This post was edited/updated on 27/August/2014.
For the past few years I’ve been sending my “Guide to the MVP Summit” to friends who were newly minted MVPs. This year, I thought I’d share my guide (with hush-hush stuff removed) so everyone could get an idea of what goes on.
What’s an MVP?
A Microsoft Valuable Professional is, according to Microsoft:
MVPs are independent experts who are offered a close connection with people at Microsoft. To acknowledge MVPs’ leadership and provide a platform to help support their efforts, Microsoft often gives MVPs early access to Microsoft products, as well as the opportunity to pass on their highly targeted feedback and recommendations about product design, development, and support.
There are around 4,200 of us around the world with all sorts of expertise. For example, there are around 14 of us in Ireland, and I am in the Cloud & Datacenter Management (CDM) expertise – note the the program now allows an MVP to have more than 1 exptertise. There are other Irish MVPs have the Cloud and Datacenter expertise, as well as other expertises from across the Microsoft portfolio.
We vary from Xbox experts, Office365 gurus, and Windows Server wizards. Our community can be found on forums, writing books, delivering training, blogging, podcasting, updating wikis, speaking at road shows, presenting at launch events, and running user groups. And from time to time, we work too
There are no exams to become an MVP. After making contributions to the community over time, people get recognised by other MVPs or Microsoft employees. A person is nominated and evaluated. If they’re lucky they are awarded with MVP status. And that status is good for 1 year. At the 9-10 month mark, the whole evaluation begins again based on our contributions over the past year. There is no sitting on your laurels when you are an MVP; you don’t want to lose your status and lose access to the MVP Summit.
What is the MVP Summit?
We get a number of benefits as MVPs but this is the crown jewel. The MVP Summit is a conference, held usually in Microsoft HQ at Redmond and in nearby Bellevue, where MVPs and members of product groups get together for several days. The contents of the conference are under NDA … it’s kind of like Fight Club: the first rule is not to talk about Summit, and the second rule is not to talk about Summit.
The sessions we attend are mixed, from general content to focused sessions with the folks who helped create the product that we are experts in. I can’t talk much more about it …. but these sessions can be amazing. We can learn a lot from the makers of the product. Why would Microsoft do this at their expense? Simple: we’re out there talking about their product in markets that they cannot reach. For example, I have used my education to teach Microsoft partners in Ireland, to blog here, to write a book, and to speak at many events and podcasts, and author whitepapers. We are independent (VMware folks might say different about me, but I get a lot of heat from time to time for my … … independence) so people value what we have to say, instead of listening to the same old canned presentations from Microsoft marketing.
This isn’t just a 1-way flow of information. It is alleged that Steve Ballmer once said that MVPs were people who asked questions with exclamations at the end, e.g. “Will we get NIC teaming in Windows Server vNext!!!!!” We tend to bring lists of feature requests and feedback. A lot of what’s in Windows Server 2016 was because of MVP feedback (I wish I could say what bits!). The cool thing is that the program managers welcome our feedback, either because it’s unexpected or because it provides them with the metrics to support something that they’ve been pushing for.
One of the great things is the networking. We MVPs get to meet each other and our friends from other countries. I’ve gotten to know developers, Office 365 experts, System Center people, and the list goes on. This proves useful for that “quick question”. One hand washes the other: sometimes we find work opportunities for each other. And yes, you make all kinds of friends. Some of the best people I know I met at the Summit, and they’re the sort of close friends that I was delighted to invite to my wedding.
Where is It?
Your life during this week will centre around Bellevue and Redmond.
There are a number of conference hotels. The big three are:
- The Hyatt on the junction of NE 8th St and Bellevue Sq. This is the hub of social activity. A reception is usually held here. There are many bars and restaurants in the immediate vicinity within walking distance. This is the hotel everyone wants to book … and it’s why I was pressing F5 on the night that registration started I’ve stayed here all but one year.
- The Westin is down the road across from Bellevue Square. I stayed here on my first year. Some of the Summit activity usually happens here, registration, overflow, additional sessions outside of the core days. There is an undercover walk between the Westin and the Hyatt (direct to where registration usually is at the Westin). I stayed one night in 2013; it’s comfy and directly across the road from the restaurants you’ll go to in Bellevue.
