Taking the Soup

A while back, I had to review a book by an ‘award-winning’ author. It was an excellent book. I phoned the writer to get some background information and to try to ascertain whether my assumptions about the author’s background knowledge were right. ‘That award you won… What was it?’

‘Oh, just one of those awards you know, like the Whitbread, or the Booker.’

‘…and its name?’ I pressed, baffled by his vagueness,

‘Well, if you must know, I awarded it to myself,’ He confessed.

I remarked on his initiative.

‘Yes, the established literary cartels were slow in coming forward to recognise new and interesting talent, due to their entrenched self-interest, so I pre-empted them and awarded myself a literary prize. It has done wonders for my book sales and everyone seems impressed. Even my mother refers to it to her friends.’

We moved on to other topics, but before we ended the call, he said ‘ You know, there were two strange things about that award, …Firstly, after I awarded it to myself, I felt oddly elated, as if some august academic body had suddenly realised my true worth as an author and had strained every sinew to ensure that my talent was acknowledged. ‘ ‘

Pause

‘… and what was the other strange thing?’

‘You are the first person ever to have asked me precisely what award it was that I’d won. Everybody else has just taken it for granted.’

‘I work in IT. It makes one cautious of trusting qualifications and awards.’

We parted on excellent terms. He recently sent me his latest book, a bestseller by an award-winning novelist.

Awards are tricky things to get right. For an award to be universally supported, it has to have a transparent and scrupulously independent selection process. Nobel, Booker and Whitbread occasionally get it right, but then you’d be very hard pushed to find a Nobel prize-winner for Literature in your bookshelf or made into a Movie. Elias Canetti? Toni Morrison? Pearl Buck? Heinrich Böll?

Professional awards in general are a minefield. The checks and balances that have to be put in place in order to make the selection and nomination process fair and visible are Byzantine in their complexity. The election processes are always constructed to prevent any hint of a possibility of unfair influence.

I find the Microsoft MVP ‘award’ troubling. This is nothing to do with the MVPs themselves. I have many good friends who are annually, and with excellent judgement, awarded MVP status for their excellent work. People who are MVPs seem to know their specialised subject well. For all you know, I may even be an MVP myself. That has nothing to do with the fact that the MVP ‘gong’ itself is an insidious thing. The M at the beginning is enough to impress anybody’s aunt. MSc, MBE, MBA, MVP. It looks like it is a Master of something or other. It masquerades as an academic or professional award. Traditionally, MVP was the ‘most valued player’ in a baseball team, chosen by the rest of the team. In IT, the MVP is promoted and funded by one commercial organisation, and the final selection of MVPs is made by employees of that organisation in closed session. The M either stands for ‘Microsoft’ or ‘Most’, depending on who you ask.

‘Each year a panel of Microsoft employees reviews the contributions of each nominee for quality, quantity, and level of impact on the technical community.’ (from the MVP website)

The award is given annually, and a recipient cannot claim the ‘qualification’ after the year is up unless re-nominated and re-selected, the ‘Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away’. It is, I suppose, a good way of ensuring ‘the expectations of courtesy, professionalism, code of conduct, and adherence to the community rules’. However, ask yourself this, could it also be a way of pitching the loose canons overboard? 

Imagine that Microsoft has decided to take yet another slice of the IT market, in an area previously dominated by another player. Let us, for the sake of argument, imagine that Microsoft has produced a product, we’ll call it Silverlight for the sake of argument, which takes on Adobe’s Flash. This isn’t our concern. We can look at the two offerings, and look at Adobe AIR, the commercial response to Silverlight, and make a judgement, based on merit, on how the two products fit with requirements. However, as an MVP, can one then blog on the superiority of the Adobe AIR package without the nagging thought that the panel of those Microsoft employees are going to make sucking sounds through their teeth, shake their heads sadly, and move onto the next nominee the next time your name comes up?

‘Eloquent, yes, but is he really singing from the same hymn sheet? Is he really the sort of Microsoft Valued Professional we want?’ The influence of Marketing has an insidious way of penetrating ‘Chinese walls’.

In reality, Microsoft would never actually have to ‘pull the choke-chain’ at all. There will always be that small lingering doubt in the mind of the MVP who wants to stay an MVP. ‘Would that upset them?’ It is the whole basis of the award which is wrong rather than the way it is implemented and run.

I realise that the vast majority of people who receive the award have put good selfless service into assisting the community of people who are using Microsoft products. Nobody is saying that the award is equivalent to Reginald Molehusband’s CDM. Can, though, anyone who puts the letters MVP after their name be, in addition,  accepted as an independent industry expert, or do the three letters just mean that the person has ‘got the ring though the nose’?

Naturally, the answer is ‘The thought of Microsoft’s reaction makes not a hoot of difference in what the average MVP will do or say. The letters MVP mean that the recipient has worked hard to support the community, rather than act as an unpaid cheerleader for Microsoft. The award merely shows that the recipient knows the particular Microsoft product he got the award for, and has used it to help the community of users: nothing more.’ Why then dress it up to make it look like more than it really is? Sadly, perception is everything, and it could well be the perception of the IT indiustry as a whole that you’ve ‘Taken the Soup’.