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How I Lost, Regained and then Turned Down an MVP Award

What Happened To Me

I’d say that 2011 was a pretty good year for me as a .NET open source developer. After all, Caliburn.Micro had it’s first official release in April 2011 just in time for the Mix Open Source fest. At the festival, the framework had a great showing. I had tons of people literally coming up to me and dumping *all* their voting tokens into my bucket. In fact there were so many people constantly standing around my booth that my bucket didn’t even get collected for counting in the official vote. Thankfully someone standing around realized this and helped to remedy the situation. Needless to say, it was a successful event. Over the next several months I did two additional non-trivial releases and then began work on the v1.3 release. I also added support for Silverlight 5, WP7 Mango and preliminary support for WinRT/Metro. Furthermore, I began refactoring the entire framework so that it could be modularized into “feature” packages allowing a variety of different uses of the framework via Nuget. I even tested CM’s EventAggregator and IoC container to make sure they would run without issue on iOS and Android devices via Unity3d. In addition to the actual framework development, I wrote documentation, blogged, fixed dozens of bugs and added new features. I also participate daily in the Caliburn.Micro forums which currently have about 1k discussions. Caliburn.Micro is now used as the core enabling framework for thousands of applications across WPF, Silverlight and various versions of WP7. Depending on the day, Caliburn/Caliburn.Micro is the second or third most trafficked Xaml-related open source project in existence.

I’m not trying to toot my own horn here. I’m just trying to set up a context. Considering the enormous amount of work in both creating the project and supporting the community…you can imagine my surprise when I received the “form letter” stating that my MVP was not being renewed because I hadn’t accomplished enough in the last 12 months….and what I did do did not “stand out” in the community. Here’s the actual quote:

“The MVP Award is presented to individuals for their past year’s contributions to online and offline communities, which stand out from others in the communities that focus on Microsoft technologies. Your contributions were diligently evaluated over the past year against the contributions of others in the Silverlight community.  As a result of this evaluation, you were not awarded as a MicrosoftMVP for the January 2012 award cycle.”

Now, I’m not really “attached” to being an MVP. I don’t attach a lot of self-worth or emotional satisfaction to it. It’s a nice thing to have though. So, I was really caught off guard by this and wondered how the MVP program could come to the conclusion that I hadn’t significantly contributed in the last year.

What I Did

Being surprised as I was, and not being too fond of “generic” letters , I made one simple tweet:

“Apparently Caliburn/Caliburn.Micro and my support of it is not a ‘good enough’ contribution for Microsoft. I lost my MVP this year.”

The Community Response

Immediately following this tweet, a storm of people responded with great affection for my work and general encouragement. I want to say thank you to everyone who responded so kindly. Paired with the encouragement was a general sense of befuddlement around how the MVP program could make such a conclusion. Apparently, I wasn’t the only surprised individual.

I thought to myself “mistakes happen.” But as I was surveying the twitter-verse, I also learned that Jeremy Miller (StructureMap, FubuMVC, Storyteller) and Daniel Cazzulino (Moq) also lost their MVPs; two other prominent open source developers. Now I had had some problem during the re-evaluation process indicating my new MVP Lead clearly didn’t understand the nature of open source. When I was up for renewal, he asked me to fill out a rather ridiculous spreadsheet. If you could see it, you would notice something missing? There’s no category for Open Source!!! There’s not even a way to report it. I had this problem in previous years when I was asked to update my online MVP profile (a hideously painful UX by the way). The program uses that to evaluate you as well. Guess what? There’s no way to report Open Source work!!! Do you see a trend here?

--Start Rant

The thing that really disturbed me was that my MVP Lead didn’t know who I was or understand the nature of my contributions. What is it that an MVP Lead does anyways? I can’t tell. I get a useless mass email every week or so telling me things about Microsoft I don’t care about. Half of the time it isn’t even readable due to bad formatting, etc. My Lead never contacted me personally during the year. When I came up for renewal, I had to *defend* why I should have my award renewed using a bad Excel spreadsheet and a really bad online form which don’t even allow me to capture my real contributions. Shouldn’t it be an MVP Lead’s job to know his MVPs and what it is they are doing? Seriously. I sat down and calculated how much time it would take me to fill out the Excel form and the online form, plus writing a custom report for everything that wasn’t able to be captured via those broken mechanisms. I took that number of hours and multiplied it by my hourly consulting rate and determined that the money I would make working exceeded the material value of the MVP award. Haven’t I given enough free work to Microsoft? This isn’t a personal attack on *my* MVP Lead. I don’t know the guy. But, I wonder whether the role of MVP Lead is improperly defined or under-defined, because I know that I’m not the only person who has had this exact problem repeatedly.

