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Microsoft's 2016 WPC Was the First for Millennials

  • See our full WPC 2016 coverage here.

Setting the tone for what may be a new generation of Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conferences (WPCs), Ariela Suster, founder of Sequence, opened last week's WPC with her powerful story of a childhood besieged by violence in El Salvador. With remarkable stage presence, Suster described her mission to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth to break the cycle of crime and violence. The underlying message -- and recurring theme throughout the conference -- was that Microsoft enables people and partners to make a difference in the world.  

With a new generation of entrepreneurs and workers looking for meaning in the work they do, Microsoft seemed to be phasing out the tech-talk to focus on partners as agents of change. Keynotes at past WPCs have always included heart-tugging videos with partners helping nonprofit organizations use technology to make a bigger impact, but at WPC 2016 last week, the theme of purpose was pervasive. 

Nadella's Keynote Set the Tone
There seemed to be universal agreement among partners that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's 2016 keynote was his best WPC address yet. He set the theme of purpose early on: "It's not about celebrating any one of our technologies, products or services; it is about celebrating what our customers are able to do with technology, how they are transforming their own business, achieving their own success and having their own impact." Each of his keynote segments focused on the outcomes that businesses are achieving, rather than just the technology.

Nadella's onstage interview with GE CEO Jeff Immelt was a refreshing acknowledgment that it's not only the under-30 startup crowd that understands digital transformation in business. While there was a pitch for the GE-Microsoft Predix analytics partnership, the bulk of the conversation between Nadella and Immelt focused on how companies need to adapt to the digital economy. The discussion played well to the partner role in leading change for customers.

Judson Althoff Caught Off-Guard
Judson Althoff's North America briefing, which will be his last as he moves into his new position as executive vice president of Microsoft's Worldwide Commercial Business, started out with customer/partner demos delivered with a twist of humor -- standard fare, though the lighter approach was appreciated by the audience. In the last segment, Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, surprised Althoff with a heartfelt tribute to Microsoft's impact on the effectiveness of There wasn't a dry eye in the house after her portrayal of how children's lives are being saved by the digital connections supported through Azure.

McDonald was a tough act to follow and Althoff struggled to regain his composure as he closed the session. As this was his final presentation to the North American partner audience before taking his new role, he clearly wanted to thank partners. The emotion of the moment won out -- Althoff had to make do with a wave -- but the crowd responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation. It was the human side of Microsoft executives we don't often get to see at WPC.

Mixed Reactions
Not everyone seemed to appreciate the humanization of WPC. There were grumblings in the press room that there wasn't enough substance. There were no device demos during the keynotes, no big product release announcements. Software was in the background, with partners and purpose taking center stage.

The partners I spoke to did like the change. Partners were there to learn how to improve their own businesses, rather than to learn about the latest technology. There were some complaints about a lack of detail around Dynamics 365, but session reviews were positive for the most part. They particularly liked the high percentage of sessions that featured partners sharing best practices and lessons learned.

Most said their meetings with field sales and product teams were very productive, with a renewed focus on going to market together. As usual, networking with peers was a primary reason to attend WPC, and with 16,000 attendees, there was plenty of opportunity.

Support for Gavriella Schuster's appointment as channel chief seemed unanimous from both partners and Microsoft employees. Schuster is highly regarded for her understanding of the challenges partners face in dealing with Microsoft, and there is trust that she will make a positive impact and improve programs, as well as relationships.  

WPC 2016 was different, designed for a new generation of partners. Since Microsoft needs to convince upcoming entrepreneurs that the channel is a good place to be, it's good for them to start practicing that message. Millennials want purpose, and Microsoft let customers and partners make a strong case for how meaningful this work can be. Instead of the showing us the latest form factor, WPC 2016 reminded us of the positive human impact from the technology we deliver.  

Posted by Barb Levisay on July 18, 2016