Microsoft's MVP program turns 20

Current MVPs reminisce and voice concerns about their changing role and the future of the program

Back in the day, many of us flocked to CompuServe forums to ask questions, give answers, and beg and berate Microsoft employees to learn the latest about Windows (3.1 and NT), Word, Excel, Access, the MSN beta, MS-Basic, FoxPro, and other products that bedeviled early-early adopters. If you think Facebook is a time sink, you should've seen the geeks on CompuServe forums, dishing up ideas and help by the heaping bucketful.

One of those early participants, Calvin Hsia -- then an enthusiast on the FoxPro forum, later Microsoft's Lead Developer for Visual FoxPro, and now on the Visual Studio team -- put together a list of the most active and most helpful posters on the various forums. Somebody at Microsoft must have looked at the list and said something like, "Holy Moses, these people are doing all sorts of good work, promoting our products and helping our customers -- and they're all volunteers."

In March 1993, Microsoft invited 34 of the people on Hsia's list to come to the very first TechEd, in Orlando, Fla. About a dozen attended. The summit was a great way for the world's most helpful Windows product experts to meet members of the Microsoft dev teams, exchange ideas, and learn about each other's wants and limitations. Bob Umlas (Excel) and John Viescas (Access) were among the original crew, as was Hsia, and they're still active in answering supplicants' questions.

Viescas lists the original MVPs on the MVP Award Program Blog. You may recognize some of their names:

(Basic) Daniel A. Barclay, J.D. Evans, Gregg Irwin, Costas Kitsos, Jim Mack, Mark Novisoff, Ian Taylor, Jonathan Zuck. (Access) Jim Ferguson, Ken Getz, Len Popp, John Viescas. (FoxPro) Jim Booth, Pat Adams, Tamar E. Granor, Yair Alan Griver, Calvin Hsia, Nancy Jacobsen, Joel A. Neely, Tom Rettig, Lisa C. Slater. (Languages) Dave Braunschweig, Steve Dirickson, Doris Malott, Thomas Woelfer. (WinNT) Arthur Knowles. (Win32 API) Douglas Hamilton, David A. Solomon. (WinSDK) Brian Myers, Michael Geary, Karen Hazzah, Brent Rector, Jeffrey Richter, Paul Yao.

Six months later, the MVP program had officially taken hold. Patty Stonesifer -- who later became a Microsoft senior VP, and then the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- signed the welcome letters. Microsoft named Janel Bersant-Madrazo as the new MVP marketing manager. Section leaders in the largest Microsoft forums on CompuServe -- Microsoft Developer Services, MS-Basic, Microsoft Languages, Win32, Windows SDK, FoxPro, Access, and Windows NT pre-release -- nominated non-Microsoft employees for the honor of becoming MVPs, based on the quality and quantity of help they delivered. By November 1993, there were 38 official MVPs, hailing from the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Fast-forward 20 years. There are now about 4,000 Microsoft MVPs -- all volunteers, all non-Microsoft employees -- with expertise in 90 different Microsoft technologies. They live in 90 countries and speak more than 40 languages. Microsoft guesstimates that the MVPs help about a million people a day.

Yes, a day.

I had a chance to talk with two of my favorite current MVPs and ask them about the past, present, and future of the MVP program.

If you ever search for details about Windows, you've undoubtedly hit the Microsoft Answers site and you know the handle "PA Bear." Robear Dyer (aka PA Bear) may be the most prolific (and accurate) Windows MVP in history, with an encyclopedic knowledge of every WinNook and cranny. He's been an MVP for 11 years. I learn a lot from him, all the time.

PA Bear reminisced for a bit about the good old days -- back when the entire MVP Summit fit into one room, albeit a big one, at the Microsoft Conference Center. Then he got quite serious. Here's what he says:

I feel that the MVP Program lost quite of bit of its caché/reputation when Marketing assumed ownership from Consumer Support Services. As a total computer newbie years ago, I was impressed by MVPs' dedication to helping users like myself. Many of us have been proud to carry on that tradition even though Marketing considers us (expects us to be) Microsoft evangelists/enthusiasts. Personally, I feel that they need us more than we need them.

In the long run, however, the MVP Program has been a boon to all users -- and interacting with our colleagues has been a boon to us.

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