--End Rant

Microsoft Employees to the Rescue

Also following my tweet, a number of Microsoft employees stepped in to investigate.  I have to thank them here personally. Much thanks to you (in no particular order) Tim Heuer, Pete Brown, Joe Healey, Glenn Block and Scott Hanselman. At one point I heard that this issue had even been escalated internally to Scott Guthrie. It’s truly an honor that so many well known and respected individuals *inside* Microsoft stepped up to personally investigate my situation. Thank you again. This is a tremendously good thing and points out something of great importance. Over the years I’ve very rarely had negative experiences with individual Microsoft employees. But, I’ve almost always had bad experiences interacting with groups, programs, etc. It seams that somehow the opinions of the individuals are lost in the system. That’s a real shame.

If the opinion of many trusted Microsoft employees and the opinion of so many community members is not reflected in the MVP Award, then there certainly is a problem with the program…or I don’t understand what the program is.

An MVP Again…for a few hours

Thanks to the work of the gentlemen listed above, I was informed last night that I was being re-awarded an MVP for the 2012 year. I understand this sort of thing never happens. But, I’d already had several days to reflect on the MVP program and had several conversations with various people leading to several realizations listed above and several more detailed below. I was very unsettled.

Why I Turned Down the MVP

This morning I responded to the award email with a respectful decline. Below are some of the reasons I chose to no longer be a part of the program and why I doubt I will participate again, unless serious reform happens.

Becoming an MVP

One of the problems with the MVP program is that the whole thing is basically a mystery. Here’s where I first knock heads with the program. I value transparency and openness, even if it’s difficult or sometimes painful. The MVP program does not value openness. That’s why it’s basically a mystery how you get nominated for an MVP or what you have to do to get one. Let me do a little exposé here. In my case, I’m fairly sure that my local Developer Evangelist saw the work I was doing in the local community and submitted me. That’s a good thing and it’s probably fairly common. But what happens from there? It’s my understanding that it’s completely out of DPE’s hands at that point. Who knows? From what I can tell, if the MVP program is interested in you, you then have to submit proof of your accomplishments to them. I remember doing this. It’s not like a normal award where the organization does the work to investigate your contributions and then decides whether or not to give you an award. No. If you are being considered for nomination, you literally have to *sell* yourself to the MVP program…and selling is exactly what you are doing. Want to know why? Have you noticed that the MVP disciplines are strictly organized around internal product groups, regardless of how hindering to the particular MVP discipline it appears to be? An example of this is that Client AppDev, Silverlight, WP7 and Blend are all separate MVP groups even though they should be unified. Because they are different products, they are different MVPs (actually, they should all be the same product, but that’s a subject for another blog post). Do you know why this is? I’ll tell you: because each product group literally gets an MVP “budget” which they use to “purchase” MVPs for the year. Personally, I’m offended by this notion. But it would take drastic re-organization of the MVP program to fix it.

General Life as an MVP

Now you can just imagine how this division along product lines and MVP purchasing might affect things. Because Microsoft’s product teams are notorious for not only being non-communicative with one another but are often pitted against one another by the upper level management…the various product teams can develop a vastly different set of values and beliefs with respect to interaction both internally and with the outside world. Depending on what MVP discipline you are a part of…and the nature of your contributions…you may have a great experience or you may be in store for hell. If the product group you are associated with is open, such as ASP.NET, you can expect lots of interaction, incorporation of your feedback into the product and probably a deep respect of open source work. If your product team is something like WP7, you can expect much less communication, very little change to the product based on your feedback and probably…they don’t even know what open source is.

My Life as an MVP

As for myself, it’s clear that my major contribution is through an open source framework. What a fool I was…there’s a certain insanity in building an open source framework on top of a proprietary UI stack. Back when I was awarded the MVP, I was given the Client AppDev designation, which basically means WPF (but for some reason, contrary to what I’ve said above, also included WinForms..interesting how they had WPF and WinForms in the same group but not WPF and Silverlight…but I digress…or do I?). Back then Xaml tech wasn’t so secretive. When Silverlight came along, they moved me into that group. That group was different. Silverlight was kept tightly sealed. When I was a Client AppDev, I actually felt like Rob Relyea and John Gossman were my kin. When I became a Silverlight MVP, I felt like I was an outsider being graced with a little tiny window to peer in on things. I say all that because when I started on Caliburn, while I was working on a proprietary platform, it felt more open. But when Silverlight came along, things changed. WP7 was even worse than Silverlight…and WinRT/Metro…well…they didn’t talk to anyone. Now that Xaml has moved out of the Developer Division and into the Windows division, it’s only going to get worse.

