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MVP – Most Valuable Professional. Is it or isn’t it?

David Woods wrote a blog post earlier this week which he outlines his thoughts on the MVP Program(s) at Microsoft – specifically the lack of value he finds in it.

Here are some notes if you will on some types of questions I’ve witnessed or have sensed gone unasked over the years inside Microsoft.

Is the MVP Program useful?

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It is and isn’t. Its an important concept to have attached to a Product within any company, as the idea in itself is righteous. An MVP is someone who can influence others to explore a given product within Microsoft and that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. The MVP doesn’t have to be the worlds best expert at the said product, in fact a lot of MVP’s are far from that – they are however someone with whom makes an impact within the community.

Impact and influence is why the MVP Program is useful, now the problem with it today is that it’s not consistent in its approach and lastly there are quite a lot of “fanbois” in the program that can at times disarm the program’s true potential – as everyone may paint all with the same brush “bah, bunch of Microsoft yes men, who cares about them..”

MVP Program is broken because Product Teams never tell you anything.

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Yup, they often will keep you in the dark about the product’s next roadmaps and at times treat you as if you were just a TechEd/MIX attendee instead of an MVP. It’s nothing personal, it’s nothing to do with you as a group it has everything to do with the word momentum.

Inside Microsoft when you own a product, you have to fight to get a launch buzz going. You fight because every other team inside the company is pretty much either getting ready to ship or talking about what could potentially ship. You in turn have to fight your way to the top of the headline heap for tech buzz.

I state this as when you have to go through this, telling an MVP is somewhat harmful to your upcoming surprise party as all it takes is an MVP to give Mary Jo / Tim Anderson (Tech Journalists) a heads up and boom not only did the surprise party fall flat but you’ve also given your competitors for the said product a heads up on talking points.

Talking points are important for competitors to know ahead of time, as when the journalists etc. get the said product briefing they in turn look for quotes / sound bytes from the said competitor (just like a political campaign). It pays to be ready.

That’s at the core of why you are probably kept in the dark about products. You got an MVP nomination because you can influence, nobody actually said you’re the chosen one and that all state secrets within Microsoft will fall before you. You need to make peace with that and more importantly you also need to understand that even Microsoft staff don’t get as much information as you do, so that is the reality an MVP today probably needs to come to grips with.

Not true, for example XYZ product team tell me stuff all the time!

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Yeah, I don’t doubt that each product team has their own unique communication pattern with the said products MVP’s. It comes really back to your individual relationships with the said product team. It also comes back to the competitive threat levels attached to the Product(s) you evangelize.

An example is that in 2009 the MVP summit within Redmond, the Windows Mobile team kept their cards close to their chest and it this really pissed off the Mobile MVP’s. I remember at the time thinking “yeah, that’s not a fun team to be in right now” but to be fair, Windows Phone 7 needed to be kept locked down as much as it could be. It was a dangerous secret to let loose given its importance to the device market. Some knew, most didn’t and it was a deliberate decision.

At the same summit, we also wanted to keep features within Silverlight/Expression secret. I remember our team made a point of keeping everyone in the dark. Then Scott Guthrie got on stage and pretty much told everyone everything, so we then in turn went “well, he’s the executive in charge, I guess its out now” so we in turn reacted to this and started the communication pipelines again.

That same year, 3 MVP’s also leaked information around the products and as a result at the time of the summit journalists pickedup on the information and ran with some stories – again, partially deflating the momentum we worked months building behind the scenes for MIX?

I also in that same time fought to NOT have those three MVP’s banned from the program for the said leaks – despite the witch hunt within gunning for them. My rationale was simple, they are excited about the product why do we punish them? isn’t this what we are supposed to do ? Two MVP’s were warned one was banned (simply because he named Kittyhawk aka now as Visual Studio Lightswitch publicly).

Do MVP’s influence the features then?

