Reflections on MVP Summit 2010
Having just returned yesterday from the 2010 MVP Summit, I wanted to get my thoughts and observations down before too much more time passes. This was my fourth time to attend Summit and, just like every summit previously, it was a completely different experience for me.
Before I get into my observations about this year's event, I wanted to explain why attending Summit is important for me. And to do that properly, I need to explain a bit about what Summit actually is and who the MVPs are that get to attend.
Each year (actually each quarter of each year), a team of people at Microsoft review the contributions that thousands of professionals make to their chosen community for the previous 12 months. Those who exceed the criteria determined by Microsoft are awarded Most Valuable Professional (MVP) designation for a one-year term. Then, at the end of that year, their contributions over the previous 12 months are reviewed and, if they again exceed the standard set by Microsoft, their award is renewed. There are currently around 4000 MVPs globally, and they represent individuals who share their expertise in nearly 100 Microsoft technologies.
One of the benefits of being an MVP is the opportunity to attend the annual Summit that Microsoft holds as a "Thank You" for MVP community. Microsoft hosts these individuals in the Seattle area for a four-day period filled with keynote presentations from key Microsoft personnel and interactions with various teams on the Redmond campus. In meetings with their product groups (my product group is the HSBS team under Windows Server as my award specialization is Small Business Server), attendees have an opportunity to learn about upcoming products, provide input on future directions for the product space, and participate in a number of discussions that fall under a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). IN fact, one of the most important aspects of being an MVP is the NDA that we sign annually, as that is the foundation for the trust that exists between the product groups and the MVPs, and any MVP who violates the NDA is immediately dismissed from the program.
Microsoft does help offset the cost of the hotel and does provide meals and other entertainment, otherwise the cost to attend Summit is entirely the responsibility of the attendee. This year, there were about 1300 MVPs who descended on Bellevue for Summit activities. While the US and Canada MVP groups boast the largest national attendee numbers at Summit because of their proximity to Redmond (and thus lower travel costs), large numbers of MVPs travel from Australia, India, Russia and its surrounding areas, South America, and so on. There is a great international flavor to the event.
Each year, I have had to weigh the costs of attending Summit (travel expenses, time away from the office, etc.) with the benefits of attending the Summit, and each of the four years that I've been able to attend Summit (there was no Summit during 2006, my first year as an MVP) I have been willing to encumber the costs to attend. This year, given the state of the economy in addition to the outstanding workload at EON Consulting, it was a more difficult choice to attend than in previous years. In fact, there were moments in the week leading up to Summit that I seriously considered changing my plans. At EON Consulting, we have a number of projects underway, and my being out of the office with significantly limited access to e-mail and voice mail would put those projects on hold. We also have a new staff member, but he has only been working with us for two weeks and is still learning the ropes, so making sure he has the support he needs to help our customers while I'm away presents a challenge. Plus, there are some tasks that only I can perform (yes, still working on the delegation schedule) and a longer turnaround time for those could have an impact on some of our customers. Basically, me being out of the office this past week could have had a significant impact on EON Consulting's ability to support our customers, and that has larger ramifications than just slower response times.
Ultimately I decided that I needed to be in attendance at Summit this year, and now that I have returned, I am really glad that I did. Here's why:
1. I had an opportunity to interact with the development team for the HSBS product group (which encompasses the Windows Home Server product as well as Small Business Server). During these interactions, my MVP peers and I have the ear of the development teams as they look for feedback on product design decisions they have made or are considering making. While almost all of these discussions occurred under NDA and I cannot share them with anyone, I can say that the product team was very interested in out feedback about the current products, our opinions on the shortcomings and the successes, and how we think the new products will work within our space. In short, that means we were able to share horror stories as well as significant successes with the team regarding the deployments we actively manage. I was able to share the experiences of my customers and my peers and provide feedback directly to the development teams at Microsoft based on the pains and benefits of those contacts. I was able to share the stories of our smaller sites along with the sometimes very different stories of our larger sites so that the product team can incorporate that very real-world feedback into their design decisions. While it will take some time to see how the feedback provided this year will be incorporated into new products (if at all), I can say that in years past, the feedback from MVPs has had a direct impact on the roll out of SBS 2003 R2 and SBS 2008.
