[Note: This was originally written for "FYI", the internal newsletter for the worldwide software engineering departments of Dendrite International]
Recently I disappeared for two days to run off to Seattle for a meeting at Microsoft, to discuss the future of MS's on-line support policies. The event was known as the "MVP Summit", and was for invited attendees only, and was completely on Microsoft’s tab.
Microsoft, like many software companies, has a forum on CompuServe where they provide support for their products. Actually, they have about 20 forums all together. One of them, known as CIS:MSLANG, deals with their compilers; this is the one I usually read. The idea here is that when some hapless user of one of MS’s product runs into trouble, he’d wander over to the forum specializing in that product on CompuServe, post a message, and some techie from Microsoft would answer it. Unfortunately, it don’t quite work that way -- There are a lot of hapless users out there, and they ask a lot of questions. Often it’s a real problem with the product, and Microsoft handles that. But the vast majority of the question are kinda dumb -- A lot post snippets of code and ask "Why won’t this compile?"-- dismissing the idea that it’s a bug in their code, and insisting that the problem is with the compiler. Others ask to be shown how to write a function to do some specific task. As writing and debugging code is a bit beyond the scope of what Microsoft provides as support, these messages tended to languish for a while. Other questions asked about things clearly explained in the manual -- in general, Microsoft’s support staff was just swamped. (I’d guess most of the CSR’s here can relate....)
However, as the global information superhighway is just one big happy family, there are plenty of other people reading the forum, who are more than willing to jump in and voluntarily help their fellow man. (It also provides a wonderful opportunity to impress their fellow man with their own mastery of the subject, and we’ll leave it to the reader to determine why I do it.)
Microsoft, upon see that there were a group of people willing to do their work for them, thought it would be a good idea to encourage them, and invent the "Most Valuable Profession" (MVP) program. Basically, when they spot someone answering a lot of questions -- correctly-- they declare him an MVP, making a big deal about it in the forum announcements. Other companies has similar groups: Borland calls them "TeamB", PowerSoft has "TeamPS", IBM has "TeamsOS/2", and OzCis, "TeamOz" (not a lot of imagination there, huh?)
"Encourage" is a rather loose term, since for the first year I was an MVP, I didn’t get much -- Microsoft paid my CompuServe bill for my time on the MSLANG forum, but as I as use an automated off-line reader, my actual billable time is only a few seconds a day. And, oh yes, I got a tee-shirt and some Post-it notes.
Recently, however, Microsoft realized that if they really got the MVP program to work, they could pull all of their support people off of CompuServe, and have the MVPs to it all. Trying to pull this off was the goal of the meeting in Seattle.
Microsoft figured they would start with the developers, and if that worked, progress to the MVPs for their user-oriented forums (Word and Excel and the rest) and so, invited all the MVPs who handled Visual C++, Visual Basic, and FoxPro out to their home office -- about 40 people, of which 29 were able to attend. (The VisualBasic & FoxPro people tended to be from the Midwest, while the C++ people were mostly from the NYC area, and Europe -- and yes, we had several there from Europe: two Germans, an Austrian, and a Belgian)
The first day was very laid-back-- An early morning flight to Washington -- many of us met on the plane -- and then, after lunch in the hotel, we were carted off to a cruise of Lake Washington. From the boat, we had a great view of Mount Rainier, but that didn’t cause as much excitement as the sight of the construction of Bill Gates mansion. By the time you read this, I should have finally finished the roll of film, and developed the pictures -- of the construction (I have none of Mount Rainier). After that, a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant on the shores of Lake Washington.
The next morning we finally got down to work. The guys from Microsoft explained how they wanted to get out of on-line support, and dump the work on us. They wanted to know what they could do to make us stand for this. We broke this down into two areas, which we tentatively designated the "MVP award" and the "MVP program".
The "award" part was just to have Microsoft promote it in a way we could leverage being a member: We were a group of 40 people in the world singled as experts in our field; it would be nice if someone else realized that. One person suggested treating it like an Oscar (tm): Even if one is no longer an MVP, they can always say they won the "Microsoft MVP award for Spring 1994". Other suggested letting us use the logo on our business cards.
The "MVP Program" involved what they could do to make the jobs of MVPs easily. Top in the list of suggestion was a free subscription to the Microsoft Developers Network, Level II CDROM, which contain every System Development Kit and all technical documentation put out by Microsoft. This could be considered both a reward, and a tool to help us help others on-line. Taking that one step further, it was proposed that we get a direct line into Microsoft support, so we could be guaranteed an immediate, authoritative answer to any question that stumps us, whether it’s our own, or someone’s on CompuServe. Other goodies included having us invited into all betas of Microsoft products, and free admission to one of Microsoft’s Tech*Ed conferences a year.
At one point in the afternoon, the meeting broke up for a bit, and we were escorted over to the Microsoft company store, where we allowed to buy up to $200 of stuff -- this is the only time in the two days I had to spend my own money. Of course, at the company store, $200 can go very far. All of Microsoft Office along with Bookshelf was $35, as was Windows NT Workstation. (They retail for $495 each). Cinemania, Encarta, and all of their other CDROM product were $10 each. (I spend 199.25 there....)
Back at the meeting, Microsoft brief us on what’s coming up in their development product, but I had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement promising them I won’t tell you what they told me. It wasn’t very exciting anyway. They also bypassed any mention of what they have planned for Visual C++, but while I as at the company store, I run in to the one programmer at Microsoft I know, and he gave me the skinny on what up with VisualC++ 3.0 (but I think it’s still covered under the NDA).