Ron and I spent last week at the Microsoft MVP Global Summit. One of the things we talked about again and again was how surprised we were that Microsoft generally values our opinions and how different this is than the other large company we work with: Citrix.
We’d like to take this opportunity to talk about why we like Microsoft’s MVP program and to encourage Citrix to adopt a similar program. In fact, we openly encourage all software vendors to take a hard look at Microsoft’s MVP program and to do everything they can to implement their own version of it.
I guess we should point out that some people accuse Microsoft MVPs of drinking the Kool-Aid and losing impartiality once they become MVPs. We personally believe that nothing could be further from the truth. For example, several of the MVPs at the conference used Mac laptops, and many (especially the security MVPs) used Linux laptops and wore penguin lapel pins.
Microsoft’s focus with the MVP program is not just to win the support of a select group of IT professionals (a good enough reason by itself), but to build a stronger client base. Microsoft leverages their MVPs as a way to support their products and to help them get a firmer grasp on where they should go with their technologies. In return, the MVPs are able to contribute to future versions and have input on fixes and tactical problems. It’s truly a win-win situation.
The Microsoft MVP community members are big fans of their technology, much like the open source community. One of the really cool things about the open source community is that the product development teams are typically more accessible than those for commercially developed software. Building this external MVP community provides a way for Microsoft (or any vendor) to see what is really needed and wanted in the real world of IT.
Let’s review some of the aspects of the MVP program and how each of these is beneficial to the MVPs and to Microsoft.
Internal Microsoft.com email addresses for MVPs
MVPs are able to read and interact with the internal distribution lists for their product team. This allows the MVPs to learn more about the products while Microsoft gets realtime feedback and input from people working with their technology every day.
Invitations into product test labs
The Terminal Server product team at Microsoft has invited us into their labs to work with the products and let us tell them what we like. In doing so, Microsoft has a chance to get real feedback from a wide spectrum of customers (since most MVPs are consultants who work with a wide variety of customers).
Last week we spent almost a full day in focus groups with the Terminal Server product team. These were real. (I mean Ron and I are definitely known to speak our minds.) The Microsoft folks asked us about what they were doing right, where their products fit and don’t fit, and how to improve them. We then were able to list out the features that we thought were missing. They didn’t waste time by asking us whether we liked this or that. Instead, they said “Tell us what we need to do with this product in 3-5 years.” What did they walk away with? A list of what’s and why’s and what the customers saw as the most important issues.
Access to the product team
The Terminal Server product team reiterated to us again and again that if there’s anything we need or have questions about, we should email or call them. They want the right information out in the public and they want it coming from the experts. They told us that if we weren’t talking to the product team on a regular basis then there was something wrong.
Access to beta software
Microsoft MVPs will be among the first groups of people to get access to beta products, often before the products even make it into the official beta programs.
MVP Nomination and selection
One of the most unique aspects of this program is how new MVPs are selected. When the MVP program first started 10 years ago, Microsoft selected frequent posters to the microsoft.public newsgroups to be MVPs. However, that process has changed over time. Now, new MVPs are nominated by existing MVPs, not by Microsoft. This is not a “we like him, he’s nice to us” type of selection. It’s more like a “He or she is great at the technology, active in the community, and we need their opinion” type of selection. (If you only select people that tell you what you want to hear or that you’re doing everything right, what good is that?)
In fact, many of Microsoft’s biggest critics are also MVPs. I’m personally responsible for aggregating all of the available Bear Paw information together on my site, and I know for a fact that both Microsoft and Citrix were very upset with some of the things I’ve written. Did this disqualify me from becoming and MVP? No. All this, and I’m not even an official Microsoft partner, and I don’t work for an official Microsoft partner. I’m not even an MCSE.
The MVP Global Summit
When we got to Microsoft’s campus (which is big—probably 50 buildings), we were struck that there were signs and banners everywhere thanking the MVPs. In addition, there were posters throughout the buildings reminding employees where 90% of Microsoft’s revenue comes from (Partners) and where the real focus should be (user experience).
