How Can I Become A Microsoft MVP? - SentryOne Team Blog

How Can I Become A Microsoft MVP?

MVP

This is such a common question that, were I to write a FAQ of questions I get after speaking, it should sit somewhere in the top 3 positions.

As an aside, you can tell that I'm not as smart as I like to pretend. That's because I have been a Microsoft MVP since 2003-2004 and yet I have never actually written down the answer to this very frequent question. Shame on me for working harder, not smarter.

What is a Microsoft MVP?

Even though I get the question a lot, most SQL Server professionals have never heard of an MVP outside of sports. Who knew Microsoft had MVPs too, amiright? But if a sports-ball MVP is the first thing that comes to mind, then you're heading in the right direction. In my words, the Most Valuable Professional designation is a recognition of an independent individual's contribution to the wider community in support of a specific Microsoft technology. Note the emphasis on community, not technology.

Microsoft thoroughly explains the entire program on their MVP overview page. In their words:

Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals, or MVPs, are technology experts who passionately share their knowledge with the community. They are always on the "bleeding edge" and have an unstoppable urge to get their hands on new, exciting technologies. They have very deep knowledge of Microsoft products and services, while also being able to bring together diverse platforms, products and solutions, to solve real world problems.

MVPsMe with MVP Aaron Bertrand
2014 SQL Saturday Dublin

How can I become a Microsoft MVP?There are about 4,000 Microsoft MVPs worldwide spanning all of Microsoft's products, from Office to Visual Studio to Xbox to the various Server technologies. These areas of focus are called award categories. The ratio is about 50/50 of international recipients to US-based recipients.

In my award category, called Microsoft Data Platform, there are about 150 international SQL Server MVPs and a comparable number of SQL Server MVPs within the United States. Other award categories include Microsoft Azure, Windows Development, Office Development, each of the Office products, Visual Studio and Development Technology, AI, Cloud and Datacenter Management, Enterprise Mobility, Windows and Devices for IT, Office Servers and Services, and Business Solutions.

There are lots of benefits to being an MVP. For example, you get boatloads of Microsoft software and services for free, such as a premium LinkedIn account, MSDN Universal subscription, Office 365 subscription, Azure goodies, and more. I'm simplifying a bit, but free stuff is a major benefit.

My favorite benefits, however, are not the things that you get. It is the people you can now access directly. In particular, you can talk directly with the Microsoft developers who work on your technology and the other MVPs in your award category. Now that is the real value of the MVP program. When you become an MVP, you can always say "I may not know the answer to your question, but I know someone who does."

(As an aside, there is also an official MVP Code of Conduct, as well as a non-disclosure agreement that you must sign. It is very possible to lose the MVP credential when the awardee does not meet the standard for ethics, professionalism, and discretion).

Tips for Becoming an MVP

So, back to the original question about how to become a Microsoft MVP. Take a look at Microsoft's own words and then I'll add my own thoughts on the topic. Microsoft says:

There are 3 very simple steps: Be an expert, do lots of what you love, and let us know! Really, there isn't a long checklist of things you need to do to become an MVP. The best MVPs really excel in step #2: they LOVE what they do. And we can tell! Whether you're a great speaker, have a talent in blogging, lead a top technical community, are a social media superstar, a top GitHub or StackOverflow contributor or have a totally different and cool way to share your passion for our products and services, we'd love to know more! Or, if you know of someone who you believe has what it takes to be an MVP, go ahead and nominate them right now!

In addition, Microsoft provides lots of examples of MVPs who excel, as well as a means of looking up MVPs to engage them for speaking, writing, consulting, and such.

