Next week, Microsoft MVPs from around the world will be gathering in Redmond at the Microsoft campus. This will be my second MVP Summit, and I wanted to give you a peek into what happens at this private event. Next week, you’ll probably be hearing people tweet about how excited (or angry) they are, and they can’t tell you exactly what they’re talking about. It’s time for you to learn why.
What are Microsoft MVPs?
The Microsoft Most Valued Professional award recognizes…well, we’re not exactly sure what they recognize. The public PR page says the award is given to the “best and brightest from technology communities around the world,” but the criteria for selection is shrouded in privacy. The page on Becoming an MVP hints that there’s a panel of people who judge “the quality, quantity, and level of impact of the MVP nominee’s contributions” to the community. (Notice that they’re judging the contributions, not the person – I’ve known a couple of total jerkwads in the MVP program.) Every year, the same panel appears to re-judge you on the same criteria, and every year, some MVPs lose their standing due to inactivity in the community.
Your first official act as an MVP is to accept a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Microsoft is about to give you some insider access, but in exchange for that, you have to agree to keep your yapper shut. Microsoft can’t have future product plans or weaknesses made public. This is an interesting challenge – they’re taking the most publicly active people, and telling them to keep quiet about something. I can see why every now and then, Microsoft has to revoke an MVP’s status due to NDA violations.
What Kinds of NDA Things Do MVPs Learn?
Honestly, not much. I’ve heard from very long-standing MVPs that the program used to allow much more insider access to Microsoft employees and future product plans. These days, that’s not really the case. As David Woods wrote when he quit the MVP program, some of the NDA’d Microsoft material is basic marketing content for future product versions. Microsoft wants to get us psyched up about upcoming features because we’re active in the community, and we might get the community excited too.
When there’s a major new version of something coming, Microsoft lets MVPs get varying levels of access to it. All MVPs might get early access to a community preview build, and some specialist MVPs might get even earlier access to builds that aren’t ready for general MVP consumption. It’s a blessing and a curse – we get access to software that isn’t ready for the public yet. We can’t run it in public, and we can’t rely on it for production. The more we use it, though, the more we can help Microsoft do their testing for free. To non-geeks, that would sound like masochism, but if you truly love the product you’re working with, it’s great. I’ll take a buggy future version of SQL Server any day.
Content authors (bloggers, writers, presenters) take these preview versions and build content ahead of time. This is how book authors are able to get new versions of their books published relatively soon after the product goes live. They’ve been playing with pre-release versions, writing, taking screenshots. This is also how I was able to publish my Denali high-availability blog post and my Microsoft Atlanta analysis within seconds of Microsoft announcements of those tools at the PASS Summit, and I couldn’t provide that kind of SQL Server journalism without the MVP program. I liken it to how Engadget posts in-depth phone reviews within minutes of a phone’s release.
So How Can You Write About the MVP Program?
I’m trying not to tell you anything you can’t figure out on your own, and yet give you enough of a taste that you’ll see the benefits of being an MVP. The NDA stuff is only a small piece – another benefit is the MVP email list. I enjoy lurking to watch conversations between smart, passionate people. (The MCM email list is even better.) A valuable benefit is free software licensing for not just Microsoft tools, but all kinds of stuff from software vendors like VMware, TechSmith, and every SQL Server tool vendor. Anything we want is basically free for our own personal use. And then there’s the free MVP Summit…
What is the Microsoft MVP Summit?
Once a year, MVPs from around the world are invited to Redmond to hang out. Microsoft picks up the hotel tab as long as you share a room with another MVP, but you’re responsible for the airfare. MVPs who work for a typical company usually don’t have to take vacation time, because companies see the value in having their staff get inside information from Microsoft. Us consultants aren’t so lucky – the time I spend in Redmond is unbilled, so I lose money for the week.
During the week, Microsoft puts on sessions. It’s like a conference, but with all Microsoft speakers. Most of the Microsoft speakers aren’t professional trainers – they’re software developers – so they don’t specialize in entertaining the audience with lolcats slides, nor do they know how to handle hecklers well. They do their best to show us something pretty technical. When the audience doesn’t like the feature or senses too much marketing, the audience reacts – big time.
Remember who the audience is – they’re the most active community professionals. These people are opinionated loudmouths, myself included. When we don’t like a feature, we don’t just raise our hand – we throw things and yell, because we passionately love our favorite Microsoft product, and we don’t want to see it take a wrong turn. In an audience full of SQL Server professionals, it’s very hard to build a consensus on anything. Ask three DBAs a question, and you’ll get four different answers. The MVP sessions are like that. It’s good for entertainment, and the fun gets even better when the sessions stop and the drinks start.
My favorite part of being an MVP isn’t the sessions or the email list or the free software – it’s the chance to spend quality time with other SQL Server professionals and the cool people at Microsoft building things I like to use.
So Why Do People Quit the MVP Program?
Over the last year, I’ve read a couple of blog posts from people who quit the program, and I’ve had the same reaction every time: “This guy couldn’t let go and enjoy the program for what it is.”
When Microsoft recognizes you with the MVP award, they’re recognizing you for the things you’re already doing. Don’t change yourself, your blog, your presentations, etc in order to keep the MVP award. I’ve never heard someone from Microsoft say, “Listen, you were doing good before, but now that you’re an MVP, we need you to ____.” Microsoft just pats you on the back, hands you a crappy glass trophy, and starts giving you cool stuff. You’re an MVP – but you’re not Steve Ballmer’s boss.
If you want to really influence Microsoft product direction, go to work there – and even that isn’t enough. You have to work your way into a position of influence. Microsoft’s chock full of smart, opinionated people who all want to drive programs in their own favorite direction.
If you want to help the community, just do it. Helping the community is rewarding in and of itself. If the MVP program folded tomorrow, or if they just kicked me out, I wouldn’t change anything. To me, that’s the mark of a true MVP – somebody who loves helping the community just because.