The Problem With MVPs

by Stever B 24. March 2010 16:24

The other day I had the chance to peruse the work of another developer, a Microsoft MVP. The code was less than impressive. To be frank, it stunk, but it stunk in a strange way. It had a weird combination of advanced technique and rank naiveté. There was separation of concerns, but it was much more convoluted than it needed to be. The work that the code performed was relatively trivial, but it was hidden behind a bag of patterns and the structure of the classes made finding the code that did the real work an exercise in spelunking.

I mentioned it to a friend of mine, and he shared his story about a hiring interview with an MVP carrying job candidate. The story was eerily similar. The candidate was well versed with the latest and greatest development methodologies, but seemed to lack a grasp of writing a simple “fizz-buzz”. To make matters worse, part-way through the interview the candidate starting listing their “requirements”, which conferences they’d be attending, which technologies they would use, etc.

I was flabbergasted. Granted, my friend was glad the candidate was so forthcoming with his lack of professionalism. It helped make his decision not to hire the guy much easier. After I thought about it a little bit more, I realized that the fault wasn’t totally with the MVPs in question. All of us share a little of the blame.

What’s All This MVP Stuff?

Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professional program recognizes professionals who share their knowledge of MS products with others. It’s a great deal for Microsoft and it’s a pretty good deal for the MVPs. Microsoft gets free technical support for their products and the MVPs get public recognition of their contributions to the community at large. The problem with the MVP program is what it doesn’t recognize. The MVP program does not recognize technical ability. It’s possible to be awarded an MVP in a development related area and not really be able to write code.

If you want an MVP award , you blog, you answer questions on the Microsoft forums and on StackOverflow. You talk a lot. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with doing any of those things and a lot of reasons why we should encourage the behavior. Heck, I do those things.  But you can do all of that without ever writing code beyond the level of a “hello world” presentation demo. You can do all of those things without knowing how to do anything but use a search engine, cut and paste and tirelessly self-promote.

If you compare the Microsoft and the Open Source communities, there is a striking contrast. If you want attention in the open source community you write code and you release some projects. You do stuff. If you want attention in the Microsoft community you talk.

How Is This My Fault?

Even with all of that, there isn’t really a problem with the MVP program. It’s working precisely the way Microsoft wants and needs it to. Microsoft gets free advertisement for its products and a never ending supply of people to offer handholding for users of its platforms. There’s really no reason for Microsoft to change things on their end, although it would be nice if Microsoft distinctly recognized developers that actually released more than hot air.

What we really need to fix are our expectations and perceptions of those that have been awarded an MVP. They might be great developers; I know some that are. They might be completely clueless; there are obviously a few in this category as well. The fact that a person has an MVP award doesn’t really tell us what kind of developer they are. The only thing we can know for sure is that they know how to answer questions on the internet and (depending on the MVP) give a pretty good semi-technical talk. Beyond that, we need to evaluate MVPs just as we would any other developer.

Comments (28) -

Stever b
Stever b
3/24/2010 4:37:50 PM #

To both of the people waiting for the rest of the OAuth stuff, I'm in the process of making the code suitable for human consumption.

Michael C. Neel
Michael C. Neel
3/24/2010 5:39:35 PM #

Excellent post, and the points are valid.  I have the same feelings on certifications - it doesn't provide any insight as to how skilled the developer is.  With MVP, it's a misunderstanding (most don't realize it's an award for the past year's community work) and a bit of Microsoft misdirection (they often will point to MVPs as "Technical Experts" even though there isn't a technical knowledge test to qualify).

Randall Sexton
Randall Sexton
3/25/2010 5:38:58 AM #

"...it would be nice if Microsoft distinctly recognized developers that actually released more than hot air."

Excellent.

SmartyP
SmartyP
3/28/2010 6:06:05 PM #

interesting article, and i think you make valid points.. i would also add that the pompousness of some MVPs is perhaps more annoying to me.. even if you are an MVP that is more an MVP for 'talking' than 'doing' - at least be nice about it and dont get a big head or a huge sense of entitlement..

Laurent Bugnion
Laurent Bugnion
3/28/2010 11:20:27 PM #

Hi,

First the disclaimer is needed here: I am an MVP and have been since 2007 (currently in Silverlight).

I guess that as in each community, it is necessary to differentiate between the individuals (which your article does in the body, but unfortunately not in the title - "The problem with MVPs" is a bit like saying "The problem with humans"). I personally know some fantastic professionals who are MVPs. I personally know some fantastic professionals who are not MVPs. And of course I personally know some god-awful programmers who are MVPs, and some who are not. To me, the value of the MVP program (and especially in the two communities where I am the most active, client app dev and Silverlight) is that it puts us in close contact with the product team. It helps those of us who do some real code Smile to bring home our feedback and influence the future of the technology. This is the real advantage that I see in the program.