MVPsMVP and now Microsoft employee Regis Baccaro
2016 SQL Saturday Denmark

Now, let's dissect and parse the Microsoft wording to get to some specific and actionable information you can use on your mission to become an MVP:

  1. "Be an expert:" This recommendation is actually not as stringent as you might think. In my opinion, this point means "be technically competent in your award category and find your niche". To further explain:
    • You have to be expert enough, but not necessarily an expert: Many folks have a preconception that all MVPs are uber-nerds. While that it often true, it is not a rule or requirement. Consider the flip side. All of the award categories need bloggers and speakers who are great at explaining the basic concepts in easy to understand terms. That is a precious gift and if you have it, leverage it. The ability to explain complex topics in easy to understand terms means that you don't have to be a PhD in your chosen award category. If you are a supra-genius, great! I'm just encouraging you to not sweat it too much if you're not.
    • Beware saturation: Getting the MVP nod can be easier in less saturated topics of an award category. Or said another way, it's harder to become an MVP in a topic area where there are already many MVPs. Let's say you want to become a Data Platform MVP like me or the other MVPs at SentryOne. If that's the case, I won't try to steer you away from plain ol' relational database management topics. But, there are already LOTS of MVPs with that specialty. On the other hand, there are very few who are talking about many other important topic areas. For example, not too many are covering in-memory OLTP, columnstore, the intersection of SQL Server and Data Science using R or Python, or Machine Learning (or other AI topics like quantitative analysis or predictive analytics or many other important areas). Not much MVP activity going on with CosmosDB or some of the new Data Platform-related Azure services either. It is certainly ok to go where there are many other existing experts. But to use an analogy, it's easier for your voice to be heard in a chorus of five singers than of fifty.
      MVPs and former PASS Presidents Bill Graziano and Rushabh Mehta
      2015 PASS Business Analytics Conference
    • Align with Microsoft's motivation: Microsoft spends literally millions of dollars supporting the MVP program around the world. MILLIONS I SAY! Why would they do that? The simple answer is by spending this money today they either save a greater amount of money or they make even more money further down the line. In the old days, the MVP program used to be aligned with Microsoft's Support organization. At the annual MVP Summit, they would tell us things like "Your tireless efforts on the discussion forums resulted in answering 14 gazillion user questions!" And we'd all cheer, mostly because Bill Gates or Steve Balmer used the word 'gazillions' in an official speech. But what that really meant was that we saved the Microsoft Support team from having to answer ALL of those questions, which costs a barge full of money. And it also helped Microsoft from losing customers out of frustration with their products, which costs exponentially more barges full of money. Times have changed. And while Support loves to see us answer questions in the discussion forums, Slack channels, and sites like StackExchange.com, that no longer appears to be the primary motivation. Of course, they don't explicitly tell us what their corporate goal actually is. But we can analytically suss it out. My personal opinion is that Microsoft's current motivation is not support (a cost-savings strategy), but driving adoption (a revenue generation strategy). That is, encouraging the wider world to adopt and use Microsoft products and services. So if you can align your externally facing MVP-worthy activities in such a way that it encourages further adoption of Microsoft stuff, you're in the best possible place. (And I think Azure adoption is the most salient of the technologies where they want to drive adoption). The more you can align with Microsoft's motivation, the better your chances.
      MVPsMVPs Kalen Delaney, Steve Jones, and Peter Ward
      2017 SQL Saturday LA
  2. "Do lots of what you love:" I can't emphasize enough the word "LOTS". In the old days when Support issues were the main motivation, and I'm talking about the late 1990's or early 2000's, there was a rumor that if you correctly answered FIFTY questions in the forum PER WEEK you had a pretty good shot at an MVP accolade. Now keep in mind that is only a rumor. But that is also an indication of the amount of work it (may have) required to be competitive. Today, I can tell you that the majority of MVPs I know do so much of their chosen award-related activities that they typically have to give up some other activity to make it all fit into their life. They also spend relatively little time on simple leisure. In my case, I watch relatively little TV or sports. (And if I'm honest with myself, I don't spend as much time with my family as I'd like). Are MVPs workaholics? Perhaps. But even if there were no benchmark for how much activity is enough activity, consider the award from a competitive standpoint. It should be exclusive. That means it's an award that literally excludes a lot of people from candidacy. That means, by its very nature, you should strive for hitting the top 10-15% of people actively working in your chosen award category if for no other reason than that others will out-compete you. So if you're speaking at a few SQL Saturdays or user group meetings per year, then that is great. And writing a blog post every month or two is also great. Or contributing some bits and bobs to a cool book or open-source project on Github are wonderful. But don't get your hopes up too high that you're in the running. It takes LOTS.
    • Direct attacks don't always win: I've encountered many people who have the goal of becoming a Microsoft MVP. In and of itself, that's ok, even good. But that is also a lot like saying "I want to be happy" or "I want to be in love". It's one of those things that just seems to be harder to achieve when you go after it directly, rather than let it happen naturally. There are a couple of universal human truths that crash down upon those who set goals like want-happiness or want-love:
      • People can tell when you're faking it. People can tell when you're trying too hard. That, in turn, repels people instead of attracts them. It feels desperate. It fails.
      • Things like happiness and love (and maybe that MVP nod) are rarely achieved by direct and overt pursuit. My encouragement is to seek out meaningfulness. (See my tips for a meaningful blog and speaking approach HERE).