Secret Societies

I’ve already mentioned how the organization of the MVP groups along product lines can be a hindrance to everyone. WPF, Silverlight, WP7, Metro and Blend…which are all used by the same group of people, are actually different MVP groups. As a Silverlight MVP…I had no access to anything happening with WP7. I had no knowledge of WinRT/Metro. I had no knowledge of Blend or any mechanism to directly interact with that product team. Now, Caliburn.Micro spans all of these technologies, but I could really only talk to Silverlight product team members…and a few of my old WPF comrades. But would it surprise you if I told you the organizational absurdity went even farther. Did you know there are “insiders” groups. “Insiders” for a particular product group have more privileged knowledge than MVPs and more opportunities for direct interaction. Some MVPs are also insiders, but not all. Some insiders are not MVPs. But wait, there’s more. There’s also the TAP program….which seams to have more privileged connections and knowledge. To this day, I don’t know how one gets in a TAP program. I was in the WP7 Tap for about two days. Some guys already in the program were talking in the TAP forums about getting Caliburn.Micro working on WP7. They yelled loud enough and the powers that be invited me, since it seamed that significant apps were likely to be built with my framework. Unfortunately, things went public very shortly after that and the TAP was closed. LOL. But it doesn’t end there. It seams, based on observation, that there are even more secretive groups…who pretty much know everything the product team knows. These guys don’t have a name and I don’t know how you get into that. Though, I’m pretty sure it has to do with being “chummy” to the right people. Childishness. The bottom line is that there are too many levels of secrecy and too many and the wrong types of divisions to enable an effective feedback loop. I don’t know if this is true of all MVP groups, but it was with Silverlight and it has got worse with each successive Xaml platform. Now that Xaml is in Windows, I don’t expect anyone to be able to provide decent feedback.

Fruitlessness

Since things are so improperly organized, there are really only a few occasions where one can really provide good feedback on the product. Unfortunately, after three years as an MVP, I have to say that not a single bit of feedback I provided resulted in any sort of change to the product. With the Silverlight team..and almost always with the Blend team (when I could actually run one of them down), I would get some response like “yes, we’ll have to have a conversation about that.” And I’d be thinking…”isn’t that why I’m here at the MVP summit talking to you now?” But they never seamed to want to engage in a real discussion on *anything* that affected me, my project or my clients. I had this happen every year at the summit. I had even more outrageous things happen in email and at BUILD. On the insiders email list (when I finally got on it), I tried to start a conversation about Convention over Configuration and improvements to tooling that would help support those scenarios and generally make tool extensibility better. Somehow I managed to get into a private email thread of the Blend team where they could engage me on that. You know what they said when I tried to continue the conversation? They said “we don’t want to discuss that right now.” Ok…thanks. That made me really mad. Why am I an MVP again? But the real treat was at BUILD. I managed to track down two of the Blend PMs. I first talked to the PM in charge of the JavaScript Blend work. I told him about what I was building in JavaScript. He was really interested and wanted to follow up with me on what I was building and how it would work inside Blend. Then I took several steps to the right to talk to a Blend PM working on the Xaml side of things. I tried, once again, to discuss CoC. I know for a fact these guys either don’t understand it or don’t think it’s important in software at all. Well, they listened for a moment, then I asked about improving the tooling so I could have a plugin mechanism by which to improve that scenario for my customers. They were very not-helpful. I tried to bring up issues of developer productivity and better strategies for building applications. In a nutshell, the PM basically said to me “we don’t care about developers…they aren’t part of our use cases.” I was pretty enraged by that. See how the product team’s culture affects the effectiveness of the MVP program? My main point though is that nothing I ever said or did affected any product team’s work. Nothing. It was a waste of time and energy…and an emotional drain.

MVP Quality

Now I want to tread lightly here with how I say this….not all MVPs are created equal. I’m going to be vague here. I met an MVP once for Technology X. It turned out that she had never built anything with Technology X and wasn’t overly knowledgeable about it. She liked Technology X a lot though. Each day she would scan her RSS feeds and post about 8 - 10 links on Technology X. That’s why she had her MVP. It looks good on a review doesn’t it? I blogged 365 posts on Technology X this year!!  Now, I’ve met some MVPs in various areas that were brilliant and obviously contributing a lot. But, I’ve met a fair share of MVPs who not only were not experts on the technology, but didn’t make half the contribution that other developers I knew did, who were never awarded MVPs. Not all MVPs are equal. If you are an employer, or looking for a speaker, expert, consultant…whatever; you cannot assume that just because that person has an MVP that they know what they are talking about. It’s sad, but this describes a noticeable number of MVPs.

