I’ve recently been in several discussions about Microsoft’s MVP Program – with a podcast episode on it publishing 17-March – and it’s gotten me thinking a lot.
First, some background.
The MVP Award started in 1993, as a way for Microsoft to recognize the folks who were volunteering so much of their time to help Microsoft customers succeed. This all happened, for the most part, on CompuServe, which was the world’s Internet at the time. The Award was really just a “thank-you” to those folks, and a way to offer them some swag in appreciation for their help.
In 1999, Microsoft discontinued the program for a whopping four days. They felt that, with the advent of the Internet and so many outlets becoming available for customers to use for support, the program had become unwieldy and less-necessary. A hue and cry arose, resulting not only in the program’s resurrection, but the creation of a more formal structure for nominations, acceptance, and so on.
I was first awarded in 2004, mainly for my work on Windows Server 2003 Delta Guide, believe it or not. MVPs are asked to sign a comprehensive Nondisclosure Agreement (NDA), which permits them to participate in things like MVP Summit, Product Group Interactions, and to be added to product group mailing lists. If you don’t sign the NDA, you can still get your MVP swag – these days, a perpetual award trophy, a certificate, a pin, and the like – but you don’t really “participate” beyond there. The swag is the “recognition” part of the program, while the participation is mainly a chance for product groups to engage more directly with their biggest fans/critics. Some product groups take advantage of that; others don’t.
The program’s acceptance criteria is a huge pain point for a lot of community members:
- The criteria is completely opaque.
- Product groups have to budget to support their MVPs; that budget places some limits on how many MVPs they can “carry” at a time.
- Nobody even knows who makes the final decision on who gets accepted.
- Nobody knows what it takes to be re-awarded (I’ve received 16 consecutive awards, for example, while others receive one and that’s it).
I think the “pain” comes form the fact that MVPs are, by and large, respected by their community groups, and a lot of people want a chance to earn that same respect. Being tapped for recognition by Microsoft is a huge deal, and it puts you in a tiny pool of technology professionals – I believe the program currently has only a few thousand awardees globally each year. The chance to be an “insider” is also pretty appealing.
And my commentary here isn’t intended in any way to detract from all that.
As I wrote in Be the Master, the value of something you offer to an audience cannot be determined by you. Value can only be determined by the recipient. This is true in all exchanges: if the local grocery store decides to price milk at $100/gallon, people would quit buying it. Stores set their own prices, but they do so only with the consent of their customers. Customers really set the value of a thing; stores have to guess what that is, and price accordingly. Witness Apple’s uncharacteristic missteps with HomePod pricing, for example.
So if your goal is to receive an MVP Award, you have to understand the value Microsoft places on that. You can’t simply “help the community;” you have to understand Microsoft’s unpublished, unspoken, unknowable motives behind the award. You have to understand that there is likely to be a long list of candidates, that budgetary constraints will “set a bar” somewhere on that list, and that you may well be stack-ranked below the bar for reasons that are not apparent or discoverable. The MVP Award is Microsoft’s recognition of you.
The MVP Award is not your community’s recognition of you, nor is the MVP Award a proxy for that community recognition.
And therein lies, I think, both a problem and an opportunity.
Most technology communities – and I’m speaking to developers, admins, security folks, data people, everyone – do a fairly poor job of recognizing their true heroes. I mean, people say “thanks” on Twitter all the time, people leave positive comments on blogs, and all that – I’m not saying communities aren’t encouraging or appreciative. But you don’t see many tech communities making a cohesive effort to seriously recognize people in an MVP Award program-like way.
Sure: PowerShell.org ran its Community Heroes program for a while, and the PowerShell product team picked that up for a bit as a kind of ersatz, “near-MVP” recognition. But Community Heroes never gained a lot of traction, suffered from a lack of nominations, and didn’t rise to the level of visibility that made it “equal” to the MVP Award in prestige.
Point is, those are all fixable problems.
Raising awareness of a program is a basic marketing effort, one that a determined-enough community could undertake at essentially no cost via a coordinated, determined social media effort.
Prestige could easily come by having first parties – like Microsoft – offer their congratulations to awardees, and perhaps a small swag bag to go with it.
Privilege could come from an independent “Summit” for awardees, perhaps tacked on to something like PowerShell Summit (or another event) to reduce expenses. Invite product team members to participate, of course, but keep it all non-NDA (easier with PowerShell, now that it’s open source) and keep the community in charge of things, rather than Microsoft.
