'It's Keeping Up with Customer Demand': Partner Exec Julie Sanford on the AI-fication of Microsoft's Partner Program

Microsoft is promising a swift and seamless transition from the MCPP to the new AI-focused program, plus plenty of handholds for partners of all expertise levels.

Microsoft's AI strategy has been gradually unfolding for years, but in the past few months it has reached fever pitch. Between its multibillion-dollar investment in ChatGPT purveyor OpenAI, to the inclusion of generative AI capabilities into nearly every part of its stack under the "Copilot" brand, to the introduction this month of intelligence-related specializations for its channel partners, Microsoft's message to its various stakeholders is clear: We're all-in on AI.

For partners, that message could not have been clearer than on Tuesday, the start of the 2023 Microsoft Inspire conference, during which CEO Satya Nadella announced the launch of the new Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program, a new version of the Microsoft Cloud Partner Program that started only nine months ago. Microsoft executives are touting this new program as the "next generation" of the MCPP, with much of the same benefits and structure, but more attuned to the intelligence demands of today's customers.

In an interview ahead of Inspire, we caught up with Julie Sanford, head of Partner GTM, Programs & Experiences within Microsoft's Global Partner Solutions group, who explained Microsoft's vision for the new AI-focused partner program. Following is our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

RCP: What is the marquee announcement that partners should take away from Inspire 2023?
Sanford: I would say our hero message is the announcement of the Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program. This is signaling a new era for our partner ecosystem that reflects all the company's investments in AI that we have been rolling out over the last six to eight months, and just making some unprecedented investments there.

In addition to that, we are going to announce the expansion of some of our solution partner designations, which includes training services, support services, ISV designation.
And then, I would say the third hero announcement is the general availability of ISV Success. You'll remember last year, we talked about the private preview. Public preview came out through the spring. So now that's in general availability, as well as the [Azure] Marketplace multiparty private offers.

There were three new specializations announced earlier this week for Azure and Business Applications solutions partners. Is that part and parcel of the new AI Cloud Partner Program?
Absolutely. The thing I want to zero in on is that -- we talked a lot last year about the Microsoft Cloud Partner Program. Think of the Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program as the next generation of that program. So 100% of our partners that are [MCPP] members today and have earned designations and receive benefits through the Cloud Partner Program, they will automatically transition into the new Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program. And that will be our foundational program where we add incremental offerings -- so the training, the support and the ISV designations are all part of that Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program.

"We will meet partners where they are in their maturity with us, and we will continue to invest in them ... but we're making incremental investments for those partners that want to come on the AI journey with us."

Julie Sanford, VP of Partner GTM, Programs & Experiences, Microsoft Global Partner Solutions

So to clarify, the current MCPP is being phased out in favor of the AI program.
The Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program is what we know as Microsoft Cloud Partner Program today. This is just the next generation of that. So again, any partner that is a current member or receiving benefits, we'll automatically transition them into the new Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program. That is our one hero program for the company.

Seeing it's so explicitly AI-focused, how do you think this will hit for partners who are lagging in AI, in terms of adopting, exploring or skilling up on AI?
The reason we're focusing the partner program around AI is just basically because of our customers. It's keeping up with customer demand. And so, with the current construct of the program, AI offerings are infused across all of the Microsoft cloud.

We will meet partners where they are in their maturity with us, and we will continue to invest in them, in their practice development, just within the solution areas that we have launched and are in market today. But we're making incremental investments for those partners that want to come on the AI journey with us. Those include everything from onboarding to skilling enhancements to [go-to-market] enhancements, incentive enhancements. So think of this as an incremental investment for partners that are looking to really develop their AI capabilities to help us meet our collected customer demands.

As an example, ISVs, through the ISV Success program, will now have access to the GitHub Copilot. So, all of this investment ... it's all around supporting partners to help keep up with the customer demand and response to all of the Copilot announcements across the full stack of the Microsoft cloud.

Have you had any feedback from partners so far about the various investments that Microsoft has been making around Copilot? What kinds of partners have been really taking advantage of it, and what's their feedback been like?
What's been unique with the Copilot announcements is it's not just one partner type -- we're having success across SIs, device partners, ISVs, all the way through to startups. Going into the show next week, at Inspire, you're going to hear all sorts of partner examples of the offerings that they're delivering. It's anything from modernizing legacy applications or developing their custom AI solutions. A lot of integrating AI within existing platforms, a lot around migrating data workloads so that they're actually cloud-ready to make sure they can leverage all the AI capabilities. And then, of course, automation is a huge one -- just automating repeatable and manual tasks.

For smaller partners that have no in-house experience with AI, what's your guidance for them or reassurance that they'll still be able to take advantage of this wave of AI-focused partner investment?
There are a couple of core assets that we're introducing as part of the [general availability] of the program next week that's available to all partners. We're skilling both tech and sales. We're launching an AI transformation playbook ... that's accessible for all partners. We'll have an "Era of AI" campaign-in-a-box so they're ready to go and incorporate their offerings against the AI platform from Microsoft.

And then, of course, we rely heavily on our indirect providers. They really help us support all of our partners of every size, really help us scale. So we're working side-by-side with those indirect partners to make sure that they're also bringing our partner ecosystem along for this opportunity.

And presumably, this is a good opportunity for partners to really explore P2P and engage with other partners, right?
Absolutely. That's why we're so excited about the announcement around [Azure] Marketplace and the multiparty private offers that are now general availability in the U.S. and shortly following in the U.K. and Canada. This really gives partners the opportunity to start working on custom deals and selling through Marketplace.

As far as logistics, will the AI Cloud Partner Program kick in immediately when it's announced on Tuesday, or is there an onramp period from the MCPP?
We go live on July 18 ... and it is going to be seamless for our partners. So 100% of our partners that are in our current [MCPP] will be moved to the new program and they continue having access to all of their current benefits, all of their existing designations. They will just now be eligible to leverage all of those net-new investments that I mentioned around skilling, go-to-market and incentives.

Any final takeaways or messaging that you hope partners will get from Inspire?
To me, partner experience. We're so focused on making sure that we're making this [transition from the MCPP to the Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program] seamless for partners. This is an incremental investment.

Just to give you an example of some of that incremental investment, you will hear us talk about Azure Migrate and Modernize and Azure Innovate. There's a 300% increase in our investment to partners around those [products]. Think of that as investing in presales activities, whether those are assessments or proofs-of-concept. And Azure Innovate is very specific around AI workloads. That's $100 million net-new investment that we're making into the partner ecosystem.

So top takeaway is: It's a seamless transition for partners to unlock all of the new investments we're making around helping them be successful with this tremendous AI opportunity we have in front of us.