      When you are doing something really authentically meaningful, you'll often discover that you've found the happiness or love or MVP nod you were searching for.

      MVPsMVP Kimberly Tripp and me
      2006 PASS Europe Dubrovnik
    • Many paths up the mountain: Microsoft does a good job of telling you that there are many different ways to achieve MVP status. Take my colleague and friend, Aaron Bertrand (b | t). Aaron is one of the earliest awardees and is among the most durable to ever receive the award. Back when Aaron started on this path, he mostly answered questions in the discussion forums. In fact, he answered so many questions, which were largely the same thing over and over again, that he created a website just to answer those frequent questions. (He now moderates Database Administrators, a fantastic Stack Exchange Q & A forum for all things related to databases). Others, such as the inimitable Buck Woody (b | t), prior to his days as a Microsoft employee, received his award for frequent high-quality writing on a website called InformIT. John Martin (b | t), SentryOne's product manager for our core monitoring technologies, got his award for tirelessly speaking across the UK and Europe, as well as his leadership of the Southhampton SQL Server user group jointly with his wife, Steph Martin. Chrissy LeMaire (b | t), a PowerShell MVP renowned among SQL Server DBAs for her scripting work at dbatools.io (along with many other contributors), received her award in 2015 due to her work evangelizing an open-source approach to code and her many scripts on GitHub and in the Microsoft Script Center. In my case, I was awarded the MVP nod at the end of 2003 for my work as a founder and president for PASS, along with the local user group in Nashville, TN. So toss that myth out the door that only speakers and bloggers get the MVP accolade. There are many different ways to earn it.
  3. "let us know:" Many people know that Microsoft has a nomination process for the MVP award. What a lot of people don't realize is that is perfectly fine to nominate yourself. Yep, if you think you have enough activities within your award category, then it's fine – even advisable – to put in your own nomination. I offer this tip so that you make the load easier for the next step – endorsements. Once you've turned your nomination in, take the next step to improve your chances is to get other MVPs and/or Microsoft staff to endorse your candidacy. (If you've already done the nomination paperwork as I suggested, then you can just pass it over to your endorsers for them to reuse). The more you have doing that, the better your chances are. It used to be practically a requirement for an existing MVP or member of Microsoft staff to hand-carry your nomination to the MVP team at Microsoft, but no longer. Here's a bit of history for context:
    • Cycles: There also used to be "cycles" in which new MVP awards were granted. The specific duration of a cycle depending on the Microsoft subsidiary as to how frequently new awardees were selected. In the US, it used to happen every quarter. Now, it is practically every month on a continuous basis. If it first you don't succeed, you will have other chances to try again, not just a once per year or once per quarter cycle.
    • Caps: There also used to be a strong wall between the various Microsoft subsidiaries. Each of the various subsidiaries, from the US to the UK to Brazil to Japan, used to have a fixed, maximum number of awardees. A small country or region, say the Balkans, might have a dozen or two total MVPs while a large subsidiary, such as the USA, might have many hundreds. That represented a big problem whenever a rising star appeared on the scene because all of the existing open slots were filled, but none of the incumbents had vacated their slot. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. Microsoft recently lifted these caps. That also means you have more chances to enter. If you submitted a nomination and were rejected, then do a bunch of additional activities and try again. But be balanced. Don't be a pest by sending in a submission every month.
      MVPsMVP Shahap El-Nagar, Regional Director Mohammed Owais
      2015 SQL Gulf
    • Subsidiaries and Localities: I've already mentioned how the subsidiaries used to have hard limits on the number of MVPs allowed in their region. In addition, the old approach also gave the regional subsidiaries full decision-making authority for selecting MVPs in their region. While the regional subsidiaries still have a great deal of influence in the process, it is now possible for other decision-makers to get involved in the process. I'm not exactly sure how this is actually executed. However, I know that the MVP organization within Microsoft went through a major reorganization last year. Thus, many of the old assumptions went out the door along with the old approval structure. I think the safest bet is to know as many people within Microsoft as you can. If there is a local organization, say a Sales office, get to know those folks. Join the various Advisor programs related to your award category and start participating in the discussions there (currently on Yammer boards) so that the Microsoft program teams in Redmond recognize your name. Just like in traditional professional networking situations, the more people who know you, the more likely you are to make positive headway. (I make that recommendation with more than hint of irony because I know literally no one at the local Microsoft office here in Nashville).
    • Not an Algorithm: My last tip about the MVP nomination process is that it's not something churned out by an AI algorithm. It is manual process performed by real human beings. That has some important ramifications. First, the system isn't designed to produce completely uniform results. Thus, one candidate who had performed 60 activities in their award category and had 12 endorsements might get the MVP nod. But four months later, another person with the same quantity of achievements might not unlock the award. The system is usually very consistent. But, as I said, it's performed by hand which means we might see an occasional inconsistency. Second, if you don't show them common courtesy when corresponding with them, don't expect it back either. Just sayin'. I've seen people fire off angry emails to Microsoft, which is counter-productive.
      MVPsSome of my MVP Memorabilia