- A more economic, but distant, option is the Red Lion. I’ve not stayed there but friends have. It’s out of the way, but it offers a shuttle service into Bellevue.
- There are a bunch more of hotels within 10 minutes walk of the Hyatt. I’ve stayed in a couple, and they’re good hotels too. Trust me – on Summit week, if it’s an official hotel, then you’ll have plenty of out-of-town nerd company.
You might find that certain groups or countries like to stick to certain hotels. If you’re an MVP, ask around and you’ll find out where your group likes to stay.
When to Travel
The Summit as an event runs for 3-4 days, but you might find additional stuff being added by the groups – some are better than others at this. They will be full and long days. I suffer from horrible jetlag, and that makes the 8 hour time difference all the tougher. I usually fly in on the Saturday before. The idea is to sort out my jetlag but that’s never worked. On the Sunday, I register, relax, hanging out in Bellevue, wandering about, and spending time with friends, some of whom I might not have met since the last Summit.
Know your schedule before you book flights/hotels. The more diligent might want to get back home as quickly as possible to minimise time away from work or family. Are any elective sessions outside your core expertise available? Is your product group laying on extra sessions or days? Some groups have been known to do 2-3 days of extra content because they have some much content to share and get feedback on.
The local international airport is Seattle-Tacoma (SEA). From UK/Ireland, I used to go via Heathrow to take advantage of the convenient departure/arrival times of BA into/out of Seattle, but Heathrow Terminal 5 is a nightmare to change in now. Instead, I prefer to fly directly from Dublin into the USA (and do immigration in Ireland), and then get a short hope either from Chicago or Seattle.
The airport is about a half hour from central Bellevue by taxi. I can’t remember the price but I think it was around $50-$60. Note that some of the hotels, such as the Hyatt, run a shuttle service.
If you’re arriving in after 9pm then you might find it difficult to find food at the hotel. Plan ahead: get food on the way. Yeah, that’s airline food, but it’s better than nothing. Joey’s bar across from the Hyatt front entrance is the only place I know of that serves food late, but it’s usually full of MVPs and the posers that parked their hypercars outside.
The trip to Redmond from central Bellevue takes around 15 minutes. Microsoft runs regular coaches from each official hotel to the hub in the middle of the campus. Buses are queuing up and leave when filled. Calling Redmond a campus is an understatement: it’s a small city with its own road network, buses, and taxis. You find out where your sessions will be when you build your schedule (online soon before the conference). At the hub, you catch another organised coach to get to your building – they run on a loop stopping off at different buildings. If you find yourself stuck at a building needing transport, there’s a buzzer outside the front door where you can request a Microsoft bus/taxi – you just need to know what Microsoft building (number) you’re going to … including the several Microsoft buildings in Bellevue.
The Social Side
The reception is a welcome party, usually in the Hyatt, where all MVPs from around the world and all expertise mingle. It’s a chance to meet old friends and new ones. And the group of a certain country annoys everyone else with their endless chanting. Note to self: print a huge poster with their results from the world cup *evil laugh*. BTW, the food is often shite, but there’s a Wendy’s burger place around the corner 🙂
The product group evening session is a big deal. Here you’ll get to talk more with the presenters from the week, and meet other program managers that you didn’t get to see talk. This event can be where you make those contacts that save your bacon in 2 years time, and it’s where the PMs figure out who are the right people for them to talk to when planning products. This informal atmosphere is where a lot of stuff gets done.
Bars and Restaurants
You usually don’t need to buy food during the conference days. Breakfast is served in the hotel in a conference room – what’s the story with turkey sausages? They are God-awful pale turds. Seriously! I usually skip that by getting cereal/milk in a local supermarket and eating in my hotel room. There are frequent breaks and lunch at the sessions. Dinner is taken care of most nights. The reception at the Hyatt features weird tasting mini-burgers. There are lots of options nearby:
- Breakfast is served in a hall in the conference hotels on official Summit days. Day 1 it’s good. Then it switches to those God-awful “dog turd” turkey sausages. That leads me to …
- Palaminos beside the Westin is OK. Typical American food and a pricey but tasty breakfast.
- Denny’s is a great way to fill up at breakfast, but there isn’t one near the hotels.
- The Starbucks is across from the Hyatt gets very full. There is another bigger one just 1 minute walk past that one and it’s never as busy.
