To be a MVP

It seems every year, with every award cycle, the debate over what makes a MVP and the MVP program itself re-surfaces. This year some of the discussion has been centred around two posts, one by a Microsoft employee Dave Lempers, and another by an Excel MVP XL-Dennis.

Fighting flames

Dave Lempers’ posted his thoughts about the way he wanted to change the MVP program a couple of weeks ago, on a Friday no less πŸ˜‰ Clarke Scott, a first timer MVP posted a great reply. I was also planning on posting a reply that weekend, but as it turned out, that weekend I got called away on a CFA strike team fighting real flames in 44C heat. Then when I went to finally draft a response a few days later I noticed Clarke had removed his post. Yesterday however, thanks to some friendly spurring on by his fellow MVPs, Clarke reposted his reply to Dave. As such, I also promised to post my point of view.. hence this post…

Now I know this is already shaping up to be a long rant. Unfortunately a lot of people really aren’t that familiar with the MVP program so there’s a LOT of misinformation. I definitely don’t claim to have all the facts. What I can do though is to try to impart some of what my thoughts and observations are around the MVP program, based on my own personal experience with it since “last century” as some young whipper snapper put it to me πŸ˜‰

History repeats ?

I first became aware of the MVP program, probably mid to late 90’s. At the time I was “offered” a MVP award via a jump start program. It’s a pity I didn’t save the email I sent in reply, but let’s just say I recommended they place the award in some internal body orifice. To me, the “jump start” sounded very much like an inducement for me to perform a service and in return receive some trinkets. I “encouraged” the M’softy to look at hiring real product support staff instead.

A couple of years later, in 1999, I was sent the MVP award !! That’s a funny story in itself, which, like a good story teller, I’ll save for another day just to keep y’all wanting to come back for more. suffice it to say, thanks to the support of my then lead John Eik, and fellow MVPs like Karl Peterson, I truly became a MVP.

At that time, 1999, the MVP program was cancelled for a weekend. This was shortly after I got awarded. So that too was kind of funny. The reason for the cancellation was mainly legal due to a court case AOL had recently lost. The thought was that MVPs were being rewarded for services performed, and hence had rights as employees do (that was at least the crux of the AOL case). So “legal” decided to close the program rather than face a court battle. The problem was in part due to things like the “jump start” where Microsoft enticed people to be active in the community in return for the award, and also in part because the award itself was run from within Microsoft’s Product Support Services (PSS), so it could very easily be viewed as an extension of their support services. So “legal” was cautious, and closed the program for the weekend.

The weekend they closed the program led to a massive community response. This was a major turning point. Not only was the program re-instated, but the executives in Microsoft had instantly become aware of the program and the huge community support for it. It seemed to also be the beginning of the opening up of new communication channels, both between MVPs and the MVP administration, and also between the MVP administration and Microsoft itself. This seemed to be the start of change in what has been an evolving, growing program.

So the MVP program was closed for the weekend, only to re-instated the following Monday. Worth noting for those not around or active at the time, that it is without doubt due largely to the actions of then MVPs such as Karl Peterson and Randy Birch, that the MVP program survived the over zealous legal department.

The times are a changin’

Over the next couple of years the MVP program continued on, with no real major changes. But the seed of change had already been planted. That change sprang forth in 2001.

In 2001 (or thereabouts), the program underwent rapid growth, almost doubling in size overnight and then growing by another 50% or so in size 6 months or so later. This coincided with some major pushes from Microsoft into the area of “community”. Back then, Microsoft was concerned over the sense of community around *nix and java. This also coincided with their launch of the .NET framework.

The expansion of the MVP program into other areas was pretty understandable, and probably long overdue. It would be ridiculous to define community based on one specific network protocol. Sure, “last century”, the MVP program was heavily centred around the main communication channels of the time. But remember these were the days before the browser, when you were a god if you had a 9600 baud modem of your own, VT100 ruled etc. NTTP, was the next stage, and still healthy and alive today (alas the same can’t be said for VT100 et al and those colourful console windows <g>) These days, google and blogs and broader community channels are all the play grounds of MVPs.

Mitch Denny was one of the newbies circa 2001. Mitch talks about this and mentions how his view of the feeling at the time: “At the time this invoked the ire of existing MVPs who considered us to be lesser MVPs for some reason.”  I never have thought of MVPs as being lesser. I still remember the first time I met Mitch we were talking while travelling on a bus somewhere and it was pretty obvious to me he was a ubber geek right there and then πŸ™‚ But prior to that I really had no idea who Mitch was, even in such as small place like Australia [;)] And this uncertainty factor was part of the problems the MVP community faced at the time.

