The Evolving MSP

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Across Microsoft's Various Partner Program Changes, Nothing New Under the Sun

The first anniversary of the introduction of the Microsoft Cloud Partner Program (MCPP) replacing the Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) will be on Oct. 3, 2023. This occasion brought me back to the first year of the introduction of the Microsoft Partner Network, which replaced the Microsoft Partner Program (MSPP) in 2009.

Many things happened in 2009 that weren't readily apparent to partners. For one, Channel Chief Allison Watson and BMO VP Jon Roskill were each given the other's job, and both were congratulated on their promotion. That this all happened just before the Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), the former name for the "Inspire" conference, hinted that major change was about to occur.

That something was the new MPN, which was presented as "something you're part of instead of something you just sign up for" or something markety like that. It was introduced with all the expected "landing gear" and "air cover," leaving some of us with the uneasy feeling there was another shoe waiting to drop.

We nicknamed the other shoe as "The Exclusivity Rule" and, though it sounded almost innocuous, it was anything but.

Let me preface by saying that, at the time, I was working for the No. 1 partner in the Partner Locator website, which was sorted by how many competencies a partner held. We held 30 of the 31 then-available competencies. The only exception was "white-box," which we simply didn't do. The remarkable thing is that we were, at that time, a company of only 17 people.

The Exclusivity Rule
To read it, the change seemed minor. Every competency was earned based on four technical people from a partner's organization taking training and passing tests for each of several topics. Now, in the new MPN, if you wanted to earn a Gold Competency, those four people had to be unique. You couldn't have the same people pass multiple tests. In other words, for each Gold Competency you wanted to earn, you had to have four more employees.

This meant that, under the new MPN, the little partner I worked for would have to grow from 17 employees to 120 to keep all of our competencies. As you can imagine, this was not well received.

What followed were negotiations. At that time, I served on the board of the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP) and we quickly met with Roskill, who was still trying to "get into the saddle" of his new channel chief position. At first, Roskill asked us to be patient with him as he learned the new terrain. But by the end of the first meeting, it was Roskill who was listing off a variety of possible solutions.

In the end, we came to an agreement that enforcement of the exclusivity rule would be delayed by a year. This gave all partners the opportunity to determine which competencies they really wanted, or to drive themselves out of business by hiring too many new people at once. For many, it was that serious.

Remarkably, by the end of the first year of MPN, the dust had settled. Microsoft had demonstrated how serious they were about having all partners really declare their true expertise, and partners had actually come to understand the value of that to themselves. A new generation of proactive partner-to-partner (P2P) partnering began.

Back to the Future
Which brings us to today, a year after the introduction of MCPP.

It would seem that the big change Microsoft's marketing gremlins have snuck into the MCPP is that they now refer to it as the Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program. No surprise there. A decade ago, everything got the label "cloud" slapped on it because it was cool and current; now everything is AI. In March 2022, during his brief tenure as Channel Chief, Rodney Clark posted a blog pre-announcing the impending change from MPN to MCPP. In it, he led by describing Microsoft's three major commitment areas:

  • Strengthening our digital capability
  • Deepening partner technical capabilities
  • Streamlining engagement between Microsoft and our partners

Just for perspective, I sold my very first Microsoft software license in 1981, years before there was any formal partner program. Those three priorities are identical to the priorities Microsoft had then.

They also re-spun the competencies as "capacities," and Clark talks about the new program focusing on proficiency in six solution areas:

  • Data & AI (Azure)
  • Infrastructure (Azure)
  • Digital & App Innovation (Azure)
  • Business Applications
  • Modern Work
  • Security

That said, Clark announces the new "partner capability score," which reminded me of the days of Kevin Turner and the wonderful "stack ranking" our Microsoft friends endured. Now it's the partners' turn.

Reading the Tea Leaves
It isn't popular, but my calculation -- based on all the conversations I have had with people throughout the Microsoft partner ecosystem -- is that the introduction of the Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program is another round of rearranging the deck chairs. Beyond the nomenclature and some program processes, nothing much has really changed.

That said, I will repeat advice I have given previously in this column. Microsoft produces some wonderful services. Some of their specifications and controls start to resemble the complexity of the ancient days of mainframe operations, but that actually provides some additional justification for the role of partners.

As the programs age and rotate names, my advice has devolved into one simple suggestion: Treat Microsoft's partner programs with the same level of benign neglect that they treat you with. Focus more of your energy on banding together with other trustworthy, reliable Microsoft partners and others who can augment your offerings with their own and expand your available market. Find partner associations that serve your needs rather than Microsoft's. They're out there!

Most important, focus on your own sustainable competitive differentiators. What proprietary intellectual property can you offer to customers? How much better are your services than your competitors', and why? You supply the leadership and let Microsoft supply the content. If you look deeper into what they do and ignore what they say, you'll see that they really want you to evolve this way, too. Just for different reasons.

Posted by Howard M. Cohen on September 25, 2023 at 1:43 PM