Here's one final recommendation. Are you guaranteed to receive the MVP award even after turning out a prodigious amount of blogging, conference sessions, books, videos, podcasts, or open-sourced code? Absolutely not. Remember up above where I recommend that you align with Microsoft's motivation? It's possible that your content simply doesn't align. It might not strike the right tone, somehow sounding grammatically sloppy, unprofessional, angry, or hyper-critical. It might be relevant, but only to a tiny audience. Or it might simply be a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, metaphorically speaking. Microsoft deprecates technologies all the time. Silverlight anyone? So it could simply be a case where your content focuses on something that people inside of Microsoft know has a limited lifespan. And finally, there might not be any special reason at all. It's their party and they get to write the guest list. All of this also points back to why it's important to get feedback and mentoring from other MVPs who can help you determine if you're on the right track or not.

I hope this has been helpful. Please let me know if you have any feedback.

Cheers,
-Kevin

P.S. Are you a current or former Microsoft MVP? I'd love to hear your tips, tricks, and recommendations as a comment here!

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Comments ( 14 )

          • Anton Kolomyeytsev says:

            Hi!

            Serial (LOL) Clustering MVP here (or whatever they call this position this week, Datacenter Mgmt?).

            The only thing you should really focus on – contribution to the community. Help people and you'll get noticed, don't go for badge.

            Good luck! :)

            Anton

          • Nolan Haims says:

            Great article! Cross-posted on my site, PresentYourStory.com. Now I can point people to your post when I get asked the question myself.

          • Aaron N. Cutshall says:

            Great job Kevin! I have often considered striving for that coveted MVP spot, but as I review the work/life balance I realize that this takes a huge commitment in time, energy and effort. Even though I speak fairly often (about a dozen times a year) at SQL Saturday and user group meetings, I am not very active on social media and do not blog. That is something that I would need to overcome to be in the running let alone the excellent tips you presented about focusing upon a good niche. There is definitely food for thought here!

