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The FoxPro Community

Yair Alan Griver, Alan Schwartz and Lisa Slater Nichols

One of the most valuable assets for anyone who cares about FoxPro can't be found in the technology. This month we're not talking about screen painter tips, optimization techniques or other nuts-and-bolts issues. Those things are important, and will continue to be a focus of our columns. But there's one resource that separates working with FoxPro from every other product in the market, and it's not a technical virtue or flaw. It's the broader social infrastructure known as the FoxPro Community.

An extraordinary spirit infuses many of the people who work with FoxPro, and it is expressed in many forms. Its most obvious locus, among many, is the heavily-trafficked Foxforum on Compuserve. Beyond that, a rich tapestry of 3rd party materials -- books, magazines, newsletters, user-group notes and other written commentaries document the dense weave of experiences of folks who wander into FoxPro's labyrinthine logic. There are user groups all over North America, with many more anticipated worldwide as FoxPro is localized for release in non-English versions. (At least ten languages are now in the works.)

In addition to this wealth of widely-distributed material, Fox-centric database workers can actually gather face-to-face at conferences. The "Super Bowl" level is the annual FoxPro Developer's conference. It began unpretentiously in Toledo Ohio with 500 Xbase developers seeking refuge from the bugs, slow execution, and abysmal technical support provided by Ashton Tate for its dBASE III. This homegrown techno-fest has mushroomed into a media extravaganza with a population exceeding 2,500. It's now a big-budget Hollywood event, complete with video crews, glitzy parties, and fireworks.

But bigger isn't necessarily better, as has been amply demonstrated by well executed regional conferences produced in Minneapolis, Toronto, and the mid-Atlantic states, just to name a few. These modestly budgeted shows have demonstrated that grass-roots organizations can tap right into the trunkline of the FoxPro Community too.

Is it some quality of the software that spawns such a maniacal following with an insatiable appetite for technical trivia? Although FoxPro is a product with nearly infinite depth to solve data management problems, mastery extracts a price -- you have to dig ever-deeper into a dizzying array of techno-minutiae. But thirst for technical information alone is insufficient to explain the momentum this social phenomenon has accumulated.

What makes the hubbub surrounding FoxPro unique is the growing substrate of human interconnectedness underneath all the activity. Literally thousands of us have actually come to know one another -- both on a professional and a personal level, through our mutual fascination with this product. When you see a new FoxPro book appear on your local bookstore shelf, you might actually have some firsthand experience with its authors -- their approach, their technical style, and the flavor of their communication. If you don't, you will likely be able to find someone at a local user group who does know them, has seen them present a session, teach a class, or engage in a Compuserve "chat".

In the Beginning...

The obvious question "How did it all begin?" is at the same time interesting and irrelevant. One of the unique qualities of this particular community is that it doesn't really matter when you connected -- nobody cares much about seniority here. If you have a contribution to make, some knowledge you're willing to share, you'll fit right in. Community begins for each person in a different way at a different time -- the point where they first connected to the larger community of FoxPro (or FoxBase) users.

Those of us who had bet our careers on Xbase applications had grudgingly become accustomed to Ashton-Tate's indifference to our real needs. Fox Software earned powerful loyalty by providing a fast, reliable, high-value product, blue-ribbon tech support, and a genuine "real-folks" spirit. They'd even shipping you new disks the next day if you reported a bug.

The homespun image projected by the original Fox Software gang fit right into a classic American story line -- everyone loves an underdog. When we first began working with FoxBase, the company claimed to have six employees. (They didn't mention that one was out on maternity leave, and one was a part-timer.) This was the classic David vs Goliath story of the software industry. We all know who gets the crowd sympathy in that matchup.

Fox painted itself into a tight corner by promising to release FoxPro 1.0 at Devcon #1. When the product wasn't quite done, they turned lemons into lemonade by giving out beta .99 to everyone at the show. The crowd cheered when Dr. Fulton declared "we'll ship it when you tell us it's ready."

This was a heartwarming contrast to the contempt Ashton-Tate had shown for its developers. Every attendee seemed to be infused with team spirit. Fox thus recruited the largest, most enthusiastic beta test team the Xbase market had ever seen.

By the time FoxPro 2.0 entered beta, Foxforum was already bubbling with activity. Fox decided to run the beta program on a Compuserve forum as well. This practice has now become commonplace in the software business but, at the time, it was a unique and revolutionary approach. Free access to Compuserve allowed us to experience our vendor and our peers in a new, generous partnership. FoxBeta quickly became "the place to be", a place of warm hospitality and hard work, as it hosted an intense group effort to build the best FoxPro yet -- a globe-spanning "barn-raising" party.

By the end of the beta, there were hundreds, possibly a few thousand people hammering on the product daily and passionately relating their bug reports, pet enhancement requests, workarounds and opinions on the beta forum. The upside was the creation of a "global village". We made friends with folks that we'd never met during that process -- not a big surprise, as we were spending more time with some of them than we did with our "real" friends and family. The downside was exclusivity -- necessary, of course, for a beta testing effort, but it was like a huge private club, replete with all the gossip and intrigue of any social structure with "in's" and "out's".

