Recognition Compensation

open source, community 0 comments suggest edit

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.

Found a typo or error? Suggest an edit! If accepted, your contribution is listed automatically here.



32 responses

  1. Avatar for Shawn Wildermuth
    Shawn Wildermuth January 5th, 2012

    I love the MVP program, but I see it as compensation too. One nit though, the summit is great...but we're not 'where they’re flown in to meet with product teams'. We fly out on our own dime to meet with the teams (though the parties, 1/2 hotel room and events are taken care of).

  2. Avatar for haacked
    haacked January 5th, 2012

    Thanks Shawn! I corrected it.

  3. Avatar for Darren Neimke
    Darren Neimke January 5th, 2012

    I've always felt that the MVP program means well but, because of some of the types of reasons that you've mentioned in your post - and including some equity theory as well - it seems bound to fail.
    I hold the MVP program in about the same regard as I hold most committees - they mean well, they often have good intentions, but so often they have a destructive or undesired outcome.
    I would like to see more agitation in the MVP system. Perhaps a forced turnover of recipients (which might require some different levels of acknowledgement).
    The main benefits I got from my years as an MVP was the opportunities to meet people and make richer connections with different segments of the industry that I would not have otherwise had the opportunity to meet. I just desire more people to have that opportunity!

  4. Avatar for Malcolm Sheridan
    Malcolm Sheridan January 5th, 2012

    Personally I think the MVP program is great. People to misuse it though and put too much emphasis on the fact that they're an MVP.
    Also just pulling you up on this statement;
    "A yearly summit where they’re flown in to meet with product teams"
    Microsoft doesn't fly anyone in. People cough up the money from their own pockets. What Microsoft do do is pay for your accommodation if you stay with another MVP.

  5. Avatar for Brian
    Brian January 5th, 2012

    I noticed an editing mistake - "just deserts" should be "just desserts". I'm pretty sure you're not talking about arid regions!

  6. Avatar for Alan Stevens
    Alan Stevens January 5th, 2012

    Phil, I like all of your suggestions. The upside of making VS professional free seems much greater for the company than whatever profit they make from the product today. In regards to the compensation aspects of the MVP program, I decided to duck out on them this year for my own reasons:

  7. Avatar for Dragan Panjkov
    Dragan Panjkov January 5th, 2012

    There is another award for recognizing forum activity on MSDN/TN Forums: COmmunity Contributor Award

  8. Avatar for Scott Koon
    Scott Koon January 5th, 2012

    Microsoft used to pay for the MVP's airfare and hotel. They moved to the "get a roommate" model a few years ago.

  9. Avatar for Dragan Panjkov
    Dragan Panjkov January 5th, 2012

    I posted a comment but it seems it was market as spam: "Sorry, but your comment was flagged as spam and will be moderated"
    However, here it is again: There is Microsoft Commmunity Contributor Award for active members on MSDN and Technet Forums.

  10. Avatar for Luke McGregor
    Luke McGregor January 5th, 2012

    I kinda think that even if some people are doing it for the 'wrong' reasons its still beneficial to the community. I kinda dont see the MVP system as a recognition system but rather a reward system for community contribution. No one reason is ever going to be the driver for people to contribute online. Some people will do it for the reputation, some for kicks, some to improve their CV ect.
    For Microsoft to offer MVP as another driver for community contribution is great as overall it will make the community a richer place.
    I suppose my point is that if you look at MVP as a recognition system it perhaps isn't particularly fair or reasonable, but I reality its more of a reward system which perhaps doesn't need to be as fair or reasonable.

  11. Avatar for Michael Letterle
    Michael Letterle January 5th, 2012

    I would like to see more agitation in the MVP system. Perhaps a forced turnover of recipients (which might require some different levels of acknowledgement).

    I agree. I think eliminating the concept of MVP "renewals" would help in a lot of ways.

  12. Avatar for Bil Simser
    Bil Simser January 5th, 2012

    The MVP program has distilled over the years. When I was first an MVP it was really rewarding, both from token compensation to recognition and above all, networking and openess with product teams and MVP peers. That has changed over the years. The MVP program is a shadow of it's former self. These reverberations people are seeing each award cycle have been going on for a year or two now and we haven't seen the last of it.

