“Where do you get help for laboratory informatics software?” is a question potential customers sometimes ask, but other consultants sometimes ask, too. Today, I saw someone on the LinkedIn LIMS/Laboratory Informatics group looking for StarLIMS help, which is what sparked me to write this blog.

Beyond the Help Desk

Anyway, if the answer was just, “Call your software vendor’s Help Desk,” there would be nothing more to say. These days, however, people expect and ask for more than that. Plus, there are those who are those people who work independently of the software vendors who are always looking for ways to get access to product information.

These days, software vendors offer a variety of tools to help their customers. These tools vary by vendor, of course. Some software vendors offer web-sites to download software updates. Some will have discussion groups where people discuss their problems and share code.

But the next question people ask me is, “Are these any good?” Well, it depends. If you’ve been active in discussion groups and other participation areas, you’ll know that some are quite good and, in others, you can post a question or ask for help and wait indefinitely for an answer, possibly never getting one. Some of these groups are quite active and you’re likely to get a quick answer to your problem. Others might not necessarily be active, but if the vendor’s staff closely watches for questions, you might still get a quick answer. However, some vendors have created these groups with a “build it and they will come” attitude and, unfortunately, the groups are neither active nor particularly useful. Ask other users of the software to find out how good these tools are.

Also, there are now a handful of LinkedIn groups that have been created that are product-specific. Some were created by the software vendor, others by individuals. First of all, LinkedIn groups are getting a bad reputation as places that are either useless because there’s no activity, or useless because they’re full of spam rather than appropriate information. Without a good moderator and a good plan for the group, these groups won’t be useful. Also, many software vendors are keeping their main groups in the places they originally started them, such as their own, private web-sites. As such, you want to be there, not in the LinkedIn group. What I’m saying is that you want to go where the activity is at. Don’t waste your time supporting and belonging to the groups that are merely afterthoughts.

Who Can Access These Tools?

As you’d expect, not everyone should expect to have access to these tools. When software vendors run groups for their software, they might only allow specific people to participate. Other software vendors allow only their own consultants, partners, and customers to participate. Also, although many public groups are now available for a variety of software, many just aren’t useful so, there’s just no point in being a part of them.

I will generally say this: Always ask the software vendor, first, for their list of places to get help and information. Often, theirs will be the best. If it does not appear sufficient or if you are not allowed access, that is when to look further.

But if you are not allowed to join, here is what I’ll say: As a person who is independent of the software vendors, I must find ways to resolve my questions, whether or not I have direct access to their tools. Because I’ve gone out of my way to meet and keep in-touch with people involved with the software I work with, I can find many ways to get my questions answered. Here’s another factor to consider – because I’m working with software where I’m already an expert, I have few questions to ask. As such, I don’t need to “bother” people very often. Thus, if I start asking people for help or publicly posting my questions, I can get people’s attention and help.

What if You Want Write Open Source Code?

If you’re going to write code using open source and you need support, check out the open source community ahead of time. See if you think it’s active and can answer your questions. You should be able to find others in that community who can tell you what their experience in that community has been like.

Gloria Metrick
GeoMetrick Enterprises