But in the end, it had to dissolve when FoxPro 2.0 finally shipped. Literally hundreds of beta testers had been transformed into "Foxforum junkies" and immediately switched their point of reference to the public Foxforum. It was like spores being shot out of a seed pod. Forum traffic skyrocketed, and Foxforum emerged as one of the most active areas on all of Compuserve.

After so much intense communication on the forum, wandering around at a Developer's Conference takes on a whole new quality. It's like meeting a bunch of old friends, except in this case you don't recognize their faces. You know them, yet you can't recognize them -- until you read the name on their badge. Then there's that moment of recognition -- "so you're Joe Schmidt!" -- amazing to experience that you can become really close to someone whose face you've never seen. This experience cements many of the connections established in this unique global community.

At its essence, the FoxPro community happens whenever and wherever FoxPro users and developers gather. We've had experiences where we are welcomed into the homes of people that we've never physically met, but that we know intimately from Foxforum. What's the magic? It's very simple: the chemistry that happens when people are willing to help each other. Whenever it arises spontaneously, it's an irresistible attraction. Community is a rarer and rarer phenomenon in our world, and everyone is hungry for it. In particular, application development and programming is a solitary, often lonely endeavor. The Foxpro community provides a safety net -- reassurance that if you get stuck, you're not alone.

Microsoft Eats the Whole Enchilada

The FoxPro Community represents a huge enigma to Microsoft. On one hand, it can be seen as one of the most valuable assets they acquired when they purchased Fox Software. There's nothing else like it in the software business. No doubt, they'd like nothing better than to examine it under the microscope, find out what makes it tick, and apply the formula to all their other products. If only fan clubs could be manufactured like CD's.

On the other hand, dealing with a vocal, organized group can be a real pain. When there are things to complain about, the complaints seem magnified, since they're dealing with a group, not a disjointed collection of individuals. No software is perfect, and FoxPro is no exception. We're all playing the balancing act of being as critical as necessary to draw Microsoft's attention to important problems, yet as supportive as possible "in public" to help FoxPro gain share of mind.

Some Microsoft folks are quick to point out that Compuserve represents only a small fraction of FoxPro users. User group membership represents only a small fraction of FoxPro users. FoxPro Advisor subscribers represent only a small portion of FoxPro users., etc. So when the community phenomenon is inconvenient, one way of minimizing its importance is to marginalize it. Nevertheless, more and more FoxPro users are tapped in somewhere, formally or informally. We wish that we had that share of mind for our products!

Storms on the Horizon

It's important to bear in mind that this asset which makes it so much fun to work in FoxPro is a precious and perishable quality -- subject to disintegration and decay. There are numerous forces at work at any time which can divide and dissolve the strong sense of loyalty among the user community.

First, Microsoft's message about FoxPro has been less than consistent. How does it fit with Access and Visual Basic? What is Xbase's place on the Microsoft desktop? How much do Microsoft reps actually know about FoxPro and what it is best used for? Is it part of Office? Should it be? What's the connectivity strategy? Will we all have to learn BASIC?

Then there's the effect of the big bucks. Once upon a time, people associated themselves with the Fox community because it felt good. But now, with the sales volumes up, everything has become more competitive. Some folks want to share, and some folks want your chips. Some folks see that as the market gets larger, everyone's share grows. Others think the only way to prosper is at your expense.

Getting recognized has financial rewards as well as personal ones. Speaking at all these events has built a group of mini-celebrities. But all that eats up time, which is then unavailable to building applications, growing a company or even visiting occasionally with your family. We've all gotten overcommitted at one time or another, and something has to suffer. There have been some disappointments, and there's been some growing up to do.

Then there's Microsoft's institutional equivalent of the Fox Community -- it's called the Solution Provider Program. When the merger was first announced, it seemed like Solution Providers was a great way to get exposed to a larger market via Microsoft's giant marketing machine. Later, it became a confusing melange of applications and offerings filled with confusing overlap -- each with a price tag attached.

Finally, there's been the incredible growth of the community itself. With new people have come new opportunities and the need to grow in understanding and in helpfulness. Rumblings of a "clique" on Foxforum come about occasionally. People often feel intimidated to jump into a group that has built up its own "in-jokes", jargon and personalities.

There are many flavors of user groups, too. Some take pride in being "real techie", while others are geared more for novices. Some actively recruit "big-name" experts to come for presentations, while others purposely steer clear of headliners to give local members a chance to show their own substantial expertise. Some eagerly welcome 3rd party product presentations and offers, while others actively look to "protect" their members from being "preyed upon" by outside vendors. Some have very close and supportive relationships with local Microsoft reps, while others have none at all, or may actually distrust Microsoft.

Clearly there's a lot of latitude here. There are no guidelines or rules about how a user group is run. But in most locales, there'll be just one option. A few bigger municipalities may offer two or more choices. There no one formula that suits everyone.

What can we do to build on this sense of community without alienating others?