  13. Avatar for Dan Wahlin
    Dan Wahlin January 5th, 2012

    Great post Phil. You bring up a lot of solid points that I agree with. I really like the "focused recognition" idea. So much has changed over the past 10 years that they need to seriously consider that as well as the "better free tools" idea.
    I've been involved with the MVP program for several years and I do enjoy being a part of it and think it adds value especially for people that want to be more involved with a specific technology, integrate as much as possible with product groups, and meet people they would've have met otherwise. That's not to say that I haven't been frustrated at times (I have) or that they don't have issues that need to be fixed - they do. But I challenge anyone to name a community group that can't be improved upon or that doesn't have issues especially when you have 1000s of people involved. My experience over the years is definitely much more positive than negative.
    How they pick people, renew/drop people, etc. definitely could use some work but having known several MVP leads over the years I can definitely say with confidence that they've all been great people trying to do their best. Call me a brown noser, fan boy, whatever, but I've been lucky to have had some great MVP leads that helped me out with getting in touch with people, participating in events, getting up to speed with new technologies, etc. But, I've actively reached out to them and tried to get to know them personally rather than just reading through the emails they send out.
    The first year I was an MVP it was definitely about the recognition, MSDN subscription (the "compensation" as some like to say), and supposed "increase" in status - I was young and immature then :-). People who feel above others, feel the need to constantly mention their MVP status to everyone, etc. just plain annoy me now. There are many benefits the program offers that have nothing to do with that stuff.
    The biggest benefit I get from the MVP program is the opportunity to meet directly with developers (inside and outside of Microsoft) that I would've have had a chance to meet otherwise. It's how I first met you actually. It's the community piece that really makes it fun for me as I have a lot of friends I look forward to seeing at the yearly summit from all over the world.

  14. Avatar for haacked
    haacked January 5th, 2012

    Dan, I think that's another interesting aspect of the MVP program. It's not consistent among group to group. I think many folks have pointed out in various discussions how much they like the way the ASP.NET team handles MVPs.
    I may be biased, but I think Hanselman gets community and does a great job there. As does my former boss, Scott Hunter. We tried to include MVPs in a bunch of product group interactions (live meetings) etc.
    The sad truth though, is unless all the groups are held to that high standard, it hurts the image of the entire program.
    I've enjoyed my interactions with MVPs both from the inside and outside. But as many pointed out, hopefully we can create more opportunities for that sort of interaction as a community.

  15. Avatar for Dan Wahlin
    Dan Wahlin January 5th, 2012

    Phil, I think you're exactly right. I've been involved with the ASP.NET, WCF, and Silverlight/Blend groups over the years and they've been outstanding to work with overall. A lot of that's due to people like yourself, Scott Hanselman, Scott Guthrie, Tim Heuer, John Papa, and others making time to involve MVPs, insiders, etc.
    I know some MVPs who have very little interaction with their product groups though and I can only imagine how frustrating that would be. You (and your group) definitely did an awesome job with the ASP.NET MVC side of things. I think I can speak for everyone else involved and say that we really appreciate all the effort you put into involving everyone as much as possible. I was pretty bummed when I heard you were leaving....I'm over it now though. :-)

  16. Avatar for John Atten
    John Atten January 5th, 2012

    Nice post! I enjoy the manner in which you continue to handle your transition from MS to GitHub with a positive note. I tire of so many ex MS employees promptly going negative after leaving.
    re: MVP program - I can say that early on it was nice to see the MVP badge when someone was posting instructions or tutorials. While I realize this is no guarantee of infallibility, it DID add some credibility. When one is learning, it is heard to sort the good information from the bad.
    re: The "reward": I agree that any incentive system will ultimately influence the thinking and motivation of those performing the work. I suspect the community would benefit from allowing the incentive to be the recognintion and "cred" which may or may not come from MVP recognition.
    re: MSDN/VS dev tools - MS would DEFINITELY help themselves and the community by making single developer licenses for what we now know as the "pro" version of VS free, or at least radically reducing the cost (without some of the restriction which come with, say Website Spark). This is a barrier to entry for most folks, and in some cases may be the reason they end up focused on a different technology (Eclipse is definitely a decent IDE, just takes some getting used to). With the manner in which MS is "opening up" much of their ecosystem, a powerful but free version of VS would go a long ways. I mean, VS can't be a profit center for them, right?
    Thanks for the post. Keep up the good work, I greatly enjoy your blog!

