Saturday, October 8, 2011

Being An MVP

This week Microsoft renewed my MVP status meaning I am an MVP for another 12 months. This is my third year of being an MVP so I thought it might be a good opportunity to write about my experiences with the programme and the kinds of things I do to stay within the programme.

What Is An MVP?

An MVP (Most Valuable Professional) takes its name from the US sporting accolade of Most Valuable Player. For those of us outside of the USA, this is broadly equivalent to a ‘Man/Player of the Match’ or a ‘Best and Fairest’ award. The Wikipedia article sums it up pretty well:

The Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) is the highest award given by Microsoft to those it considers "the best and brightest from technology communities around the world" who "actively share their ... technical expertise with the community and with Microsoft".

The key thing to note is the reference to community contribution. What the award does not recognise is elite programming skills. As some of you may know I am not a programmer. I used to code C++ a long time ago but I am not a .Net programmer and yet I am an MVP for Dynamics CRM; a program built on .Net and extended using .Net .

Also, the award does NOT recognise those that exclusively drink the Microsoft Kool Aid. MVPs are often the most outspoken critics of the flaws in the products they work with. Microsoft welcomes this because, to stay competitive, they need to know what is not working with their products. While MVPs do not often post scathing criticisms on forums or in their blogs they do, behind closed doors, let Microsoft know in no uncertain terms where the problems are with their products. I will talk more about these closed doors a little later.

How Do I Become An MVP?

This is a question that is often asked and it is difficult to answer because there is no specific ‘track’ to getting the award. There is no set of certifications or qualifications which are needed. One thing that is required is nomination. In my case I was nominated by another CRM MVP and this was seconded by a Microsoft employee working with Dynamics CRM. Traditionally, this was how prospective MVPs were put forward (one external, often an MVP themselves, and seconded by a Microsoft employee). However, this is not necessary. Anyone can e-mail someone they believe is deserving of the award (including themselves). The details are here.

Once nominated, a panel within Microsoft reviews the application. I have no idea who is on this panel, nor where they are located (although I assume it is in Redmond). Community contributions from the previous 12 months and technical knowledge are considered. There are no official levels of activity required and it is presumably a subjective decision weighed against the relative merit of other candidates and existing MVPs. Intakes into the programme are quarterly (January, April, July and October).

Once successful, MVPs are reviewed on an annual basis and must be able to demonstrate community activity on par with that which got them into the programme in the first place. If an MVP stops contributing, they will not be renewed.

What Is Meant By ‘Community Contributions’?

Occasionally, Microsoft do release a document talking about the activities considered to be contributing to the understanding and appreciation of the product by the broader community. Typically, the kinds of things mentioned include:

  • Participating in the online Microsoft forums
  • Blogging
  • Tweeting
  • Giving talks at user groups or conferences
  • Organising events for the public such as user groups or public demonstrations

Of these, the forums are the easiest one for Microsoft to measure. You need a live ID to login, meaning it is easy to track how long you are in the forums, and the forums track who proposes answers and whether they are acknowledged as an appropriate answer to the question being asked. The most difficult of these for Microsoft to measure are public appearances. If you are running a user group in a remote foreign land, this is much harder to verify than your forum activity.

What Are The Benefits Of The Program?

Certainly there is no money in it so if you are looking for some kind of monetary reward for getting on the forums and blogging excellent code, you will be sorely disappointed. In my opinion, the biggest benefit is an invitation to the MVP Summit held in Seattle each year around February-March. While it is up to the MVP to pay for flights, accommodation is subsidized and Microsoft keep all attendees fed and watered for the entire time. You get to meet the product team, you get to tell them what you really think and you also get to find out where the product is heading (under an NDA agreement, of course). You also get to go to the Microsoft Shop at the Redmond Campus and buy Microsoft goodies at staff rates.

Throughout the year MVPs also get access to exclusive email groups where they can raise issues they may be having and get ideas from other MVPs and from the Microsoft product teams. The MVPs also use these channels to provide feedback on improving the product. With the sheer volume of communication that occurs in these channels, it would be fair to say the number of messages I try to get across has probably doubled since getting into the programme. However, for understanding the finer aspects of a product, there is no better source of information.

Other benefits include a subscription to MSDN/TechNet, free Microsoft support tickets and free or discounted software from third parties.

What Does Leon Specifically Do To Remain Active In The Community?

Obviously there is this blog. I try to write an article once a week but will often give myself one weekend off so that I generally put out three articles per month. Articles mostly fall into one of three types:

  • Codeless solutions or handy, lesser-known features of Dynamics CRM
  • Commentary on how CRM is stacking up to its competitors (you know who you are)
  • General thought leadership of marketing and business practice

I also tweet when I come across something I feel would be of interest to non-coders involved with Dynamics CRM (users, non-technical administrators, buying decision makers etc.)

I try to propose answers for at least ten forum questions a month but, with the friendly rivalry between the forum participants, it is difficult to get to a question before someone else has answered it. It is really surprising if a question does not get some kind of response within an hour or two.

