With thousands of IT pros visiting on a regular basis, Microsoft newsgroups offer an incredible amount of support for techs that use Microsoft products. To help you make the most of this valuable resource, here are some tips on finding the information you need, posting questions, and using the newsgroups as a training tool.
To find out more information on how to access this tool through Outlook Express, read my previous article, “Tap into the expertise of Microsoft newsgroups.”
Search for existing information
Before you do anything else, take some time to search the newsgroups’ existing posts. It is likely that your problem has already been addressed, and the answer you need has already been posted.

Most newsreaders allow you to search both a message’s subject and body for keywords. Try searching the subject first, then the whole article. Searching the subject field is quicker and, on a slow Internet connection, searching message bodies can take several minutes. If your search doesn’t provide the information you’re looking for, try different keywords. Keep in mind that newsgroup posts are not edited or formatted.

Post your question
If you’re unable to find the answer you need, post your own question. You must then monitor the newsgroup to see if anyone replies to your post. Many people just “lurk” in the groups without ever posting. But anyone is free to post to these groups, so you shouldn’t feel intimidated.

Here are some hints for getting an answer to your posted question:

  • Give it a good subject line: Be clear and descriptive without being too long-winded. Use the 10-word version of your issue.
  • Keep to the point: Don’t start off with a two-paragraph rant about how much Microsoft sucks! Even if people agree, they will stop reading your post and move on, leaving your question unanswered.
  • Be clear and organized in your post: Explain how you got the error or how you found the problem. Be organized and present each step in a clear manner so that others can re-create your problem. Let them know exactly what you did and exactly when you saw certain error messages. This is very important. Without this information, others may not be able to help you. A post that reads, “I clicked a button, the screen changed, and then it died,” does not help anyone to understand your issue.
  • Include the text of the error message: Don’t write, “I got an error message.” Write, “I got an error message that read….”

Following these guidelines will not guarantee an answer, but it will increase your chances. Remember that the people who monitor and frequent these newsgroups are not paid to help you. But if you post an articulate, well-organized question, they will be more likely to provide an answer.

Excellent training tool
Newsgroups can also serve as a tutorial on products you are studying. I am currently a Most Valuable Professional (MVP) for Microsoft Project, which means that I monitor the newsgroups to ensure that questions are being answered appropriately. But I wasn’t always so proficient in Project.

Three years ago, when I needed to quickly learn Project, I started reading the newsgroups. When someone posted a question, I tried to figure out the problem. Then I waited for others to answer the post to see if my answer was similar to the ones posted. As my knowledge grew, I began posting my own answers.

The newsgroups are a great way to sharpen your skills regardless of the subject. Even if you already know something about a subject, you can still become more proficient by trying to figure out issues you see in the groups.

Start using the newsgroups!
Now that you’ve heard how useful Microsoft newsgroups can be, I hope you’ll add them to your bag of IT tricks. A word of warning though: Not everyone posting to the newsgroup is an expert. The newsgroups are a great resource, and most of the people who use them are genuinely interested in helping you. But you should still use caution when following a suggestion that might erase critical data or damage your equipment.

So what are you waiting for? Read a few messages, post a question or two, and see what you’re missing.
Do you believe newsgroups are a valuable troubleshooting resource? Have you solved a difficult problem using newsgroup advice? Post a comment or write to Brian Kennemer and share you newsgroup experiences.