Mary Poppendieck writes the following in Unjust Deserts (pdf), a paper on compensation systems (emphasis mine),

There is no greater de-motivator than a reward system that is perceived to be unfair. It doesn’t matter if the system is fair or not. If there is a perception of unfairness, then those who think that they have been treated unfairly will rapidly lose their motivation.

Written over seven years ago, the paper is just as insightful and applicable today. For example, let’s apply it to the recent dust-up about the legitimacy and fairness of the Microsoft MVP Program.

I think the MVP program means well. It’s not trying to be a conspiracy or filch you of your just desserts. But if you think about the MVP program as a compensation system, it becomes very clear why people feel disillusioned.

What compensation am I talking about?

  1. An MSDN Subscription
  2. Privileged access to product teams and not yet public information (under NDA)
  3. A yearly summit which provides hotel rooms and access to product team members as well as a nice party.

Not only is it a compensation system, but the means by which compensation is doled out is perceived to be arbitrary and hidden. It’s a recipe for mistrust.

Intrinsic Motivations

Mary goes on to point out,

In the same way, once employees get used to receiving financial rewards for meeting goals, they begin to work for the rewards, not the intrinsic motivation that comes from doing a good job and helping their company be successful.

Someone asked me what I thought about the MVP program recently and I said I think Microsoft’s actually a great company, but I don’t think you should seek out recognition from Microsoft or any other corporation for your community contributions. I think that provides the wrong incentives to build community.

If you run an open source project, don’t do it to receive recognition from Microsoft. Or any other corporation for that matter (except maybe you’re own). Do it to scratch an itch! Do it because it’s fun. Do it to show cool stuff to your peers. Worry about their recognition more than some corporation.

If you answer questions about a technology on StackOverflow, do it because you enjoy sharing your knowledge with others (and you want the SO points!), not because it’s on a checklist to receive an MVP award.

Just as Mary points out, when you start to frame these activities as means to receive an extrinsic reward, you become disillusioned. So whether the program exists or not, we should strive on our part to not feel a sense of entitlement to the program and focus on our intrinsic motivations.

Fixing It

I covered what I think we should strive for. But what do I think Microsoft should do? Several things.

So far, I glossed over the the fact that recognition from Microsoft isn’t the only reason people want the award. There are material benefits. MVPs are part of a privileged group that gets early access to what Microsoft is doing, which might provide a real competitive advantage. Why wouldn’t you seek that out?

Open Development

Let’s tackle the first thing first, privileged “early access”. Well there’s one easy solution to that. Do you know why NuGet doesn’t have an “early access” program? Drew Miller nails it on Twitter:

Know how you avoid the need for a privileged group of folks under NDA that inevitably is seen as special and superior? Develop in the open.

NuGet sidesteps the whole question of a recognition program by developing in the open. The same is true for the Azure SDK. When active development occurs in a public repository, the whole concept of “early access program” makes no sense.

Not only that, but recognition in an open source project doesn’t come from some corporation. It comes from the maintainers of a project and from the folks in the project’s community that you’ve helped. You can point to the reason people are recognizing you.

Better Free Tools

The other reason folks want an MVP is to have access to the professional tools. Most companies will easily shell out the money for this, but if you’re a hobbyist or open source developer, it’s a lot of money to shell out.

In this regard, I think Microsoft should either make its free Express tools have more pro features such as allowing Visual Studio Extensions and multi-project support, or simply make Visual Studio Professional free, and focus on developing the ecosystem that gets a boost when everyone has better tools to build on your platform. Everyone wins.

Focused recognition

I don’t think it’s inherently wrong for a company to recognize people’s contributions. But it has to be done in a way so that it’s seen as icing and not an entitlement or cronyism.

It’s darn near impossible to conceive of a recognition program that would be seen as universally fair and recognizes something so broad as “community contributions”. A better approach might be to have multiple smaller recognition programs. Focus on removing obstacles that get in the way of people inherently doing the things that’s good for all of us. For example, it benefits Microsoft’s when:

  1. People are helping solve each other problems on the forums.
  2. People are giving talks about their products.
  3. People are building software (open and not) on their platforms.
  4. Probably some others I’m forgetting…

For what it’s worth, I think the first one is already solved by StackOverflow. Just move your forums there and be done with it. After all, nobody gets upset when they answer a question on Twitter and don’t get StackOverflow points.


Will Microsoft change the program? I have no idea. I’m not really all that concerned about it really. In the meanwhile, we can recognize folks who make our lives better. We don’t need to wait for Microsoft to do so. I’ve used a huge swath of open source projects that have made my development smoother. I’ve found many great answers in forums, blog posts, StackOverflow that unblocked me.

Moving forward, I’ll make an extra effort to thank the people responsible for those things. Maybe there’s some projects and folks you should recognize. Go for it! It’ll feel good.

Disclaimer: I was a former Microsoft MVP for about three months before joining Microsoft as an employee. I’m now an employee of GitHub. My opinion here is simply my own opinion and does not necessarily represent the opinion of any employers past, present, and future. Nor does it represent the opinion of my dog, because I don’t have one, nor anyone in my neighborhood.