  17. Avatar for David Nelson
    David Nelson January 5th, 2012

    "...the means by which compensation is doled out is perceived to be arbitrary and hidden."
    This is really the main problem I think. If the program had clear criteria, then anyone who is seeking the "compensation" can take specific actions to achieve it (which, if the program is designed well, benefits the community), and those in the community know how much value to place on a potential employee or consultant or blog author's MVP status. Without that clear criteria, it might as well be a roulette wheel, and I therefore have no interest in either seeking an MVP award, or in placing any greater degree of confidence in someone who has it.
    "...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."
    This. The people who buy the higher SKUs of Visual Studio are the enterprise customers developing primarily for their internal use. The people who buy the lower SKUs or use the free Express editions are the ones developing (often free) products and tools that benefit the entire community, and therefore the entire Microsoft ecosystem. The latter is by far the more valuable group (I say confidently without any supporting evidence), but it is also the group stuck with the lower quality tools.
    Of course the downside of that approach is that a product that is not seen as a profit center is likely to get squeezed on resources, which would lead to a decline in the quality of the entire product. Not that it has to be that way, but it almost always is.

  18. Avatar for Baskin Tapkan
    Baskin Tapkan January 5th, 2012

    Great post, Phil. Admire the way you reflect your opinions. Personally I encourage the junior developers the same way. Develop and learn for your own, not seek immediate recognition and compensation right away. If you do it right, the rest will follow.
    I have seen and heard similar sentiments on various venues including the .NET-Rocks podcast hosts. There is so much good great stuff happening on the open community which I am just peeling off myself. Making things work with minimum friction. I have been .NET dev since 2001, but started shifting gears in the last few years while not leaving .NET community. It all complements in many ways. Lots of learning and having fun!
    There are devs who look at the MVP program as such that they have to have N-number of blogs posts, N-number of speeches in a given year, and answer this & that to be recognized. Your hit it right there.
    Well done and looking forward to your contributions to Github.

  19. Avatar for Michal Altair Valasek
    Michal Altair Valasek January 5th, 2012

    I'm MVP nine years in row - ever since the program was introduced in my country. And I don't think it's a compensation system. It's nice gesture, but it would be lot more effective from economic point of view to simply buy MSDN Subscription than spent lot of time writing the articles and open source I'm being awarded MVP for.
    I see (and use) my MVP recognition as a tool for use *inside* Microsoft. When I need something, some information or clarification, it helps being MVP. I think it's because people in MS know that by answering me, they're not helping only me personally, but that I'll spread the knowledge further.
    Maybe the recognition and "executive recognition letters" can do some good in some countries, but here in Czech republic nopbody cares. It won't help me to get a job, won't allow me to charge more etc.
    Regarding the MVP Summit: I was there several times and amount of actual information related to me was smaller than when I go to TechEd. I wasn't there for last few years, since it's simply not worth the hassle of trans-atlantic travel.
    And early access to technical information and software? I'm ASP.NET MVP and don't remember being told something in advance. Maybe it works in MVC area, but I do Web Forms and infrastructure things and I get my info from blogs as everyone else.
    To me, it's not compensation, but a tool.

  20. Avatar for Paul
    Paul January 5th, 2012

    No matter what, someone will complain. That is just the way it will always be. You are right, developers should not be looking for validation/recognition from Microsoft. However if MS want to give away a few MSDN subscriptions to people they think deserve it, then great for those people who get them.
    Personally, I would like to see MS give out MSDN subs to devs that contribute packages to NuGet. Developers working in the open for the betterment of the community.

  21. Avatar for Josh Santangelo
    Josh Santangelo January 5th, 2012

    What is the "recent dust-up" to which you're referring? I'm out of the loop.

  22. Avatar for enamrik
    enamrik January 6th, 2012

    Isn't it fine to have more than one motive for pursuing something? It seems reasonable that someone could be answering questions on stackoverflow because they want to share their knowledge but also because they want to be praised for their intelligence. But still do it because they are competitive and want to have a high score. I became a programmer because I was obsessed with solving problems but I also did it for the money and for the women :-)

  23. Avatar for Andrei Rînea
    Andrei Rînea January 6th, 2012

    Love the dog part!!!

