Flying Low with Microsoft

Important deals can be made with even low-level reps of Microsoft.

Fly low and live long. It's a principle that doesn't work for some -- game birds and aircraft, for instance -- but it's one my team recommends for organizations that want to work with Microsoft.

Microsoft has a flat, decentralized organization where important decisions can be made at relatively low levels. At other firms, geeks are caged in the IT department and managed by trained handlers, but at Microsoft they are privileged and often have a lot of influence on how products are designed and positioned.

That can create some interesting situations. One of the basic principles of alliance management is that the people sitting across the table from each other should have roughly parallel authority to make commitments. More than one partner has brought a vice president to a meeting with Microsoft, only to find that Microsoft's side is represented by someone two ranks below VP (and given the fact that Microsoft has more than 100 VPs, that's saying something).

One of my favorite stories about flying low involves one of our customers that aced its competitors by being the only vendor that got drivers for its hardware built into a major Microsoft product. The secret weapon was an employee who helped out with a Microsoft hockey team and found himself talking with just the right engineer at the after-scrimmage pub. The partner's offer of free hardware and technical assistance resulted in endorsement gold. No VPs within a mile of that deal.

This story isn't a "how to," merely a fortunate coincidence. But it illustrates that you don't need to be on a first-name basis with Steve Ballmer to develop a fruitful relationship with Microsoft. A relationship with the right person well down on the org chart can be just as effective.

Microsoft has a flat, decentralized organization in which important decisions can be made at relatively low levels.

An important caveat: Microsoft has an amazing tolerance for duplicate and parallel development projects, many of which won't even make it to beta. So don't make a major investment in a relationship until you have some evidence that your Microsoft contact is part of a team that is likely to win the Darwinian race to version 3.0. To do it, you need to know who is running the team, which business unit contains the team, the business unit's track record for shipping products and the extent to which other product teams work with the team. Unfortunately, getting that information requires a more intimate knowledge of the company than most partners have the time to build.

So how do you develop productive, low-level relationships with Microsoft? One approach is to use the time-honored tactic of using the people you know to get introductions to people you don't know. It's not bulletproof, but it is a start.

We also recommend that partners attend Microsoft conferences, such as Tech·Ed, the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) and Professional Developers Conference (PDC), where Microsoft technical staff may be making presentations. Those presentations often have insider e-mail. Order the conference CD and start building your own list of contacts inside the company.

Make use of the official partner programs or your official partner contacts in the company. Though these channels appear less direct, they may lead you more accurately to resources that will truly help. If your issue isn't technical, but marketing, for example, you'll waste your time by focusing on engineers.

Bloggers, many of whom operate under the radar of official Microsoft PR, are another useful way to identify potentially helpful people inside Microsoft.

Finally, be prepared for rejection and keep in mind that if you crash, you won't fall far if you're flying low to begin with. There are many doors into Microsoft, and if you hit one that's closed, try another.

About the Author

Paul DeGroot is principle consultant with Pica Communications, which provides consulting services for customers with complex Microsoft licensing issues.