Early Days of The Exchange MVP Program

Curator's Note: An Exchange MVP is a Microsoft-blessed expert on Microsoft's Exchange email system. Here David Sengupta recounts the development of the MVP concept, and his personal experiences as an early Exchange MVP--David Ferris

Having been an Exchange Most Valuable Professional (“MVP”) for 14 years now--since 1997-I’ve been asked to jot down a few thoughts on the early days of the MVP program. For us old-timers, the MVP program has been a special way to meet Microsoft enthusiasts around the world and keep plugged in to what’s happening with Exchange.

How I Became an Exchange MVP

I worked for the City of Ottawa from 1991 to 2001, and started working with Exchange in 1996, leading up to the Exchange 4.0 release in April of that year. A few of us were working in the City’s IT Department helping to administer the Banyan Vines environment there.

We had an external consulting organization named Systems Interface in to help us do the migration and coexistence between Banyan and this new thing called “Exchange”. Those were fun times. The first years working with Exchange brought many questions, and there was no better place to go for help than the microsoft.public.* newsgroups and the Microsoft beta newsgroups. We used NNTP-based newsreaders at the time, and exchanged Q&A with other early Exchange users at the time. Part of the learning experience came from skimming other questions looking for answers, and answering lots of them along the way.

One day in 1998 I remember getting an email out of the blue from a Danny Dooley at Microsoft, telling me I’d been nominated as a “Jump-Start MVP” for my past contributions to the Exchange communities from 1997-1998. I had no idea what that meant, but figured it was a good thing.

The Early MVP Days

There was a small core of us back in the early years … something like 15 Exchange MVPs. Rich Matheisen was the most visible face of the Exchange world back then, and Sue Mosher was the best known Outlook MVP at the time. Other Exchange MVP pioneers included Chris Scharff, Andy Webb, Missy Koslosky, Ed Crowley, and Ed Woodrick, to mention a few.

Pretty soon after I became an MVP, I got another email from some guy at Microsoft legal that was sent to all 500 or so MVPs around the world saying that Microsoft had decided to cancel the MVP program, thanks very much for all your help, etcetera. The email came on a Friday, and then that weekend most of the newsgroups and technology press sites around the world ran stories about how stupid Microsoft was to have cancelled a program tailored for its best fans. Apparently Microsoft was inundated by tens of thousands of emails that weekend.

On Monday morning the MVP program was reinstated with executive sponsorship from Bill Gates, who apologized for the cancellation and committed to building the program into something that was win-win for all involved.

Since there were so few Exchange MVPs in the early days, one of the only times we all got to meet was at the Microsoft Exchange Conferences (MEC) which Microsoft used to run. The first Exchange Conference I attended was MEC in 1998 in Boston, which, in addition to being a place to meet other MVPs, was an interesting show.

The conference was split between two venues which were pretty far apart, so Microsoft had enlisted a bus shuttle service to take people back and forth between sessions. This turned out to be a disaster, since they only allocated something like 15 minutes between sessions, and the shuttles took at least 30-45 minutes to go between venues. I remember the buses getting escorted by motorcycle police to try and get there quicker, and the long lines on either end. Along the way, Lotus had lined the route with dozens of buses with large “Get on the bus, Gus” ads for Lotus Notes.

Thankfully that was back in the days when the good marketing folks at Compaq (Roberta Hanlon and Bill Carlisle, among others) still had deep marketing budgets, so the evening events at the Compaq pavilion were a great way to unwind. And I remember there being a panel discussion on the last day where Tony Redmond spoke about how Compaq had decided to have a single Exchange site spanning their global infrastructure, and most of us were scratching our heads trying to figure out how that could even be possible.

The other time we would get to meet as MVPs would be at the Global MVP Summit in Redmond, which was held every 12-18 months, depending on the year. These were good times, as there was always a good amount of time dedicated to meetings with the Exchange Product Group to provide input on Exchange roadmap. The MVPs had come to be one mechanism for Microsoft to collect feedback from the communities, and we had many good discussions which helped shape the many releases of Exchange over the years.

As with any large event, Microsoft always had challenges scheduling the summits to fit Bill Gates’ or Steve Ballmer’s calendars, while still avoiding too many international holidays. One year the summit was held during Passover, and all MVPs were given an opportunity to go and take part. Many MVPs must have just checked “yes, I will attend”, because in the end Microsoft reserved a large venue with seating for maybe 500 people for Passover, but only one table of about 10 people ended up really attending. Oops.

The MVP Program Today (in 2011)

Since the early days, the Exchange MVP community has grown to around 100 Exchange MVPs, with much more of a global representation. There are several thousand MVPs representing many different Microsoft products, and the program has grown in visibility. We have seen many “MVP Leads” (the handlers that Microsoft assigns to MVPs in each country) come and go, and without fail they have been incredibly enthusiastic, hard-working conduits for MVPs to liaise with their respective product groups and field offices at Microsoft.

As the program has evolved, it has come to be aligned with Microsoft’s Product Support Services organization, since as you can imagine, many millions of product inquiries are handled by the MVPs every year and therefore offloaded from Microsoft’s phone lines. As social media has evolved and come to play a major role online, Microsoft has started to treat the MVPs more like an extension of the press, since many MVPs run their own blogs. Yet to this day, the MVP program continues to include a wide assortment of technology experts and influencers, representing many ethnic groups and all ages, probably the most diverse group of technologists I have seen in a room at one time.

The MVP program is valuable for Microsoft, and I hope they keep it going for many years to come. The Exchange world, for one, has become a better place as a result.

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