The expansion was rapid. That alone brought problems. Prior to that the MVP community was very tight knit, and we all pretty much knew or knew of each other. So the question was “who are these newbies”. Over the years, most of those questions have been answered. But that wasn’t the only question. The rapid growth also co-incided with the launch of new products, and for a first ever, the MVPs were being nominated by product and program managers. So there were new faces who were espoulting the benefits of new products. I think rightly so at the time, many MVPs were concerned that this could easily be perceived to be “marketeering”, and would erode the MVP independence. For the most part that seems to have come and gone, but still something we all should be wary of.

Amongst this there were also some questionable awardees. As Greg Low points out in the reading od Dave’s psot, one really has to question how Dave was ever awarded if at the time he had “never had much involvmeent with the Microsoft community

If those things weren’t enough to raise some eyebrows, then certain “bad” nominations poured napalm onto the coals…

Absolute power corrupts absolutely

A classic example of the bringers of napalm would have to be the Charles Carrol story. Charles was awarded circa 2001. Shortly after he tried to have control over who was and who wasn’t a MVP. He threw, what I can only describe as one huge hissy fit temper tantrum, when Microsoft reined him in, and stopped bowing to his whims. Charles then went on to publicly attack the existing MVPs. This was when Charles first came to my attention.

You can search the web for the whole sordid story, but lets just say Charles use to have a lot of friends and supporters.. That’s hardly the case today.

I think Mitch might have actually been one of the MVPs suggested by Charles (or perhaps it was the ASP team). If it was Charles, then it seems Charles didn’t get it all wrong. It was a pity the power consumed him.

So it should be understandable that the new MVPs were welcomed “cautiously” by the existing MVPs. It was a shame, it was a time of turbulence, a time of growth and a time of loss. But from that has arisen a new MVP community.

Oh, and Dave, don’t worry we’ll save you from letting the certificate you received consume like Mr Carrol was.

Economies of Scale

The seed of change planted in 1999 had led to a formalisation of the program inside MS. The expansion that came following that, brought about a new level of recognition of the program both within and outside of Microsoft.

Microsoft is in may ways much like all other big businesses. They are usually made up of many little businesses inside the one, and often one department has little or no idea what another department does. That’s something they are always fighting against internally to some extent. The MVP program, being the off shoot of the PSS division was no different. Back in 1999 and 2000, I can tell you very few people at Microosft Australia knew what a MVP was, and the program groups interaction with their MVPs was often very poor or limited. The main interaction was via PSS. This all changed.

With the expansion of the MVP program, dedicated MVP leads were hired by Microsoft. Prior to this MVP leads or buddies as they were called then, did so as “part” of their PSS job. Dedicated staff, and a dedicated program, began the next wave of growth. The growth of internal recognition. The MVP administration invested heavily in getting the Executives and product groups aware of MVPs. In doing so they opened up new communication channels, empowering MVPs to provide feedback, and interact directly with the product teams.

Microsoft does now see the MVPs as an important keyhole into the broader community, and within Microsoft they are encourage to work with MVPs, be it the DPE group, the product teams, PSS, all the way up to the executives themselves.

Help us help you

The greater recognition of the MVP program within Microsoft, has opened up new opportunities for MVPs to display their passion. A classic example of this would have to be TechEd Australia 2005, where a record number of Australian MVPs got a chance to get up on stage and talk about topics they were passionate about. There was whole team at Microsoft that made that happen, but let me focus on just one of those to make an example of him πŸ˜‰ Of course that’d be none other than Charles (aka chuck) Sterling.

Chuck’s a DPE guy. His job is to “evangelise” Microsoft development tools and development on Microsoft platforms. As such, he often has to tread that fine line of “utilising” MVPs without “using” us. That is letting us be ourselves, be credible, and be passionate about the tools we love, yet not make it that we are “marketing” tools. I think Chuck manages that well somehow. I’ve heard him tell people off for expecting MVPs to just do things for them, basically saying MVPs have already given so much to the community. And although I don’t know Chuck that well, I’m pretty sure he’s the kind of guy who is goal driven. Prior to TechEd, I can imagine him settings certain goals such as “involve more of the community”, “work with my mvps” etc.

What I’m trying to get at here is that it is a fine line, and it can be a difficult task not to cross it, but Chuck seems to manage to not cross that line effortlessly while achieving great goals. I’m pointing this out especially for Dave, as I think Chuck has much to impart to Dave πŸ™‚ I mention this, as it’s pretty clear Microsoft is really trying to encourage it’s people to get involved with the community, hence the certificate Dave got.