1. We must remember that people are naturally shy, nervous about joining what is perceived as an "in" group.

The phenomenon known as "lurkers" on CompuServe -- members who read the threads but don't articulate their problems and don't participate in discussions -- exists not just on Foxforum but in all parts of our community. Along with natural shyness and hesitation about acceptance into a clique, people often lurk because they are afraid they'll sound foolish. (Consultants, as a rule, consider it a cardinal sin to admit there's anything they don't know, whether to peers or to clients. It's part of our personality type.)

2. Closely knit groups tend to develop their own jargon. While this often builds a "sense of belonging", it alienates potential new members, and makes it hard for them to share their fresh insight.

Backed by Microsoft's marketing muscle, FoxPro is reaching new audiences, and these new people approach FoxPro from all angles. They're mainframers, Windows programmers, Mac developers, and more; they have a wealth of experience they can share with us, but they may know very little about Xbase or our special FoxPro brand of Xbase. They have tremendous personal investments in what they do know, and they may have difficulty asking us clear questions about what they don't understand.

In our critical first communications with newcomers, we should avoid jargon peculiar to FoxPro, which may confuse even sophisticated programmers from other environments. Instead, we should strive for common language and concepts, to affirm that their leap forward into FoxPro doesn't devalue their intuition and their years of experience in the business.

Remember that while these newcomers may be ignorant in the specifics of our hard-earned but narrow skillset, but they're unlikely to be stupid -- and that, if you need their help getting FoxPro to talk to one of their home environments, your assumptions will face similar challenges.

3. Conference organizers have to understand that FoxPro conferences are for the benefit of the attendees.

We want to spend time together, exchange technical information, jokes, and make contacts. It isn't necessary to put these conferences in resort locations with its concomitant high prices. There is no reason why a conference should cost $1000 to attend. The reason for conferences is to disseminate information - not to make a killing. The fact that user groups put on conferences that cost under $450 should show that it is possible. Speakers have always been willing to donate their time and efforts to these shows. The thirst for knowledge has been incredible, and fuels the whole community -- there is no reason to take advantage of it.

4. Microsoft must continue to reduce the number of programs they provide and adapt the Solution Providers Program and others so the needs of FoxPro developers are better served.

We can help shape the Solutions Providers program into an asset that sustains and enhances our sense of FoxPro community, while still benefitting Microsoft. The company would gain a larger network of experts and evangelists who understand, support, and help sell their products. Developers who participate in the program gain significant identity, as people who are constantly improving their skills and awareness of new technology -- not just as people who have paid Microsoft for a logo.

But this will take some serious work, and Microsoft needs our input to get there. The range of programs should include low cost ones that disseminate technical as well as high-level market-positioning information. They should also include mechanisms to encourage the prosperity of businesses that wish to be associated with these programs -- if the principals of those businesses choose to do so.

5. People should be supported and encouraged as much as possible when they pitch in to help others. This provides the fuel that energizes the whole community. This is seen on Foxforum and on various BBS's around the world. Join your local user group and help out.

FoxPro has become an international phenomenon. Although its not popular in mainstream MIS departments in the US, in many other countries it is the tool of choice for low-cost, high-profile development. Boris Yeltsin's finance runs FoxPro, and the World Bank is building Byelorussia's income tax system in it, too. But users in some locations haven't gotten organized to help each other yet. If your area doesn't have a user's group, start one! You may be able to find users nearby, using a BBS or a local computer publication to gather members. Microsoft may be able to help you find your FoxPro neighbors too; check with Jon Sigler at (206)936-3936, CIS 72233,3011, or Internet: jonsig@microsoft.com. What you get back is much more than what you put in.

6. 3rd party products play a unique role in strengthening the vitality of a PC database product.

Add-on products increase user functionality, provide efficiencies, and lower the biggest risk: the huge cost in personal time invested to surmount the learning curve of a sophisticated development environment. The health of this aftermarket reduces the risk of commitment to a platform by reinforcing the market message that FoxPro is a stable, viable and reliable choice.

The 3rd party saved dBASE nearly singlehandedly. It is having a big impact upon Visual Basic, and at can have a similarly high impact upon FoxPro's success.

3rd party developers can work to provide more functionality to their customers by exploring ways their products can work together.

3rd party vendors can contribute to community, too. They can make reduced price discount offers through user groups as a membership benefit. They should provide support on Compuserve as well as by phone, so that everyone interested can benefit from the interchange.

In Conclusion

By remembering that we are a community when we do act, we have the option to invest our time to build the strength of that community. Whether it's writing up meeting notes for your local user group newsletter, submitting articles and letters to industry publications (as well as those that specialize in FoxPro, don't neglect the more general publications) helping someone get a problem solved, or reporting a bug or enhancement request on Foxforum, we're working together. By manifesting community, we gain more input to work in partnership with Microsoft, and provide a goal for other vendors and product communities to aspire to.

See also:

Fox Software People: Yair Alan Griver
People That Helped FoxPro to Become a Legend: Alan Schwartz
People That Helped FoxPro to Become a Legend: Lisa Slater Nichols

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