2. I had an opportunity to interact with two key contacts with the Microsoft support team for the SBS product. Granted, I had worked alongside one of these individuals during my time in Microsoft SBS support, but we had several discussions regarding current support issues seen by the Microsoft support teams, and they also shared information regarding some of the support tools they use to diagnose problems and how to use those tools. We try to keep a healthy relationship with these contacts at Microsoft support so that we can communicate quickly should we see a problem that looks to be a trend that could impact a large number of SBS installations (the SharePoint certificate issue in November 2003 and the network problems following the installation of Windows Server 2003 SP2 on SBS 2003 servers are examples that come quickly to mind). The SBS Support team does a great job of maintaining a blog of technical issues and workarounds/resolutions, and we are able to communicate both ways about that (they remind us that they've already blogged about an issue we've seen, we recommend they create a new post on issues that we hear about frequently).
3. Most importantly, I had multiple opportunities to share with my MVP peers. Probably more so in the SBS space than in any other product space for Microsoft, the SBS MVPs tend to be business owners as well as technicians, so we spend a great deal of time discussing the various aspects of running a successful Small Business IT Support practice as well as the various bits and bytes of technology. In two separate hallway discussions I had on the fly with other MVPs, I was able to work out a solution to a challenge that has been facing one of my customers for a while. In that quick 5-minute chat, one of my peers from Florida offered an insight I hadn't considered for a solution, and just by mentioning something in passing, I've been able to devise a solution to help solve this particular pain point for this customer. I also had an opportunity to spend some time with some newer MVPs and get to know them and their backgrounds and experiences so that we can see how we could work together to the betterment of our own customers. And I was able to catch up with some "old friends" (Microsoft staff and other MVPs) and share recent experiences, challenges, successes, and so on. I am really fortunate to have the relationships that I do with the other MVPs who work in the SMB space as I have an extra set of eyes that I can turn to when I find myself unable to see the forest for the trees.
I also used Summit as an opportunity to get away for a few extra days with my wife. We had spent our honeymoon in Seattle back in 1994, and even though I've returned to Seattle probably a dozen times since then, I hadn't been able to take her with me on any of those excursions. Thanks to her school schedule, we were able to spend the weekend before Summit on a small "second honeymoon" and be away from real life for a bit, which is honestly something that everyone needs regularly and we haven't had in quite a while. That little break helped rejuvenate my energy and spirits, which I really needed for the remainder of the week as Summit was exhausting!
Unfortunately, I did end up doing quite a bit of work during Summit activities, so I wasn't able to participate in everything that went on during the week. I had to miss the opening keynote session on Tuesday, but was able to attend the extended discussion with the Microsoft Support team that was scheduled for Tuesday night. Well, up until another work task had to be done. Wednesday, I was able to participate in the deep dive sessions with the product teams, but did get called away late in the afternoon for a support issue. But I did attend the product group dinner activity in the evening uninterrupted, followed by another extended discussion with a couple of contacts. Thursday morning also went smoothly through the product sessions, although I did get pulled out for a special session with another team at one point and was able to provide some significant feedback for that session. The afternoon brought back more customer issues to resolve, and Thursday night I opted not to attend the large group gathering with the bulk of the MVP attendees and instead had a quiet but productive dinner with other associates. Friday I was able to finally complete an interview I'd been promising with another associate for nearly a year, but then the customer calls started coming in, and I ended up missing the remaining sessions and a group dinner that night to handle several crisis situations that came up.
All in all, I probably didn't have the best Summit experience I could have had because of the work interruptions. But since I wasn't being paid to be out at Summit (I have had previous work trips to Seattle where I was getting paid for my time, and those times I gave priority to MS activities over my other business activities), I really had no qualms about missing Summit activities to handle customer issues. Would I have been better off, and by reflection would EON Consulting have been better off, if I had stayed in Texas and NOT attended Summit? No, even with all the interruptions, I gained valuable insights that I will be able to use, in some cases immediately, for the benefit of all my customers. Even if I can't focus 100% of my time to Summit activities, it's still a wise investment for me as ultimately my participation in Summit activities will benefit my customer base, and I believe that is always a good investment.
Will some of our customers see immediate results from this trip? Yes. Will all of our customers realize some benefits from this investment in time? I think so. Over the next few years, especially as technologies and methodologies change in the SMB sector, the discussions I had and the exchanges I made this past week will pay out for my business over the long haul. So I return to Texas completely exhausted, and working most of Sunday to catch up on some of the items that came up during the week, but I am invigorated for what is coming down the road and how I'll be able to use the information I've gathered to help our customers in better and more efficient ways. And I've developed new relationships within Microsoft that will also be a benefit over time to my immediate customers and the larger SMB space as well.
I am incredibly humbled and blessed to be included as part of the Microsoft MVP community. And should I get awarded again in 2011, I can assure you that I will be attending whatever Summit activities that Microsoft has planned for the MVP group so that I can continue to better myself, better my business, and better the community!