As for the rest that you mention, I agree with you in general. Having an MVP award does not mean that we know how to code. And also, lately I noticed a trend in people absolutely wanting to have an MVP award for some reason, and being really annoying on Twitter or other media about it. That is something that I find terrible and damaging for the community in general. I was recently asked in an interview (on SilverlightShow) what one should do in order to become an MVP. In my opinion, the only respectable way to achieve that is to not try, or at least not try too hard. The award rewards work in the community (blogging, answering questions, talking in user groups and conferences) as well as providing feedback to Microsoft about the technology you use, but noone in his sane mind should do that *in order to* get an award.

Thanks for the article,
Laurent

Andrew Westgarth
Andrew Westgarth
3/28/2010 11:23:05 PM #

I enjoyed reading your post this morning.  I have been fortunate enough to have been given an MVP Award for IIS as a developer for the past two years.  I really appreciate the award, the connections and opportunities it has granted me however I would do everything I do in the UK Community without the award.

I run a user group for IT Pros and Developers in the North East of England and have been involved in the UK Community for a number of years.  We are extremely lucky to have a great community of both MVPs and non-MVPs - just very passionate knowledgeable people.  I know there is sometimes a bit of elitism found amongst some MVPs and this is disappointing.  I look up to a number of fellow MVPs and aspire to know as much as they do as there are some who have a huge amount of knowledge and skill.

My overriding value in life is that I always want to learn.  I'm the first to admit I don't know everything and I'm always trying to learn more and get better and better.  I am involved in the user groups and speaking at user groups and conferences purely for the light bulb moments and to share knowledge.  There's nothing better than helping other developers and IT Pros to bridge the gap and facilitate learning.  I get great value from talking to people and helping them learn and at the same time learning from their experiences and practices.   I have a very altruistic approach to the work I put in to user groups and community and it's rare but I believe and know there are a lot of other MVPs who share my opinion.  I quote Jeremy Miller - codebetter.com/blogs/jeremy.miller/default.aspx - "There are no smart guys only us".

I think everyone in our profession, MVPs or Non-MVPs need to remember to have a bit of humility.  I truly don't believe in any profession any one person can know absolutely everything, it is possible to be extremely knowledgeable in an area but you should never be so bullish to think that you know everything and are better than everyone else.

Sara Chipps
Sara Chipps
3/29/2010 12:15:07 AM #


Right, the biggest issue I think is the distinction that MVP awards are strictly community based. While many MVPs are also good coders (and many new to the craft, such as myself), they dole these things out based on impact, not skill.

AnandK
AnandK
3/29/2010 12:37:29 AM #

MVPs are not necessarily meant to be uber-geeks; but primarariy folks who answer real world questions. While there may be great developers who may be MVPs, there are also some like me, who while running my own Advertising business during the day, enjoy giving down-to-earth solutions to day-to-day problems, in the evenings!

If you are looking for 'experts' I suggest you look for someone with a MS certification Smile

Rob
Rob
3/29/2010 12:58:58 AM #

There's one MVP in the sharepoint forums who only ever seems to berate people for posting incorrectly in his forums.  I have yet to see him actually post a helpful comment to someone's question or problem.  As a consequence I don't dare ask questions where he hangs out.

Hima
Hima
3/29/2010 1:18:35 AM #

It is misinterpretation that MVPs are the best developers. MVPs comes from different fields for their passion in the technology they have been awarded.  There are Tax consultants, Government Employees, SEO experts in the MVP Community they do not even code. I can say that MVPs are the best technical authors and trainers in the industry. Someone who trains well makes lots and lots of developers but need not necessarily be a good developer.  If you are a managing multiple teams obviously you cannot be a good developer, except solution specialist and how you analyze things.No company takes MVPs without interviewing them .So if the job requires much coding, they will test the skills and recruit the person if he / she suits.
http://groups.google.com/group/mugh

Scott Hanselman
Scott Hanselman
3/29/2010 2:12:02 AM #

I liked this: "If you want attention in the open source community you write code and you release some projects" because it's true and I prefer to work in this way. I'm trying to apply pressure internally to focus equally on code production as well as "hot air" production. Both are useful.

Atul
Atul
3/29/2010 2:19:23 AM #

I agree with Laurent and Hima. The award clearly reads Most Valuable Professional and Not "Best programmer". The value comes from different aspects and in this case quality of code isn't necessarily a parameter up for evaluation, so why the question?

To me this is like giving away Best CEO award and then question, is that person really worth it? As a CEO, he/she probally delegated all work to the subordinates, so why give him/her the best CEO.