Perhaps Nick Wienholt summed it up better first hand when he talks about the things he does and about symbioses.

What is an award ?

One thing people often seem to forget is the MVP award is for “past” acts, not future ones. It’s important to never, I repeat, *NEVER* see it as a promise to be Microsoft marketing. So what exactly is the award though, what can we compare it to. Dave compared it to the music industry, which I really don’t think is appropriate (nor did he [;)]). I’m not a musician, and definitely no hip-hop star so I can’t really shed any light on that from my experience. What I think is more important is what it means to the awardees, after all that’s what it is really all about, a way of saying thankyou, of recognising the efforts people have put it.

So if I try to equate that to my own real life first hand experiences, I only have a couple of other things I can compare with. In my life I’ve received awards from the MVP program, University and for my volunteer fire fighting (CFA).

At university, I received a couple of awards for academic excellence. Nothing really worth noting here expect they were in *consecutive* years, Dave, and wining the award one year didn’t preclude me from the next year. But those awards were “won”. They are exclusive. The awards say “Best” academic Performance, the “best” meaning there can only be one. So unlike the MVP award, that is probably like that “ivory tower elitism” Dave was talking about there. The MVP award though, I think is much more like a scholarship, open to more than one, but still limited in number, rewarding for past achievements with ongoing benefits to help you achieve more.

The other awards I have received have been from the CFA. A 12 year service medal, and I think last year we all got certificates from the government saying thankyou as part of the year of the volunteer program. Probably the biggest award we get is that silent thankyou we know we get from the community at large, as well as the pride we can take in what we do. That weekend I got dragged away from posting this rant, to go help fight fires is a perfect example. We got called out as a strike team mid afternoon, worked right through the night until we were relieved a bit after midday the next day. It was a long hot stretch, the temperature was something like 44 Celsius and that was before you even got near the fires. At one time I could have sworn my socks were actually on fire, the heat from the ground was so intense. Throughout that, we really did a great job, IMNSHO. We stuck together, had great spirits and made the best of it Maybe we were just a bit delirious from the heat. But I’m incredibly proud of what we all did, and that in as much is the reward itself.

We do know, that the community as a whole thanks us, not individually, but as part of our community. And sure, we do sometimes get benefits for that, but we certainly don’t do it for that. For example, after this last wave of fires, Cricket Australia gave CFA fire-fighters free admission to the one day match at Melbourne. That’s pretty big, and incredibly generous of them. A really nice way to say thankyou.

Oh, and Dave, note, Cricket Australia did NOT say we had to fight more fires next year [:P]

So an award is I think a way of saying we recognise what you’ve done and we thankyou. At least as a recipient, that’s how I see them.

But what about all that swag ?

The gifts that come with the MVP award are indeed substantial. The MSDN subscription alone is worth a considerable amount. I think it all depends on how you look at it.

Say for example Microsoft was to send us all cash equal to the price of the MSDN subscription. Obviously that’d be different, right ? So it’s not the face monetary value. This isn’t a gift we can resell. It’s a gift of empowerment. It really is much like a scholarship. It’s about ensuring we have the tools to pursue our passion.

How do I become an MVP ?

Usually after a public discussion on MVPness, there’s a flood of “how do I become a MVP ?” questions. Well, to those folks, before you even ask, let me tell you you are asking the wrong question.

What you should be asking is how do I share my passion.

But it’s not, IMO, just sharing passion. It’s about being true to yourself and hence to those you share with. It’s way to easy to confuse marketing with sharing of passion, yet the two are so very very different at heart. And it’s that “what’s in your heart”, that almost impossible judgement call some folks at MS have to make, is what makes a MVP. There’s no simple scorecard that says do such and such and you’ll be a MVP. It’s do what you love, and that should be in itself reward enough. If others thankyou and bestow upon you gifts, FANTASTIC !! But the day you do it for the gifts instead of the passion, is the day you start to be a Gollum.

My opinion.

So I’ve tried to give an overview of how I see the MVP program, first hand, from my experience. But there’s really no way I could ever do justice to the seven or so years of experiences, the joys, the friendships, the challenges, the exhilarations, the heartaches and frustrations and all those immense feelings that go with riding that passion train. You’ll have to live your own passions there πŸ˜‰

But hopefully, I’ve given you enough insight that perhaps you’ll understand my opinions when about all this MVPness stuff..

