Where the open source world has its all-enveloping "community," the Microsoft realm has Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs), some 1,800 of which are gathering this week at the Microsoft mother ship for this year's MVP Global Summit.
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There they will hear from CEO Steve Ballmer and chief software architect Ray Ozzie. But perhaps more importantly, they'll get face time with Microsoft product developers.
According to Microsoft, 30% of the 4,000 MVPs worldwide are affiliated with partners -- systems integrators, independent software vendors (ISVs) and value-added resellers (VARs). For these people, as well as the MVPs who are IT professionals within tech companies, free MSDN and TechNet subscriptions are a draw. But most of the partner reps would probably get them anyway due to their Gold or other affiliation. It is the in-person time with executives and developers that matters most.
Michael Cocanower, CEO of Phoenix-based Gold partner itSynergy and a six-year Microsoft MVP, said his company markets his MVP status. "It's on our home page. Smack dab in the middle," he said.
Although many customers probably do not know what MVP means, itSynergy spells it out. "I'm an MVP for Small Business Server and only one of 57 in the world. That gets their attention," Cocanower said.
Another huge perk is longer-distance visibility into Microsoft's product pipeline.
"If you look at the average Gold Certified or Certified partner, assuming they have some engagement, they get maybe a nine- to 12-month look into the future. As MVP our outlook is more like two years. That lets us make judgments on our strategy and helps us get up to speed on training we'll need. Or if they discontinue a product, it helps to know that."
Because Small Business Server relies on many key Microsoft components -- Exchange Server, Windows Server, SQL Server -- he gets a glimpse into all of those roadmaps, whereas other MVPs may be more "stovepiped" into the future of just the product they deal with.
Microsoft controls entry. Cocanower, who has made the cut for six years, said it's because he does a lot of user group work and speaks at conferences. Others get in because they author books and contribute heavily to newsgroups and other forums.
Dennis Bottjer, a solutions architect with SpringPoint Technologies LLC, a Tulsa, Okla.-based Gold partner specializing in .NET, agrees that the benefits are huge. "Having an MVP on staff is very beneficial to Microsoft Gold partners who can be small ISVs. They can then market themselves as an expert, and MVPs are typically recognized for their community involvement and expertise -- two things that play into a Gold partner's favor," Bottjer said, a second-year Microsoft MVP.
The annual summit is a good chance for Microsoft MVPs to network. "It's a really interesting opportunity to meet the people who are writing the tools and software that you use," Bottjer said.
Bottjer said Microsoft is more receptive to input now, and Microsoft partners are in a position to talk about customer concerns. "You can really influence the development of a product," he said.
Asked for an example of MVP input that made its way into production, Microsoft execs pointed to Outlook's junk mail feature, which was suggested by MVP Aryeh Goretsky.
Shane Young, owner of SharePoint911, agrees that MVP status is a marketing boon for his Cincinnati-based SharePoint consultancy. The designation itself, plus the speaking gigs he does to get it -- he's a regular at Microsoft TechEd, for example -- both promote his business.
"Our interaction with the product team helps me tell customers what they should and shouldn't be doing in the next two years with their implementations. Customers need to plan out five years or more," he said.
The Microsoft executives in charge of this push felt similarly. "This is invite-only, not a membership. We award it annually, we go out with the product teams, 80 people in the field, looking at who's contributing [intellectual property] and content," said Toby Richards, general manager of community support services for Microsoft. "We recognize MVPs after a year's worth of activity in the tech communities. Each year there's a nomination process, and MVPs can also nominate others who contribute a ton to a blog or user forums."
The difference between this meeting and the much larger Worldwide Partner Conference in July is the amount of interactive discussion, said Rich Kaplan, vice president of customer partner advocacy. "This is nearly 100% feedback [to Microsoft]. It's turning the tables," he said. But he also acknowledged that there will doubtless be some Microsoft-created PowerPoints to drive some of the 700 sessions.
For partner MVPs, Microsoft's Software as a Service (SaaS) push, led by Ozzie, will be a key focus. The company is expected to detail more of its underlying "mesh" foundation for software services in Amit Mital's keynote at the Web 2.0 show in San Francisco later this month. Mital is general manager of Live Mesh.