Some problems with the MVP program

I’ve written about the positive aspects of the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) program in the recent past. It's important to have balance in any discussion and I would be the first to say that the MVP program is not all sweetness and light. Therefore, we should address the balance and point out where some improvement is necessary.

I was disappointed but not surprised to read Rob Eisenberg’s long and detailed blog post describing his experience of having his MVP status not renewed followed by a groundswell of opinion that forced Microsoft to do the right thing and then Rob’s own decision to decline the belated offer to retain his position as a Silverlight MVP. The post is worth reading in its entirety because it highlights some of the problems that afflict the MVP program and make it less than effective for some Microsoft product groups. I hope that those associated with the MVP program, including every MVP lead, reads the post and vows to make things better, but I bet that they don’t.

I should preface my remarks by saying that the experience of any individual MVP is highly influenced by two factors. First, the interest and attention of their MVP lead. Second, the willingness of a Microsoft product group to interact with MVPs. An MVP lead is a Microsoft employee whose job it is to take care of the MVP community. This might be at a global or country level. Each MVP is associated with a technology area or expertise and that is tied back in turn to a product group. Logically, the product group that I am associated with is Exchange Server.

Not all MVP leads are created equal. Some go through the motion of taking care of their MVPs and send out aimless messages on an infrequent basis. I smiled when I read Rob’s accurate assertion that:

I get a useless mass email every week or so telling me things about Microsoft I don’t care about. Half of the time it isn’t even readable due to bad formatting, etc. My Lead never contacted me personally during the year.”

My belief is that many MVP leads don’t understand the community that they work within nor do they understand the real import of the contributions that people make within the community. The difference that an interested and committed MVP lead makes is enormous because it creates the foundation of a functioning technical group that can provide real value to Microsoft. After all, if someone is interested in you, you’re far more likely to be interested in what they do and be willing to help in whatever way that you can. I have been fortunate to meet many more good (and some truly excellent) MVP leads than bad.

Equally, not all product groups give MVPs tender loving care. Some recognize the value of the real-world experience that MVPs bring to the table as well as the sense of what’s actually happening in the market around the world. Others believe that the fluff in their collective belly buttons provide more insight and that the words written by product managers in Redmond must be the way, truth, and light. Thankfully the Exchange Server group is not in the first category and they boast a proud and productive record of interaction with their MVPs. I’m sure that some of the interaction with Exchange is painful (some of my MVP colleagues are quite forceful in their opinions, especially when asked to comment on emerging features that are not quite fully baked) but it’s all done in a team spirit that’s intended to make the technology better. David Espinoza, one of the senior product managers who's been around Exchange for a long time and runs their Technology Adoption Program (TAP), is a great example as a facilitator of positive interaction, as he is always willing to take MVP input on board through online meetings or in person at the MVP Summit over a beer or three.

On dealing with product groups, Rob noted:

Depending on what MVP discipline you are a part of…and the nature of your contributions…you may have a great experience or you may be in store for hell. If the product group you are associated with is open, such as ASP.NET, you can expect lots of interaction, incorporation of your feedback into the product and probably a deep respect of open source work. If your product team is something like WP7, you can expect much less communication, very little change to the product based on your feedback and probably…they don’t even know what open source is.”

People are always primary contributors to the success or failure of any program and this is true for both the MVPs and those working in the Microsoft product groups. But I also consider the MVP program to have some major structural weaknesses that inhibit its success. Last February I attended my first MVP summit, which is the annual gathering of MVPs in Redmond to receive product updates and interact with product groups. You also have the opportunity to see Steve Ballmer in action in a keynote – I didn’t think that he was too interested in his talk but this was perhaps he didn’t have much new stuff about which to get excited. Apart from the briefings, a vast amount of hot air is produced to create an alternate universe where all is well in the MVP program and most depart feeling that Microsoft does a good job to support MVPs.

But many of the side-line chats that occur between MVPs on the bus rides out to the campus, at lunchtime or at breaks, or when energy flags during product group briefings keep on coming back to some issues that have pervaded the MVP program for as long as I have known it.

The process used to become an MVP is an obvious start. Microsoft runs a nomination process and MVPs can nominate others for consideration. I assume that the product group and other interested parties within Microsoft can also nominate candidates. But after nomination a black box seems to churn away before a decision is made. And some of the successful nominations that come out at the end cause no end of raised (surprised) eyebrows because some absolutely stellar contributors to technical communities are ignored and some so-so people succeed. I hear complaints that “community contributions” are valued but only on quantity rather than quality. As we all know, it is all too easy to cut and paste material to generate a blog post or retweet the observations of others to create a numerous (and boring) twitter feed. Answering questions in online forums is also deemed to be “a good thing” but no assessment is made whether the answers are correct or add any value whatsoever. Racking up a ton of points through inane contributions that subsequently ends up in a successful MVP nomination (or appears to on the surface) undermines the credibility of the program. 

On the other hand, it's also true that some MVPs have rightly earned their status through their determined support of an online forum and their commitment to answering problems posed by people around the world. Once again, good and bad.

It’s easy to spot the weak MVPs when they expose themselves at something like the MVP Summit or another technical conference. They seldom have anything useful to say, don’t seem to understand the technology at the required depth, and prove incapable of influencing a product group. But they’ve become an MVP and have received the same recognition from Microsoft as every other MVP. A huge suspicion exists that country-level MVP leads push doubtful candidates through the nomination process simply to check off a goal on their annual performance review. Rob observed:

Now I want to tread lightly here with how I say this….not all MVPs are created equal. I’m going to be vague here. I met an MVP once for Technology X. It turned out that she had never built anything with Technology X and wasn’t overly knowledgeable about it. She liked Technology X a lot though. Each day she would scan her RSS feeds and post about 8 - 10 links on Technology X. That’s why she had her MVP. It looks good on a review doesn’t it? I blogged 365 posts on Technology X this year!!  Now, I’ve met some MVPs in various areas that were brilliant and obviously contributing a lot. But, I’ve met a fair share of MVPs who not only were not experts on the technology, but didn’t make half the contribution that other developers I knew did, who were never awarded MVPs. Not all MVPs are equal. If you are an employer, or looking for a speaker, expert, consultant…whatever; you cannot assume that just because that person has an MVP that they know what they are talking about. It’s sad, but this describes a noticeable number of MVPs.”

Nomination, assessment, qualification, and contribution are the biggest issues that I think need to be resolved within the MVP Program. I have a certain expertise in this space as I have managed technical career programs over many years and have experienced both success and failure. My personal resolution is to find some good MVP candidates in the Exchange space and nominate them to Microsoft so that they have at least a pool of experienced, solid contributors from which to make a decision. Hopefully these candidates can replace some of those who aren’t quite at the races today.

The 2012 MVP Summit takes place in Redmond from February 28 to March 2. I hope that there will be some realistic discussions about how to improve the program by addressing the points listed above rather than more of the “let’s blow smoke up our respective favorite orifices”. We shall see.

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