Of Stone Tables and Communities
Here’s a fun tweet I picked up recently:
phoneboy.com has been here for more than 10 years, you might say? Well not the way this person remembers it.
And, of course, he’s right. A lifetime ago in Internet time, phoneboy.com was a different place. The most popular thing on it was an FAQ on FireWall-1, a product made by my current employer, Check Point Software. At the time, I did not work for Check Point, they didn’t have a knowledge base (at least that customers could access), and the product was MUCH simpler then. One person might actually be able to keep track of everything related to it
Since then, the product suite has grown substantially. Before, it was just firewall. Then VPN. Then Floodgate. Then a whole bunch of other add-ons (which have been renamed “Blades”), not to mention appliances, Provider-1, VSX, and now VE (Virtual Edition). Keeping it all straight, along with all the things that can go wrong, is a bit of a challenge.
So what does this have to do with Stone Tablets and Communities? A lot.
Back when I ran an FAQ on FireWall-1 on my personal website, I was (at first) using static web pages. Yes, I edited them in VI or using Netscape’s web page editor, depending on my mood. They were static documents that changed only if I decided to change them, either because of personal experience or because someone gave me updated information about the issue.
This is what I like to call the Stone Tablets approach (or Ivory Tower documents, if you prefer). Some wise person comes up with “the answer.” It’s written down, 10 commandments style and is considered gospel. It doesn’t change unless new information comes out (and the “wise man” decides to update it).
Note that this is pretty much how all knowledge bases operate, including Check Point’s SecureKnowledge and the Knowledge Base that I edited for Nokia’s Security Appliance Business.
Before the stone tablets were written, there was a community. At least in the Check Point world, this was mostly centered around the fw-1-mailinglist, which surprisingly, still exists today (albeit a shadow of its former glory). I got frustrated with the signal to noise ratio on the mailing list, so I created my own moderated list in July of 2000, which I eventually shut down last year. There is also CPUG.org, whom I donated the previous phoneboy.com FireWall-1-related content to during the summer of 2005.
The idea here–and the idea behind many of the attempted FAQ site redesigns I did before–was that communities were, collectively speaking, smarter than the stone tablet guys. Anything that would enable the community to “speak up” would, therefore, be a good thing. If I made my documents editable (or at least they would allow public comments), maybe others would contribute to their goodness?
The part I miscalculated, and the part I now understand after having been through a similar experience helping to build the Voxilla forums is that getting a community built around your site is a lot of work. For every 100 people that visit, 90 will participate mostly in read-only, 9 will participate occasionally, and 1 will participate often.
Those numbers are with forums. With Wikis and the like, it’s more like for every 10,000 people that visit, 9 will occasionally edit things and 1 will be a hardcore editor. In short, my attempt at being a sort of Wikipedia for all things Check Point was an abject failure and I let CPUG see if they could do better with forums.
Why Stone Tablets Are Hard, But Popular
I like stone tablets. A lot. Not because I’m religious–far from it, in fact–but because there is an indescribable feeling one experiences when they see their problem written down on a stone tablet along with a succinct solution. Customers often demand that their obscure problem be written down on a stone tablet–or a knowledge base or some other official document of the day–and made available for everyone to see.
The problem is that things change. That which made the content of the stone tablet true may have changed (e.g. a software upgrade). The guy who wrote the stone tablet may have been wrong in the first place. To make matters worse, the guru who knew about the topic may have disappeared or no longer wants to write things on stone tablets. There’s also people for which the older “truths” are still true (i.e. they’re still running the older software).
Mutable truth is the hardest thing to write on stone tablets. It takes ruthless dedication, an infinite amount of time and patience to extract the truth from those who know it, and of course, the ability to write it down in a coherent fashion. Few people have all of these qualities.
Will I Ever Do An FAQ Page on Check Point Products Again?
While I will never say never, my current circumstances make it highly unlikely I would undertake such a task again. At least independently.
At the time I started the FAQ page, I was doing technical support related to the Check Point product line, which at the time was FireWall-1 and SecuRemote. The main reason I started the FAQ in the first place was so I could keep track of the problems I solved so I didn’t have to solve them again. Granted, I started it with some content from my employer (a Check Point reseller), who had an FAQ page on FireWall-1. I took that content (with permission), updated it and put it on my own site. It ended up being a smart thing since that company got bought by another company who ultimately had nothing to do with Check Point.
In 2010, I work for Check Point. I am also a bit more removed from the realms of technical support. Check Point also has this thing called SecureKnowledge, which did not exist back when I started the FAQ page. SecureKnowledge contains many “stone tablets,” including the collection I wrote/curated during my 10 years at Nokia. While it is nowhere near my current job responsibilities anymore, I have written a couple of SK articles since I joined Check Point. I do consult with the SecureKnowledge team periodically on various higher-level things as well.