has a Solid Edge section. I tend to avoid Eng-Tips. I’ve been kicked off the site more than once for simple things like describing how to get started as a CAD contractor. (They felt I was advertising my business, which is apparently a kick-you-out-able offense.) They are a bit overzealous with the moderation, and my experience was that the information was very one-sided because they didn’t allow a rounded conversation, and people are so busy competing for gold stars. Anyway, not a big fan.
And of course on-line means so much more than just forums. I’m a bit of a Twitter and Facebook cynic, but if you’re looking to keep up on the latest happenings, you definitely need to keep an ear to the ground in Twitter. Facebook too lists major events and things you want to know. I admit to actually quitting Facebook two years ago, and Twitter to me is just a bunch of exhibitionists, attention addicts, and marketing people shouting inane banalities into the great void. But that’s just my opinion.
Live User Groups
Live user groups are a thing I have heard of with Solid Edge, but not a whole lot. I’m sure they exist, but I’d like to learn more about them. The thing that’s hard about user groups is getting people to lead them. I’ve started or helped start at least a dozen user groups from New York to Florida. Some of them I started from a distance with the help of a local contact, and some I started myself as a local or semi-local resident. Getting a group going is a matter of having a good leader, getting the word out and having some sort of an interesting draw. Keeping a group running takes consistent meetings, always offering something of value, and not burning yourself out. Mostly, each group needs a driving force who can connect with what the users want, but still be able to deliver something (technical presentations) without much (or any) help. Usually in a group of say 20 people interested in CAD, you’ll have at least one person willing to step up and take some responsibility for leading the group. If you are just leading the group and taking care of logistics, it requires maybe 5 hours of time per meeting. That’s making arrangements for a meeting place, arranging for food, getting a speaker, making sure you’ve got the proper technology (laptop with software, projector), and coordinating the publicity effort. If you’re the one giving presentations, it might take about the same amount of time to write your presentation and more if you have to prepare special models. Coordination of food requires a phone call a couple hours before the meeting, and maybe a pick up and delivery.
Doing the publicity for the first meeting is the hardest. You might have to make a couple of big emails through a reseller, or whoever has the local customer list. This is the part people get touchy about. Customer lists are things sales guys will not part with, and will certainly not want to share with anyone who might give them to a competitor. This was a major failure point for SW, since they created this nasty environment between resellers, and they would sometimes not cooperate with user group efforts because some felt it was giving away something they should charge for, and also felt that competitors were scalping customers. Solid Edge could easily improve on this sort of thing, and get some great participation from customers and resellers.
To make a single meeting work takes a few hours effort from a handful of individuals. Each group can determine if they want to meet once a month, every other month, or quarterly. User group meetings can be a great source of information, local contacts, and for some people a leadership resume builder. Confidence in public speaking as well as some leadership and organizational skills are valuable entries on your resume.
Solid Edge University
The idea of having a large central gathering of Solid Edge users once a year is a great idea. It’s like a national or international user group, and your presentations are like a who’s who of Solid Edge tech experts both from the company and a MVP list of “civilians” from local user groups. While I’m aware of the greatness of the internet, there is nothing like meeting with people who are like you and not like you to share techniques, concepts, tips, and all sorts of ideas. This sort of event creates relationships that span the globe between developers and end users, and are continued on-line. The value comes both from technical information that helps you do your job and also from the connections with other people that you form.
Solid Edge University is a bargain compared to other CAD conferences. It’s probably a little less like a Disney vacation, and a little more like a CAD conference. I wasn’t at last year’s event, but I followed it closely. I definitely has some fun, it’s not all work, but it will certainly be worth what you spend on it. I’m looking forward to being at this year’s event. For those who can’t make it, I’ll report as much as I can.
This year, I’ll be interested to see how many non-users show up to SEU. I think a lot of people are going to be evaluating new CAD systems, and in particular Solid Edge is one of the options with the most potential out there. SEU will be a great place to evaluate SE – better than a sales demo, and more varied than a training class.
So, as Solid Edge (the product) continues to grow, one thing that Solid Edge (the company) can do to push it along is to allow the community to propel it and give it momentum. In order to do this, the community has to be as open as possible. Blogs like this one are a great step, and of course you can’t ignore all the rest of the social media venues out there. But in the end, it’s all about people. Whether those people meet face to face, or by shouting into the void every time they get a cup of coffee, it’s still just about people.