A Tale of Two Tech Helps

(Note: January 20, 2009. SolidWorks released Service Pack 2 on schedule and fixed the problem with the STL options dialog).

I recently had an opportunity to be both a tech helper and helpee. The incidents gave me cause to reflect on some advantages of a small company (like ours) versus a large organization. We have long accepted the fact that many potential customers have a visceral need for bigness. The drive is so strong that they are willing to pay a 200% premium to a company like Ansoft to get essentially the same functionality. Ansoft exudes bigness and apparently it works. I expect the impulse harks back to maximizing your chances of survival if the tribe from the other side of the mountain decides to attack.

I was a tech-help recipient for Solidworks. The people at Dassault kindly supplied us with a copy of the program so we could optimize the transfer of information to MetaMesh. I was quite impressed with Solidworks and it was surprisingly easy to learn. Following the tutorial, I quickly created a complex part and proceeded to export it as an STL (stereo-lithography) object (the import format of MetaMesh). At this point, things took a left-hand turn. I brought up the STL export dialog, changed a number of parameters to improve the output data and then clicked the OK button. Nothing happened. The only working option was Cancel. It seemed to be impossible to change the configuration from the defaults. At this point, I decided to spend about a couple hours engaging in the standard baffled-user activities:

  • Try the dialog over-and-over, pressing every possible combination of buttons.
  • Read the online help and attempt to follow the steps exactly.
  • Search the Internet for descriptions of STL export in SolidWorks, hoping that I had missed a step.
  • Search the Internet again for error reports.

When these efforts proved futile, the only alternative but to send a series of increasingly emotional E mail messages to tech help. When the response came, it was unusually thorough. I got a call from a representative who set up a time to take control of my computer. This was the only way find out why a feature that worked on every 64 bit machine in the world didn’t work on mine. After about 40 minutes of searching, the tech rep decided to check the dialog operation on his own machine. It had the same problem! He had never noticed it because he had never changed any of the dialog fields before clicking OK. In fact, the bug affected every copy of 64-bit Solidworks 2009 that had been sent out.

The people at Dassault are committed to resolving the issue. The way the problem will be fixed emphasizes the difference between a large and a small company. The tech rep had to plead his case to the design team so that the fix would be included in Service Pack 2. This is due sometime in January. I was advised to join the Extra Visibility program (i.e., beta tester), in which case I may get a fix sometime this month.

While I was working with Solidworks, we received a tech-help request from a purchaser of the 64-bit version of our new Aether package. The program was generating strange probe signals that didn’t look anything like the tutorial. It turned out that our 64-bit compiler was not nearly as forgiving as the 32-bit program with regard to conversion between real and double precision numbers. Everything had to spelled out explicitly. We fixed the problem, set up a download of the updated program for the customer and posted a bulletin on our news site, all within a couple hours.

The problems in both programs were typical software bugs. Program development involves hundreds of hours of testing. Every time you make what should be a minor and  harmless change, it is not possible to go back and repeat every test. To illustrate the challenge, suppose you wanted to plant a tree in your lawn. Seems simple. Dig a hole, put in the tree and rake things back together. But now imagine you had a very special kind of lawn. If you stepped on a particular blade of grass while you were planting the tree, your entire yard would disappear and probably your house too. Welcome to the world of software development.

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