Gunnar
Gunnar
3/29/2010 4:02:30 AM #

Well, Steve, you made a conceptual mistake here Smile You see, MVP is mostly about communities and public activities. MVP is title not certificate and I suggest you to handle it like title. But it is not enough to decide if somebody should be working for you or not. Yes, it gives you better picture about person, you can find out his or her presentations (some of these maybe even available as videod), blog postings and forum discussions. You may find this information useful to find out more about person you plan to hire. But it tells you almost nothing about how will be your relation with this person when you plan to work together.

If you want to know more about somebody's personal skills then please feel free to ask certificates he or she has. And ask about exams that he or she has made. Microsoft has even site where people can publish their certificates and exams transcripts. This information comes directly from Microsoft sources and people cannot modify this information manually. By example, there are MCP virtual business cards available (mine is located at: www.mcpvirtualbusinesscard.com/.../profile).

To make sure somebody can work with you you have to talk with this person. This is the best way how to find out if somebody is okay for you or not, besides all great references.

Stever B
Stever B
3/29/2010 4:35:49 AM #

Gunnar, you make an interesting point, but as a holder of multiple MS Certs, I feel confident saying that they do not indicate programming ability. Mostly, they show a certain level of familiarity with the technology involved and the ability to pass a test.

Also, I highly discourage any MCPs from making a big deal out of it. Don't put it on your business card and if you mention it on your resume put it at the bottom of the education section. There are a select group of employers who care about the MCP for business reasons (which is why I have them), but when I see someone lead with the MCP it looks like an attempt to compensate.

Maybe I just have a lingering bad impression of certificate programs from the late 90s. I met a lot of "paper" MCPs back then.

Vanderghast
Vanderghast
3/29/2010 6:00:21 AM #

The actual MVP award actually covers also "architects" (Regional Managers, etc) , and architects don't produce code, not much anyhow, but they get the MVP award none the less. A little bit the same for Engineers (professional ones): a Civil Eng. is not the same as an Electrical one, or a Chemical one, or ...  They are all Engineer, and that is the legal title! The specialization is not a necessary part of the official title, for Engineer, neither for an MVP. It is one of the objective for the interview to be sure you got the right pro for your job, regardless of the title. Assuming that any Chemical Engineer can design a suspended bridge is just plainly wrong, and NOT the fault of the Chemical Engineer!

Vanderghast, Access MVP, ... and by Access, that stands for Microsoft Access, not F#  Smile

Peter Ritchie
Peter Ritchie
3/29/2010 9:55:20 AM #

Just like any other human, MVPs are human.  The people that nominate MVPs are human.  The people that award MVPs are human.  In no way is the MVP award a certification.  If someone thinks it is, there's nothing anyone can do about that; but, they're not helping themselves.  That's a projection they've put on the MVP program, not the fault of the MVP program.  Would I as an MVP treat another MVP any differently in a job interview?  No.  I know of many MVPs that have been awarded simply based on the quantity of community contribution, not quality.  I think that's a shame for the MVP program because it has the potential to be more than just that.

A problem with the MVP program, from the point of view of the technical software development community, is its scope.  It's an award that's awarded to people for their contribution to the Microsoft community (virtual or real) for any Microsoft product.  C#, Word, Outlook, etc.  That's not to say MVPs in non-software-development products are any less deserving of the award.  It means that's what the MVP award is and that it can't be more than "just that".  To suggest or assume it's a certification of someone's software development abilities is wrong.  To do that only means you'll be disappointed.

That being said, there are still good software development MVPs out there--I know many.  But I judge their abilities and skills based on the actions that I've witnessed, not based on their MVP status--just as I do for any other non-MVP.  I don't think there's a "problem with MVPs", just how people view what an MVP means.

ashok hingorani
ashok hingorani
3/29/2010 10:20:57 AM #

totally agree
but then who said being an MVP means great coding
most MVPs are young
have great ideas and insights
but not yet had to time to mature as coders

I do write good code,
but I have 25 years experience of working with the best
yet mine is not the best code
because I am not a purist

my strength is ideas and finding solutions to anything thrown at me
and I can say the same for the MVPs I know
others can code
but few have the energy and open minds that MVPs do
and specially their willingness to share their hard won knowledge

three cheers for the MVPs

ashok

Nate Oliver
Nate Oliver
3/29/2010 11:52:53 AM #

Hello, Nate Oliver, here. Disclaimer, Excel MVP.

There's a few problems with this blog entry. You haven't mentioned the category the MVP was awarded in, and what you were reviewing. Are they the same? The second issue is that it suffers from a common logical fallacy, called "Hasty generalization" - you've lumped a lot of people into a single category. The third is that many of the comments don't reconcile, e.g., in terms of looking to certification tests, who do you think helped write the tests? I was told not take them, too easy.