          • Mahmoud Hanafi says:

            You’re very inspiring, thank you for inspiring me.

          • Jean-Pierre Riehl says:

            Excellent article Kevin !
            You write down all tips I advice to people.

            Becoming MVP is not just numbers, it is a mindset : Connect & Share because you are so passionate about a technology :-)

            Another way to participate in community is to create or organize it.
            I spend most of my « community time » to organize meetups, events, SQLSaturday, etc. and build communities in my country. I help people to share their passion and their knowledge to the world. I don’t know if it weighs enough because I’m also a speaker but I think it counts. Anyway, I do that because I love it :)

          • Chris "Smitty" Smith says:

            All spot on points, Kevin!

            Doing what you love can lead to great things! I was an Excel MVP from 2007-2016, now I'm on the MAX (Modern Assistance and Support) team at Microsoft, managing all of the support.office.com topics for Excel.

            I was very active in just a few Excel forums, and had never even thought about being an MVP until the day I got my anonymous nomination.

            Smitty

          • Chris Yates says:

            Kevin,

            Excellent post sir. Enjoyed the read.

          • Kevin Kline says:

            Thank you, sir! You might soon make this jump at the rate you're going. =^)

          • Rob Sewell says:

            Thank you Kevin for an excellent post. (Which I shall make use of when asked the question!)

            I think it is important to just do what you love doing. Whether that is writing blogs, speaking, organising, making videos, whatever the medium, you need to be doing something that you love because to receive the award, as you have said, requires a significant amount of effort.

            Also, I wouldn't make it a goal as you are not in control of the process. It is a recognition by someone/s else. It is the cream on the pudding.

            Make your goals in increasing your community involvement. A number of blog posts, user groups, videos, forum answers – set and achieve those targets. Be proud when you exceed them, enjoy what you are doing and then one fine day that email will come and stop your world for a moment and all of your friends will be delighted for you and your smile will be so wide.

          • Kevin Kline says:

            Hear hear! Well said, Rob!

          • Eric Cobb says:

            Thank you for posting this Kevin! I was actually planning on asking you about it the next time I see you. :)

            I'm glad to see you mention a focus on encouraging the wider world to adopt and use Microsoft products and services, since most of my speaking and blogging is aimed outside of the traditional SQL Server world. I usually speak at developers conferences, where I can promote SQL Server to JavaScript developers or the open source crowd, for example. It's nice to know that Microsoft takes stuff like this into consideration.

          • Kevin Kline says:

            Yes, absolutely Eric! There's a whole huge world of Developer-related award categories. In your case, you might qualify under Azure or Visual Studio and Development Technologies. (Read about all of the award categories here – https://mvp.microsoft.com/en-us/pages/mvp-award-update). Another tip, when creating your Nomination paperwork, stick to just one award category even if you qualify for more than one. It should be the category that enables you to talk to the Microsoft product dev team that you are most interested in. For example, if you do all of your dev on Azure, but the people you'd most be excited to talk with are the people who actually write the code for Visual Studio product, then put down Visual Studio. They'll be the ones for whom you are given backstage access. Hope that helps!

          • Brian Kelley says:

            Former Data Platform MVP here.

            While I would love to be recognized as an MVP again, it's not why I do what I do. I enjoy giving back. I enjoy teaching and presenting. But it's not all selfless. I learn a lot more when I've got to put a talk together than the attendee probably does. The same is true with a blog post. That's the neat thing about giving back. You actually get a lot out of it yourself.

            If the recognition comes my way again, I'll be thankful. If it doesn't, no worries! I love sharing. That's reward enough. And that's my recommendation. Contribute to contribute. If the award comes your way, be thankful. If not, don't worry about it. You don't need a title to be someone's community hero.

          • Kevin Kline says:

            Great point, Brian. Do it for the joy of the doing. =^D

            Best regards,
            -Kev

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