Interaction with Microsoft
When we say something critical of a Microsoft product, a Terminal Server product manager at Microsoft’s response is “Oh my gosh! You (as a community leader) are so important to us, and we can’t believe that we’re doing anything that would make you think that. Please, tell us how we can improve and what we can do better.” This just amazed us. It’s the whole “Good to Great” concept.
When I say something critical of a Citrix product, Citrix’s head of public relations sends me an email saying that it’s obvious I’ve never used the product and they’d like to schedule a briefing so they can tell me what their product does. (They never bother asking what they could do to improve their product or what my experience has been that makes me think that way.) It’s even worse if you work for a Citrix partner. In these cases Citrix has been known to contact your boss and explain that it’s not a good idea to for an important partner to employ someone bashing Citrix.
The bottom line: When criticized, Microsoft asks what they can do to improve their products, and Citrix tells me my criticism is wrong and that I just don’t like Citrix.
In this age of the Internet where information wants to be free, any kid with a $200 computer can be the next Matt Drudge. Corporations can no longer control what’s being said about them. (Actually, any attempts to “lock down” what’s being said ends up making the corporation look stupid.)
So what’s a vendor to do? Stop wishing it were 1995 when you could wield control over what was said about your products. Instead, embrace the community. Value the opinions of community leaders. Start a dialog and help them help you. Microsoft gets this. Citrix must get this.
A Plan for Citrix
People have criticized me in the past for saying negative things without backing them up with new ideas. (Sort of a "oh yeah, think you can do better? Let’s hear it!") To that end, Ron and I wrote an article last week that listed ten specific things that Citrix can do to win back the SMB server-based computing market from companies like Microsoft, Jetro, or Tarantella.
We’re taking that same approach and providing a plan here. Here’s what we think Citrix should do to embrace the community:
- First of all, Citrix should create its own MVP program. Citrix currently has a customer advisory panel made up of people from their largest customers. This is a great program and a step in the right direction. However, it needs to go further. Citrix should choose people who are out in the field and in the community who are really adding value to the Citrix community. This should not be a love fest. (Don’t get us wrong. We love Citrix. After working with it for so many years, how could we not?) It should not be limited to the closest brown-nosing partners.
- Citrix should pick (with the help of CCS, SEs, and partners) 15 to 20 people. These should be broken up by technology, like maybe 10 for presentation server, a couple each for Conference Manager, Secure Access Manager, Password Manager, and GoToMyPC.
- Citrix should then invite these people down to Ft. Lauderdale for a few days. Let them talk with the product teams. Invite them into the labs to see what is going. Talk to them about why changes are being made and the thoughts behind it. Talk about the long term vision. Ask them where their pain points are and how they can be solved or how they can make the product better.
- Give these MVPs the highest level of technical support possible, even (gasp!) if they don’t work for an official Citrix partner or if they don’t have any certifications. You can bet your bottom dollar they’re not going to “waste” the support group’s time with simple questions.
- Create some kind of email distribution list that can be shared with the externally identified MVPs and the internal product teams.
Above all, Citrix should listen to their MVPs. If someone says he sees a limitation in the products, it should be taken to heart. Citrix employees shouldn’t argue with him about why it’s not a real limitation. Even if they don’t agree with, they should at least hear him out.
The bottom line is that MVPs are not “ringers” for the company but rather the real people who are out on the street every day talking about this industry and these technologies.
Citrix recently spent $14M on a marketing campaign that included billboards and radio spots, even though they are not focusing on the SMB and consumer space. Why not spend only 1% ($140,000) of that marketing funding on an MVP program? $140k should be more than enough to fund the MVP activities of 20 people for a year.
The bottom line is that in today’s environment, Citrix makes it too hard for people in the field to get solid information. What happens when we want to ask “Why does this xxx when it should yyy?” The only way to get this information today is to beg a local SE to get the information. (They usually just tell you they don’t know two weeks later anyway.) If we finally get an answer from CCS, it’s different than what the SEs said, and vice versa (but that’s another story…) We end up having to go through a back door to the internal guys anyway.
A softer, more approachable, and less stonewalling Citrix would go a long way.