I will talk at any event about Dynamics CRM and often do so for free. A great example of this are the online Decisions conferences. A number of CRM MVPs regularly present at Decisions with no compensation other than the satisfaction of getting a soapbox to stand on for 30 minutes. If you are looking for a speaker on a Microsoft product, I strongly recommend approaching an MVP. Generally they present well, are knowledgeable and very friendly. As I often say, I will attend the opening of an envelope if it means I get to speak on Dynamics CRM.

To provide content for my blog and tweets, I read a lot of articles on Dynamics CRM and the CRM industry in general. These come to me, almost exclusively through Outlook and are sourced from RSS feeds, Google alerts, LinkedIn groups and tweets. I also read the posts to the forums, via an RSS feed in Outlook.

These are my personal Outlook folders I read every day:

image

Using Outlook rules, messages get diverted to ‘holding bays’ for reading when I have time. As you can see, there are literally thousands of messages I have waiting to be read and while I will not get to read them all tonight, they are in my PST waiting for me when I get bandwidth (airport terminals and plane flights are excellent for this). For the tweets, I use TwInbox, an excellent product for tracking tweets in Outlook.

All of the above I generally do outside of working hours as I have a full time job. I also have a wife and two kids so I often do things like read articles once the little ones have gone to bed. As an example, I am writing this blog at midnight on a Friday night. The television is on (showing Conan) but I am watching it over the top of my laptop screen.

My Experience With The Programme

My experience has been very positive. I am yet to meet an MVP I did not like. By their very nature, the are smart, eloquent and willing to share information or talk to others, especially if it is about the product they got awarded for.

In terms of the work involved in maintaining the award, to be honest, I would be doing these things anyway. I tend to be a little obsessive-compulsive when it comes to knowledge and learning so squeezing as much information as possible into my brain at every possible opportunity is kind of who I am.

Also, getting to see the human side of the Microsoft ‘machine’ in the form of online discussions involving the CRM product team is great. It is all too easy to consider Microsoft as a faceless engine pumping out software and making a few bucks along the way but, like every organisation, Microsoft is made up of people and getting to know these people is a rare and welcome experience.

If I did not enjoy it, I could simply resign; an option that is available to every MVP but I have no motivation to do that at this time.

Final Thoughts

If you are looking to becoming an MVP as a badge of honour, you will struggle. The fact is, to become an MVP and keeping the MVP status requires a lot of work in terms of maintaining relevancy and expertise. It also requires a paradigm of being willing to share this hard sought knowledge at the drop of a hat. My advantage in this regard is I did a physics degree, not an IT degree so the academic philosophy of sharing knowledge for the benefit of the many is hard wired into me. There are many people in IT who are experts but who hoard their knowledge to maintain an advantage over others. This is not the way of the MVP.

If, after all this you think the MVP programme is for you, I wish you the best of luck. It is a lot of work but I enjoy it immensely and I look forward to seeing you at ‘Summit’.

4 comments:

metaphorix said...

great post. I am very impressed with CRM MVP's and the content and thoughts they give to CRM community is amazing.

I think the CRM MVP's certainly give you somthing to aspire to/

I have got the blogging and tweeting bit down but struggle with the forum posts.

Dave Berry said...

Leon,

I could not say that I ever agreed more with any of your posts than this one, and that's a hard bargain to drive. The meat of what it means to be as an MVP is summed up nicely at the end: the willingness to easily part with the knowledge you gained with so much difficulty, blood, and perhaps a little shame.

As a programmer, I have always found value in the concept of "open source", whereby the product is improved by the eyes of many, rather than secreted away to the corners of the aether. However, what "open source" (often) fails to deliver is consistency in the support and delivery of richness of experience. This is where I believe the embrace of open community and feedback has been enshrined in the Dynamics CRM product, over and above most other Microsoft products. I believe we all know who best to blame for such effort, [ahem]Jim Glass[/ahem], but the truth is that the richness of the application is founded in the platform, or xRM as we call it these days. Without that, there wouldn't be nearly as many useful, helpful, and downright awesome extensibility options; and I dare say its absence would evaporate the vibrant community around the product overnight.

So, as a programmer to a non-programmer, let me assure you that the programming means everything to the product, and that its openness lends naturally to encouraging our openness as helpful resources. In fact, I dare say that it attracts open-minded and helpful people.

In my experience, those who became MVPs generally never expected that they would. It's obvious that we enjoy what we do as a labor of love and self-improvement (by learning from teaching, or discovery of the unknown). If you stick at it for long enough, and apply yourself wherever there is need, you will be noticed.

As always, Leon, you are valuable to the community and your insight into the broad spectrum of CRM as a practice is hardly matched. Please continue earnestly "for the benefit of the many" for many years to come!

Steeve Gauvreau said...

Is there a place for MVP from other country or différents languages?

I'm a french Canadian and I'm thinking about becoming a CRM MVP and I'm not sure if it's feasible for me?

Thanks!

Leon Tribe said...

Hi Steeve,

Worldwide there are around 50 CRM MVPs, many from counties where English is not the primary language.

I can see no reason why you can't become an MVP.

If you go to the Microsoft MVP site you will find some of their profiles. I'd reach out to them for their experiences (Tanguy Touzard is from France, for example)