- The Italian across from the Hyatt is excellent. I recommend the spaghetti & meatball. There is another Italian (I think) beside the Starbucks on the corner.
- There is an “Irish” bar across from the Hyatt that is popular with MVPs
- The bar outside the Hyatt on the corner, Joey’s, also gets busy but is close by. It’s a pricey spot with lots of exotic cars being parked in the hotel courtyard.
- There is a small restaurant/bar on the ground floor of the Hyatt. Nice breakfast. Don’t remember many MVPs in there. I also think there’s a Mexican or a fish restaurant in the Hyatt complex.
- Near Barnes & Noble (east of Westin hotel) is a really good bar. Huge beer and food menu from what I remember.
- There’s a pizza place around the side form the Westin. I ate there in 2013 and the pizza was good.
- Cheesecake Factory is across the road from the Westin. Huge portions of food and always busy. If you go there with a big group, you will wait for a table (they give you a pager). It’s usually full. I guess this is a mandatory visit for non-American fans of The Big Bang Theory (get the barbecue bacon cheeseburger, delivered with barbecue sauce, bacon, and cheese on the side) Go there hungry. Very hungry.
- Breakfast is pricey everywhere. Add in coffee and you’re talking $35/person.
- There is a Chinese across the flyover walkway between the Hyatt and the Westin. I hear it’s excellent – it must be because it is always full and busy.
Everyone wants to shop when in the USA, especially us gadget geeks. The Apple and Microsoft stores are separated by an escalator doors apart in the mall. It’s a big indoor mall, typical of USA. There’s also a camera place. But I’d also check out the Best Buy website if I was you. Best Buy is about 1.5-2KMs away. If you are going into either Apple or MSFT stores, don’t go in too late in the day – 2500 MVPs will also be in there. The mall has lots of other stores and lots of small coffee shops and places to eat. Fry’s is huge, but it’s quite a distance away. You can get a taxi there, but it’s tough getting back. And do not even attempt to get on that road in peak traffic.
There have been discounts in the past for MVPs at the MSFT Store, such as a cheap Surface 2. And we were there in 2013 when the Xbox One was released and we got to see the madness in the mall and on the MSFT campus. That’s not an every year deal – wait until you register before you shop in the MSFT store … and do ask if there is an MVP discount before you pay.
There is also a Barnes & Nobel 1 block east of the Hyatt and Westin. I remember my first visit there: I got to see my name in print on the cover of a book for the very first time (Mastering Windows Server 2008 R2).
There is also the Company Store in the Redmond Hub. This is the place to get your cheap XBox Live Gold membership, webcams, etc. Any time I see one of my Hyper-V books on sale in there … another “happy dance”
It’s actually a good distance away, about 20-30 minutes to the main part of the city, which is west of Bellevue. You can get a bus (I am told). There is lots to do and see. The underground tour is supposed to be excellent. The fish market is a must-see apparently. A few did a harbour boat tour. I did the spike thing last year. You go up, pay for coffee, and go back down again. I’m not much of a city-tourist I prefer going out into the mountains with camera gear. If that’s your thing and you have time, then you’re in luck. Olympic National Park (big snow mountains) is west of Seattle. The Cascade mountains run north/south east of Bellevue. Mt. Ranier National Park is southeast of you.
Maybe you’ll get to learn loads, and maybe not – it depends on your product group and how interested they are. To me, the Summit is the most important event I go to each year. Part of it is meeting the MSFT folks, and part of it is meeting the other MVPs. This is a conference like no other, because this is where you get to mingle with other experts and where you get to shape future versions of the products that you work with.
I have left some stuff out because I’m not sure of the NDA nature of it – better safe than sorry! You’ll learn more about the event from your regional leads as we get closer to it. Be sure to talk with local MVPs or others in your same expertise to find out what else goes on during the week.
Oh yeah: At MVP Summit there will be no photography, no blogging, no tweeting, no facebooking, no instagramming … and I am not joking. This is put on your serious pants time and take the NDA very seriously. Assume everything is under NDA unless told otherwise. If you are told it’s not under NDA then you can blog, etc, but I am careful with that stuff and ask for it to be reviewed before publishing, just in case I included NDA content by accdent.