Microsoft pumps up volunteer support program

Microsoft is expanding a program that draws on volunteer enthusiasts around the world to provide advice and technical support to people who use its products.

Now in its tenth year, the Most Valuable Professional program includes around 1,300 people from all walks of life who run newsgroups and other communities that provide support for Microsoft users and developers. They also provide the software maker with valuable feedback about how to improve its products.

Around 700 of them have converged at its Redmond, Washington, headquarters this week for pep talks from top executives including Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect, and Steve Ballmer, chief executive officer. They'll also meet with product managers and hear about new programs that give them earlier access to Microsoft's software code and product plans.

The software maker has grown the program rapidly in the past two years, roughly doubling its ranks in just the past 12 months, said Neil Leslie, general manager of Microsoft's global technical support center, who oversees the effort. The MVPs receive some free software, but because they are essentially unpaid they provide a unique type of feedback from Microsoft's customers, he said.

"The benefit for us is the passion they attach to this. Once you fund or do something like this yourself it's not as customer-connected as if the community does it," he said.

The MVPs specialize in various product areas and the number assigned to the 70 or so product groups varies widely. The largest is for .Net, with around 100 MVPs. The Excel and Exchange Server groups have around 50 members each, while the Visio group has six. There are eight MVPs specializing in security.

"I've been an MVP for three years and I've definitely seen our feedback put into products," said Ed Hansberry, a certified public accountant by trade from Nashville, Tennessee, and a member of the Pocket PC group.

When the first Pocket PC devices came out, a common complaint among users was not being able to figure out how to close applications, he said. It was partly feedback from MVPs that persuaded Microsoft to include the familiar 'x' at the top right of the screen for closing programs, he said.

Giorgio Cifani runs an Italian-language newsgroup from his home near Milan. The most common question he gets from developers in Europe is how to connect devices to the region's cellular networks.

"We're a good presence between Microsoft and its customers," he said. "They see us as being on their side so the relationship is very good."

Microsoft doesn't plan to sustain the rapid growth of the MVP program, Microsoft's Leslie said. It wants to retain the quality of its MVP membership, and of the feedback about its products, and keep the group "intimate," he said.

As part of the summit in Redmond this week Microsoft is introducing the MVP Academy, which gives access to training, certification and other resources, and a beta enrollment program intended to let MVPs provide greater feedback about course development and certification.

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