  24. Avatar for Alvin Ashcraft
    Alvin Ashcraft January 6th, 2012

    Nice post, Phil.
    One thing I have noticed over the last few years is that when there are rumblings about the fairness of the MVP program and how recipients are chosen is that it is usually from the development community. I don't recall seeing any uproar around SQL Server MVPs, Office MVPs, SharePoint MVPs, etc. Either I am just out of touch with those groups or there could be some connection to the source of the problem.
    I think that Rob E. and others have a point that developer contributions to the community are more difficult to quantify. There are many influential devs to don't contribute in forums, on blogs or by speaking. Including open source contributions when evaluating candidates for the award would be a big step forward, IMO.
    I also agree that dev tools (and the MSDN subscription) are another source of the angst. I don't see this as something that would be unique to the developer MVPs though. SQL Server is one of the more pricey products in the MSDN and TechNet subscriptions.
    I feel that the MVP leads and others who run the program mean well and are not conspiring to exclude OSS contributors. A few tweaks to how contributions are measured could do a world of good.

  25. Avatar for Jeff Putz
    Jeff Putz January 6th, 2012

    Amen. I dropped in the summit in 2010, shortly after I joined the company, and was completely turned off by a frequent attitude of entitlement. There are absolutely great people who deserve the recognition, but clearly there's a subsample who contribute to the community for the recognition and feel entitled. Worse, they're rude jackasses to product people.
    It creates an interesting problem, because it's not logical to drop the whole program on the basis of a few bad apples, but the annual drama online from people who don't get their pat on the back is getting old.
    I tend to feel good about contributors with high StackOverflow scores, or MSDN/TechNet reputation scores (disclaimer: I worked on the latter system). Granted, those measures are narrowed to specific communities, but to me we really need to identify people both as a thank you and as a way for others to understand who is an A-level information contributor.

  26. Avatar for Perry Neal
    Perry Neal January 6th, 2012

    I HEARTILY agree with your last paragraph Phil. To paraphrase, "Practice random acts of recognition!"

  27. Avatar for George
    George January 7th, 2012

    One of the main problems with the MVP title it's coming from it's name: "MOST Valuable Professional" - many people assume it's about the BEST professional in a certain area, even if it's nothing like that: currently today an MVP is somebody who managed to make itself the most visible in the communities (online or offline) that are monitored and "accepted" by the local Microsoft branch, and who managed to develop good relationships with somebody from Microsoft in order to get noticed..
    It's well known that some MVPs are advise to "avoid" certain programming communities that are not "blessed" by the local Microsoft branch for certain reasons (like having a critical view on some MS products, or not accepting to play by the MS marketing department agenda).
    That's why many developers now disregard that MVP award: even if somebody is clearly known by everybody to be more competent in a certain area, somebody else gets the title just because it was more vocal and had better "networking" skills.. Sure that there are exceptions, but these are rare these days.

  28. Avatar for The Luddite Developer
    The Luddite Developer January 8th, 2012

    One thing that is extremely unfair and really makes you want to use some company other than Microsoft is that when all taxes are removed and the currency conversion is performed, you find that Microsoft is charging UK customers 60% more than its US counterparts.

  29. Avatar for Norville Rogers
    Norville Rogers January 9th, 2012

    I kind of lost all respect for the program when my senior developer made his 5 year old son an MVP in a few months of trolling forums and re-posting answers. There are so many posts that are cut and paste copies of others work, and cross posting to dozens of sites its silly... Maybe regional reps should get more involved in the community and award it personally.

  30. Avatar for Dan
    Dan January 13th, 2012

    The award itself is just a small compensation, but the flow of information, is the real gain.

  31. Avatar for Dr. Muffazal Lakdawala
    Dr. Muffazal Lakdawala January 18th, 2012

    Nice post keep going. :)

  32. Avatar for Jonas Stawski
    Jonas Stawski January 20th, 2012

    I've been an MVP for the past 5 years and I love the program.
    "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."
    That sentence nailed it. I know many people that want to become an MVP for all the wrong reasons: early access, free software, summit, etc, but I always tell them the same thing, help the community because you want to and feel good doing so, the MVP recognition will come when it comes.