One more word on MVP quality with respect to division along product team lines. You should never hire a highly product-specific MVP to help advise you on technology choices. I hope you realize the built-in problem with that. I know very few Technology X MVPs who would tell you not to use Technology X, even if there was a better, cheaper, faster way to build your solution. Be wary.

Open Source

I just want to say a little more about this. As I mentioned, there’s nothing about the MVP program that explicitly allows for recognition of open source work. It’s hard to get nominated for it and it’s even harder to renew with it. MVP leads who play a major roll in the renewal process may not be technical at all and even may not understand Open Source. Since I’ve mentioned how MVPs are linked to product groups, you might guess that the effectiveness of your MVP as an OSS developer is entirely dependent on that particular product group’s understanding of and interest in OSS. In a group related to ASP.NET or JavaScript, developers on the team are likely to have run open source projects themselves. In a group like Silverlight or WP7, they are likely to have never done such a thing…and not even have a clear idea of what is involved. I really came face to face with this when my non-renewed MVP…got renewed. Why? Well, it felt like a sort of “benefit of the doubt” renewal. Here’s the advice I was given from the renewal email, elided:

EDIT: I removed this quotation because a good friend of mine was honest enough to remind me that quoting a personal email is neither professional nor polite. I repent of that.

--Start Rant

What!? I released one of the most popular Xaml-related OSS project this year. I did multiple version releases, nuget packages, podcasts, documentation, forum support…the list goes on. What more do you want from me? And what should I do next year…because Caliburn.Micro is so popular, that in order for me to do something bigger for next year…I’d have to dump it entirely….completely abandoned it and build something totally different…something even more popular for Silverlight!? How could I do that to my community? That’s not even nice. No, in 2012, I’m going to continue to fix bugs, add features, add platform support and do awesome things with Caliburn.Micro. I love my own community and I’m going to continue to work hard and support them.

--End Rant

Now this kind of comment clearly expresses a deep lack of understanding for both the value of a project like Caliburn.Micro and the amount of time and resources it takes to maintain both the project and the community. If your OSS project is successful, it’s not just something you do one year and then move on to something else the next. In fact, building the first version of Caliburn.Micro was the easy part! It’s everything that’s happened afterwards and what is happening now that is hard work and will continue to be.

Unfortunately, Microsoft just doesn’t have a way of recognizing OSS developers who improve their platform. The MVP program doesn’t do this and the product teams may not either. In fact, Balmer has explicitly said he isn’t creating any policy around OSS…he’s totally dodging it entirely. This leaves the decision up to the individual teams…which sometimes goes well, but often times does not. That’s irresponsible leadership.

Career Affects

No one ever hired me as a consultant because I had an MVP. They hired me because of my open source work and my recognized expertise in UI architecture. The company I’m working for…I don’t even think they know what an MVP is. They hired me because they know *me* and know I can help them with their particular problem. I would say the personal career benefits of having an MVP are a wash except…

With Microsoft’s less than above the bar treatment and communication about Silverlight over the last year or so, you might imagine this could effect MVPs associated with the program. I’ve heard a lot of horrible stories in the last year. I didn’t have anything terribly bad happen to my business, but I was quite embarrassed recently. I was attending a .NET user group meeting, of which I am the president. Somehow I or someone else mentioned that I was a Silverlight MVP. I don’t remember the detail about how it came up, but I do remember what happened next. Someone laughed at me. Literally, I was made fun of because my MVP had the word Silverlight attached to it. Now, I’m just not willing to endure mockery for the sake of Silverlight, especially since I understood exactly why he was laughing at me. It has got to where being a “Silverlight” MVP is bad for my career.

My Happiness

Looking over the last three years, I’ve definitely been a less happy, more frustrated developer. I’m sure it’s linked to the sort of fake “value” being a Silverlight MVP gave me. Basically, they give you a couple of cheep gifts, then they pretend to listen to your feedback, while not actually doing anything. Year after year of that and you get really unhappy. It’s demoralizing. You start to realize that you really are a commodity. You are purchased by a product group and kept around as long as they perceive they need you…your feedback is allowed, but not effective. Again, it’s probably not the case for all MVPs, it depends on the groups. I just don’t need that in my life.

Conclusion

I’m saying goodbye to the MVP program even after I was re-offered the award for 2012. If you’ve read this far, you can probably see why I made that decision. I’m really positive about the future of Caliburn.Micro and hopeful regarding my JavaScript framework. I think 2012 is going to be a wonderful year. If someone seriously reforms the MVP program or if Microsoft decides to properly recognize and reward open source efforts, then, maybe I’ll let them give me an award. But for now, I don’t need to suffer any more. I’m free and I’m going to do great things.


Posted 01-04-2012 8:46 PM by Rob Eisenberg

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