Last month I installed some educational software for my son on the home PC. I had to reboot the machine to complete the installation, but when I did, the machine wouldn’t boot.
This is the MATLAB Central landing page where users have been helping each other find answers.
The fix was easy. Rather than get on the phone to technical support or sift through pages of an official support site, I did a quick search on the error message and found a page written by someone like me who had run into this problem before. It wasn’t long before I was up and running again.
When it comes to fast, effective solutions to my real-world problems, the person I turn to is you. My online peers. People who have been in the same situation have, by far, the best track record at solving difficulties.
The world has changed. The Web is social, and even engineers are often finding that their most valuable problem-solving resource is a community of like-minded peers. This is certainly true of the MATLAB Central community. I was surprised a few years ago when I heard people say that MATLAB Central was the first place they went when they ran into a problem. I’m not surprised anymore. Now we hear from customers who are returning to the site several times a week, or even several times a day.
MATLAB Central is a website that serves the community of people who use MATLAB, Simulink, and other MathWorks products. It is the fastest-growing and nearly busiest part of the overall MathWorks website. It consists of four major sections: the File Exchange, where people upload and download code; a discussion forum called the Newsgroup; a place to share bookmarks and Web links called the Link Exchange; and a collection of blogs written by MathWorks employees.
Those of us on the MATLAB Central development team know that we’re serving a community that already exists; the site is not the community. When we launched the site back in 2001, MATLAB had already been available as a commercial product for 17 years. A dedicated community of users was already in place when we started. The main thing the MATLAB Central development team needed to do was respect what was already working. The File Exchange started as an FTP site where people traded files. It now hosts more than 9,700 files, with half a dozen new ones coming in every day. The discussion area grew from the NNTP newsgroup comp.soft-sys.matlab and is now a dedicated web portal for that newsgroup and has about 2,400 posts per month.
Removing Barriers to Access and Use
If your site already brings together like-minded peers, then you, as the creator, mostly need to stay out of the way.
Earlier this year we got an e-mail from a large engineering company in Europe. Using the File Exchange, engineers there had downloaded Professor Joe Sommer’s popular and well-reviewed POLYGEOM program for calculating centroids and moments of inertia. They liked it so much that they wanted to incorporate it into their own code and distribute it. Sommer agreed to apply the BSD open source license to his code in File Exchange, and engineers worldwide now have unlimited access to it.
In another move to improve access to community-generated code, The MathWorks built a gateway to the File Exchange from within MATLAB. In the latest version, you can search for and install community-sourced content without leaving the product—no browser required.
A Better Customer-Vendor Relationship
Communities are also changing the relationship between vendor and customer. Stuart McGarrity, a product marketing manager for MATLAB, often works with calibration engineers in the automotive space. A few years ago it became apparent that calibration engineers were frustrated that they couldn’t import some special data files (ETAS INCA files) into MATLAB. Rather than wait to add an INCA files importer into a general release, Stuart worked nights and weekends to create the MDF Import Tool. As soon as it was complete, he uploaded it directly to the File Exchange so that it could be used not only by the engineers he was in direct contact with, but by anybody in the world, all at no cost.
“I enjoy making things,” says McGarrity, “and this was an opportunity to work closely with the people who needed the tool.” He also notes that the File Exchange is “changing the relationship between the customer and the supplier. The resulting relationship is less formal. It’s such a great way to connect with customers.”
MATLAB Central acted as a low-hassle distribution channel, one in which McGarrity was effectively a peer with his customers. They understood the need, and he understood the product, but however it came about, the end result was a free and effective solution to a real and vexing problem.
The Power of Community
Communities emerge because people want to learn the lessons only peers can teach. They thrive because it’s great fun to participate, contribute, and stay in touch. Whether it’s finding cool MATLAB code, reading book reviews at Amazon, or rescuing my PC from a bad installer, I’m relying more and more on communities that put me in touch with people like me. I know from experience that I get better results when that’s the case. You, my peers, have helped me in the past, and you’ll help me again in the future. Which reminds me: Thanks!
Ned Gulley is part of the MATLAB development team at The MathWorks. Send comments about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.