– What really makes a MVP ?

To me, it’s passion. Passion and credibility. The honesty and courage to stand up for what you think is right, not being intimidated or feeling indebted because of some trinkets.

– Should MVPs be churned over each year.

Hell no. The loss of the sense of community would be incredibly damaging, as too would the impedance mismatch it would cause on lines of communication at each turn over.

An award is as I explained above, recognition of what someone has done, not some political play toy. It should be given as such, without any hint of demanding more.

In fact, I think there should be recognition of those who have given what equate, in this industry, to life time contributions. I could rattle of probably half a dozen names in the VB community alone I think more than worthy of such a perpetual award. This is the approach most long lived community organisations have adopted. The CFA is a perfect example of this.

– Should Microsoft do more to encourage the community ?

Hell yes. They could start with making it easier for user groups at certain Melbourne offices (okay sorry Dave, but you knew that one would be coming, right ?)

Seriously though, of course Microsoft should continually be looking at ways of seeding the community with those good vibes. There’s a million different ways to say thankyou to people, the MVP award is just one of them.

-A final word on Dennis’s and Dave’s posts

Both Dennis and Dave try to tar the MVP name by making non specific slurs against existing MVPs. Dennis, the award is a gift. It’s tempting to tell both of them to step outside, but I’ll forgive them as I have absolutely no doubt it’s 99% ignorance behind what they said. The MVP world is vast, covers many different lands, people moving in different circles. We don’t all look the same, and that’s a good thing. That you don’t know why a MVP is a MVP is probably an indication that YOU need to get out more, or just learn to trust the judgment of others. You are not gods, you are not omniscient, you don’t know everything, so don’t sit in judgement of others okay ?

And to both of you, you both really should know better. Dennis, as was demonstrated on your blog by Sean, the channels of communication are wide open at Microsoft, and within the MVP administration and MVP community. There was absolutely no need for you to go an post unsubstantiated broad slurs against MVPs or the MVP process.

Dave, likewise. And Dave, you should really stop and have a good hard look at the “meaning” behind why you were given the certificate. It was not declaring you judge and jury, not encouraging you to post unsubstantiated slurs such as “most loquacious”, and “those that make the loudest blip on the radar, but don’t necessarily add value”. If you don’t know what those people do, then perhaps You don’t really deserve that certificate as you haven’t got to know the community.

I don’t know who it was you were attacking, and honestly, in your role, I really don’t expect you to publicly attack any MVP, little less do so with such a braid brush. Was it me, was it one of my “bro” ? Do you feel there weren’t better avenues to communicate your concerns within the program, and maybe get some enlightenment at the same time ? Seriously, you were so way out of line, you are buying the drinks for a LONG time to come.

Oh, and that goes for other people too. Usually each year we get a couple of newbies “wanting to change the program” shortly after they are awarded. It’s that magic ring thing, no doubt [;)] Fortunately that settles down with time (usually).


So there ya have it folks. I probably should say a lot more, but as is I feel I’ve said way too much πŸ˜‰

If you want to hear more , here’s some other MVP posts on the subject (chronologically I hope)

Clarke Scott

Mitch Denny

Nick Wienholt

Ken Schaefer

Greg Low



3 Comments so far

  1.   gerlach on February 8th, 2006          

    Great post.

    It is something that people have thought about for some time “What is it to be an MVP?”.

    I am an Xbox MVP (yea…I get flak for that). But, I love it. The way we work with the team, and then work with the community is amazing. This is NOT something you see from the other main competitiors (ie, Sony & Nintendo).

  2.   Piotrek on February 9th, 2006          

    MVP is an award but, because it is also regranted each year, along with its presents (free software ,privileges…) It is not an award anymore because you have something to loose, who cares you had been an MVP 5 years ago? Furthermore it raises questions like: why did you loose your status? πŸ™‚

    I’m not a MVP, but I feel that MVPs speeches are always extremely cautious, politically correct, worse, sometimes they loose their objectivity because they just lived in a MVP world for too long (You become a MVP, you get plenty of new friends, some MVP-friendly information channels, well, I presume)

    To become a MVP, you need: as you said, passion, credibility. But also: visibility. Well if you want to be a MVP, you have to actively act to become one. All passionate and credible guys are not MVPs.

    Is the MVP program able to bind free wills to Microsoft? Of course, but that depends on the person πŸ™‚

  3.   Morten Jokumsen on February 9th, 2006          

    Well said!

    /Morten Jokumsen, VB MVP