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In my experience they do. It’s not always obvious but there is definitely influence from MVP’s in most Microsoft Products. The problem I see in this question is I think MVP’s want a direct “you created this xyz feature, well done guys” moment. In reality it can be a small tiny spark of an idea that an MVP threw out there into the void, the teams then digest the concept and come up with some ideas similar to it etc – next thing you know, you have functional specs written and maybe the next release or thereafter, the said spark mutates into a feature.

Point is, you’d be surprised at what influence occurs via the MVP program and how it translates into a feature, its just not always obvious.

Give me an example of MVP influence?

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One year, I had an MVP stay with me for a week in Redmond. He at the time didn’t’ feel as if he got much value out of the MVP summit and had a lot of questions regarding the future of ASP.NET and problems within. I figured, this guy is an MVP who is deserving (he’s good at what he does, he does a lot for the community and most of all he’s quite a humble person to know), so with that, I personally walked him around to as many people within Microsoft campus as I could at the time. We had meetings with the ASP.NET teams and he hung out with the devdiv product managers as well.

I remember one question he asked was “which should I talk about, WebForms or MVC?” and our typical response to that question was “It depends”. This wasn’t helpful for him, so we talked it out more and as a result I watched my team members at the time see first hand that “it depends” response, was bogus. They could see this guy in front of him giving them the raw data that basically WebForms and MVC adoption decisions were a confusing story.

It’s also worth pointing out that during his time with the ASP.NET team a few specs were written based off the chat and as a result I think he made impact beyond what he or I could really measure first hand?

This MVP now works for Microsoft and I think him seeing first hand the internal culture within Microsoft campus influenced not only his expectations of Microsoft but also is likely to have ripple effects for quite some time.

Nobody knew this happened, so my point stands – influence at times isn’t always as obvious and that’s why the MVP program is healthy, despite its many flaws.

Can you help me then to become an MVP?

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I’ve personally been asked a few times to become an MVP since leaving Microsoft and I’ve turned them down. I don’t think I’m better than the program etc, I just don’t think I add value as to me an MVP is someone who is actually genuinely surprised at the recognition. If they wanted to make me an MVP, then it better be because I had influence or did something for the greater good.

Asking or proactively making yourself loud and obvious so that you can game the concept of becoming an MVP for me personally sours the program’s potential. It’s not about having the MVP badge on your resume, it’s about doing all the requirements of an MVP because you firstly enjoy it regardless of the title and secondly you create a two way dialogue with the very people your influencing. I grow weary of seeing the same muffin eaters at the same conferences talking the same crap over and over just so that they in turn can get the local Microsoft Evangelist’s attention in order to get a MVP nomination.

Don’t get me wrong, that formula will yield you a nomination but for me it’s the Microsoft folks who are proactive about the product that one day get an email / tweet about them being nominated as an MVP – to then have this expression of “really, wow, I hadn’t thought I meet the grade”.

Humility is needed more in the MVP ranks and ass kissing / cheer leading within the program is something that needs to be weeded out. An MVP should be also someone who’s not afraid to say “this sux, but this rox” in the same breathe.

Blind loyalty in a MVP is useless.

Never listen to critics, as they are never going to be happy with you, that’s why they’re critics. Never listen to your fans, as they are to busy being happy with everything you say. Listen to the ones that haven’t made up their mind, they in turn will help you more!

How should the MVP Program be reformed?

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Don’t know, all I do know is that its broken at this point. I think it has to do with Microsoft Developer & Platform Evangelism (DPE) has lost its way since Walid (CVP) took over years ago. The DPE guys are all over the place and often their budgets are cut so short that boarding a plane can be an exercise of begging / frustration. I spent over $50k+ in my first year at Microsoft in travel  + expenses alone, even though at the time our T&E budget was around $20k per person. I think its now much less.

Evangelism is important to the MVP program, as they are the ones who should find ways to work with the MVP’s in order to scale the evangelism rhythms. I just don’t’ see that right now.

Its broken, and it needs investigation as to why it’s broken in order to reform it. I think the answers are to few to formulate an actual plan right now.