Transparency can be created by having a defined set of criteria, enabling recognition through many paths: continual contribution to important open-source projects, continual education via blogs or podcasts or whatever, continual assistance in Q&A forums, and so on – continual being a keyword. A panel of people could publish and evaluate each year’s nominees against that criteria.
Sidebar: My condo building’s HOA used to pay for a “Lifestyle Program,” which involved a social director coordinating several monthly events for building residents. Some of these included tastings at local restaurants, pub crawls, and other events where the HOA picked up the tab. We discontinued the program in 2020, because we were facing an HOA dues hike, and didn’t want to execute that while also paying for beer for a small group of residents. I spoke to one resident at a mixer, and said, “you know, we can do this ourselves. It doesn’t take that much organization.” That person replied, “yeah, but I don’t want to do any work, I just want someone else to do it for me.”
The moral there is, “you can’t have nice things if you’re not willing to go get them.”
I think a community as rich, as robust, as connected, and as friendly as the PowerShell community can do better for itself. I don’t think it needs James at PowerShell.org to step in and figure out how to recognize the best amongst us, for example. I think even being nominated for recognition can be a way to expose the community to more people, bring people closer together, and create a more tight-knit community. But it’s going to take some dedicated individuals who want this to happen to make it happen. Nobody’s going to do it for us, and I frankly don’t think we should outsource recognition to Microsoft. Let Microsoft do their thing, for their ever-evolving reasons, and let’s respect that. But let’s also do our thing alongside.
Maybe some willing writer in the community take each nominated person and writes up a profile of them: what they do, what their background is, how they support the community, and so on. Worst case, someone who’s doing a great job gets some basic recognition, and more eyeballs on their work. Maybe a community-run podcast brings nominees on in small groups to talk about their work, what it means to them, and what it means to the broader community. Maybe those nominees get reviewed by a selection panel, with awards decided upon by that panel. Hell, maybe there’s some budget from sponsors to create some swag – a trophy, a jacket, a pin, a challenge coin, or whatever. Maybe there’s a full-court press by as many people in the community as possible to spread the news on social media – with everyone agreeing to use what social reach they have to support the recognition program that ultimately benefits everyone.
Someone – more likely, someones – are going to have to make it their mission to make this happen. People who recognize the value of recognition. These people may perhaps contribute little or nothing else to the community other than building and running a program like this, but surely that is an important contribution.
It perhaps starts with a simple question: why is recognition important? Would you want to be recognized as a way of helping your career, raising your profile, simply acknowledging your contribution, or something else? (Seriously, drop a comment with your own reasons – might as well get some ideas down). If Microsoft discontinued the MVP Award – something I’m sure the company discusses internally every year or so when budget time comes around – what would replace it, and why?
And maybe the answer for many people who’ve sought the MVP Award is different. I know at least one person who told me, “all me heroes are MVPs, and I want to know I’m good enough to join their ranks.” That is rank imposter syndrome; you don’t need a “program” to tell you that you’re valuable, and you don’t need to be “good enough” to join your heroes. Screw your heroes. Look at who you’re helping, and measure your value from what they think of you. Don’t become your heroes. Just be a hero. Or, you know, be the Master.
Anyway, I’d love to see folks in the PowerShell community give some real thought to all this. When we started PowerShell Summit back in 2013, Microsoft explicitly didn’t give us a dime. “We want to support this,” they said, “but we know we’ll get distracted at some point and not be able to. We want it to be able to continue without us.” They were amongst the wisest words ever said to me by a Microsoft employee, and it’s why Summit remains not only self-sufficient, but is able to support other worthy causes as well. So I’d love to see “recognition of community contributions” be something the community owns, because who knows what Microsoft might think from moment to moment? If recognition is important, why outsource it to someone whose motives may or may not line up to what’s important to the community?
The MVP Award has been an important part of my life and career, but it’s something that happened because of what I was already doing, and what I was going to do regardless. I got the recognition that really mattered in other ways: when people bought my books, attended my classes, offered me a drink at a conference, and just shook my hand and said, “thank you” when they met me. That’s what encouraged me and kept me going. Maybe there’s a way for the community itself to do that on a larger scale, and encourage others to keep going as well.