I think your conclusion is correct, evaluate MVPs as you would anyone else. For me, personally, if I was an interview, I'd want the inquisitor to pull out a laptop and see what I have.

I take some issues with your premises, though. "Fizz buzz" wouldn't make any sense to test an Excel expert for, in a niche field. And the Hot Air comment is over-the-top. If you were to pick a version of Excel, we could determine where the hot air really flows from, I'm sure.

As a tack-on to another comment, it's not my experience that MVPs are especially young - I tend to stand out amongst Excel MVPs for being young, and I'm old.

Dustin Harper
Dustin Harper
3/29/2010 4:12:27 PM #

While some MVP's can be irritating and post some things that aren't that nice (replying to Rob), most of them are very courteous and have good intentions.

But, as with any and all certifications, which the MVP isn't, it isn't a judge of the persons technical ability. I've seen some who are MCSE's that can't do much with AD or even change out a hard drive (that was a joke). Or a CCNA that can't configure a VLAN on a simple 2950 switch. Easy things, but they weren't able to do it. Don't let their resume and certifications tell you whether or not to hire someone, do what you are doing: test during the interview.

MVP's are a great help, sure it's free tech support for Microsoft, but it's all volunteer. They aren't forced to do it, they don't ask for monetary reward. They do it because they enjoy helping others. That's why I do what I do. I get zero income from my website and newsgroup discussions, but I enjoy helping others.

Oh, and by the way: I got awarded something, too. I may have won $10,000,000 from Publishers Clearing House.

Marcio Garcia
Marcio Garcia
3/31/2010 9:16:10 AM #

Congratulations for the article. Let me add my points.

It doesn't matter if the name is MVP, MCSE, SCJP or whatever, in my point of view all kind of certification just tells us that that certified guy is eager to learn.

For some kind it also demonstrate that that mate also know some base technical concepts.

Actually some certifications are less educational and more comercial, this is the case of not only the MVPs, but also the CSM (Certified Scrum Master) from Scrum Alliance.

ashok hingorani
ashok hingorani
4/2/2010 9:41:23 PM #

Certificates can be bought
MVPs are not

MVPs share
because they care

no certification can teach you that Smile

Peter Ritchie
Peter Ritchie
4/3/2010 4:54:20 AM #

Some people are MVPs simply to be MVPs.  They don't necessarily care; they just knew what to do to become and MVP.

ashok hingorani
ashok hingorani
4/3/2010 11:15:16 AM #

not that easy to just become an MVP because you want to.
Your peers decide if you are worthy.

Pwnguin
Pwnguin
4/6/2010 8:21:56 AM #

"If you want attention in the open source community you write code and you release some projects. You do stuff."

Of course, there's just as much trash in open source software. From what I can tell, most open source projects are not written by CS geeks, but scientists or artists or journalists and so-on. It seems that it's easier to start and finish when you care more about what the ends are than what the means look like.

Dave F
Dave F
4/6/2010 10:50:53 AM #

The P in MVP is truncated. It's professional wannabe.

ashok hingorani
ashok hingorani
4/6/2010 11:30:52 AM #

Hi Dave

been in this business 25 years, worked with people like Ray Ozzie for 5 years, with no MVP thought in mind because MS was not there - I'm not the wannabe anyone, rather someone who others may wannabe. The MVP award acknowledges those who give of their precious time without any real concern for return - may not be the best coders but they are perceptive users and great problem solvers - may not be certified but i know some who know MS products as well and better than most MS people. These guys started programming like at 14 and assemble their own systems and networks and find the time from a days wortk to dig deeper than most techies ever will - and share - it's a state of mind.

if it is that easy why not prove it by getting the MVP award this year in whatever category you feel you are expert in. Smile

cheers

Andri Yadi
Andri Yadi
4/7/2010 9:32:37 PM #

I'm MVP, I'm CEO, and I'm coder. So it depends on who the MVP is. Yes, great coder is great, but MVP is about influencing and sharing to the community. Yes, Microsoft will have benefit from that, but I never think too much about it. To me, sharing is the great way to sell myself and my company, and introduce to the world that I'm good at certain technologies and other stuffs.

ashok hingorani
ashok hingorani
4/17/2010 10:17:35 PM #

Hi
re the code fragment on Macaque.com just illustrates what we are saying - the MVP was not concerned about how the code looked - it was probably a quick first run at something - his "intelligence" and "dilligence" helped figure out something early, that others would later need - and he has published his work for that reason - not to show off his coding skills

brgds

ashok

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