The Changing Channel

A Conversation with Microsoft's Channel Chief: BYOD, Cloud and Shifting Partner Roles

What does Microsoft's Jon Roskill think is driving the most profound change in the partner channel?

Microsoft is a culture. As with other cultures it has its own words. With Microsoft you don't make requests -- you "have an Ask." You don't just use the products you make -- you "eat your own dogfood," which is later contracted to simply "dogfooding."

One word that has become embedded in the Microsoft cultural fabric is "transformative." The cloud doesn't just change how you do business. It "transforms your computing and communications experience." The move to the cloud is "a transformative experience."

So when you meet the guy who is very near the head of this culture you tend to expect an acerbic, disaffected, aloof kind of zealot. Well, not so much. Jon Roskill, corporate vice president of the worldwide Microsoft Partner Group, is definitely very intelligent, experienced and a total zealot with unending passion for Microsoft's products and services. But unlike so many channel executives, Roskill is completely in touch with the realities his partners face every day, takes their pain both seriously and personally, and works hard every day to solve the challenges causing that pain.

I first spoke with Roskill on his fifth day in this role. Predecessor Allison Watson had been given Roskill's job, and he hers, and they were both told they had received a promotion. Another minor Microsoft miracle. We were discussing serious concerns in the partner ecosystem around the introduction of the Microsoft Partner Network (MPN). At the top of the conversation, Roskill reminded all that he had just taken the role and needed some time to survey the situation before making any cogent comments or suggestions. Within 45 minutes, however, he was generating idea after idea to help resolve some of the concerns.

Two years later, as Roskill was preparing for his third Worldwide Partner Conference as channel chief, he shared some insights, some perspective and some strong recommendations for partners to help maximize their return on both WPC attendance and their Microsoft relationship overall.

Driving the Change: End-Users, BYOD and Serving Two Masters
When asked what he thinks is driving the profound change in the channel, Roskill immediately focused in on the "consumerization" of IT, the desire for end users to work using the same devices they use for entertainment -- or what analysts like to call "BYOD" (Bring Your Own Device).

"Clearly the consumer access to technology has massively changed," explained Roskill. "As they use things like Skype or Facebook, their expectations of what service should perform like has changed. They then show up at work and expect the same thing."

He observed that while CIOs have been more and more deeply involved in the running of the overall business over the past several years, they are now also compelled to serve the wants and needs of productive end-users. "The CIO used to be king of their domain and could essentially force down whatever edict they wanted. They're now being forced to serve two customers -- No. 1, the end-users much more than ever before, and No. 2, the business. How can they accelerate the business and drive business growth?" Roskill said. "Channel partners now need to support that new perspective."

Transformation to the Cloud
"From a technology perspective, clearly we're on the cusp of what we believe is not a transition, but a really big transformation with the cloud," Roskill declared. "If you bring that back to the channel, it's change which is disconcerting for a lot of people. Change makes people uncomfortable, but it's also a huge opportunity. How can you expand into other services? Walls are breaking down and business models are changing. These two factors are driving into the channel business and collectively expanding the opportunities for the partners who are agile enough to go for it."

Roskill sees a particularly important opportunity growing in an environment where partners aren't called upon to support a CIO; they have to actually become the CIO for their small and medium-sized business (SMB) customers. "There's clearly impact on an enterprise business, but the biggest impact is going to be on small business," Roskill predicted. "Small business today is, in some ways, a victim of what they can set up and manage themselves. I always joke if there are five of us in a room and we're all in small business, who wants to run the server? The answer, of course, is no one.

"The fact that you can now start doing everything from Windows Intune, with remote services and remote management, all the way up to being able to offer small businesses Office 365 where a business of five people that could be an accounting firm or a donut shop or whatever, can be running what is essentially the same enterprise quality IT infrastructure that a very large company is running on. I think in some ways that's the biggest step forward that's coming from the cloud."

Innovation: Looking Back To Find the Path to the Future
Roskill acknowledged the concern many partners have about potentially making less money in the cloud, even the possibility of not being able to sustain the business. Pointing out that change is often difficult and brings a certain amount of angst, he revealed a little of his engineering background (Roskill received his B.S.E.E. Summa Cum Laude from UMass/Amherst).

He also must be somewhat older than he looks, pointing out, "You can go back to any of the transitions like when we went from standalone PCs to networking PCs. The example I love to talk about there is when we started putting network cards and TCP/IP stacks into Windows. Many partners complained that we were putting that part of their business out of business. The answer was, look, we're moving up the stack and we need you to move up the stack with us and continue to add more value. Some partners did go out of business but the majority figured out how to expand and grow their business off of that into new areas. I think the same is true of the transition we're going through right now."

Can Partners Make Money in the Cloud Space?
"Absolutely," Roskill said. He encourages partners to use the comparative model calculator tools available on the MPN Web site to compare a traditional on-premises approach with a cloud-delivered one to see which makes them more money. He also counsels partners that while there is an annuity or recurring revenue stream coming from cloud services, they must also focus on combining their own services with this to round out their model.

The Competency Model
At the launch of MPN, many Microsoft partners were concerned that the new Competency model would harm their business. Now, two years later, most partners agree that the new model forced a much-needed "raising of the bar" to the point where it is very clear for customers which partners are better choices for support in specific areas.

Roskill takes great pride in this accomplishment. "It's all about encouraging differentiation and moving up the stack," he said. He pointed to innovative new competencies like Digital Marketing, Portals or the Business Intelligence competency as areas in which partners can bring significantly more business value to their customers.

Transformative Training
"I think that's at the core of the challenge," Roskill said. "I think not just Microsoft but technology companies in general have done a great job of training partners on technology. But we haven't done a great job of training them to gear up for these business discussions we're talking about."

Roskill then talked about the millions that Microsoft has invested in a unique set of Business Model Transformation workshops given by business consultants, not technologists. The workshops train partners on how to start and maintain a discussion around the customer's business, especially in the context of the cloud. Up until now these have been in-person workshops, but Roskill feels confident that Microsoft is ready to scale this program and make it available to hundreds of thousands of partners using Web-delivery over the MPN network site.

MPN Now and Going Forward
Roskill talks about the results of the changes coming out of the MPN program with great enthusiasm. With almost 10,000 partners now holding Gold competencies across the 29 available disciplines, and 30,000 holding Silver, he strongly feels that the program has achieved its goals of raising the bar and also giving partners a meaningful way to differentiate themselves.

"Two years ago we had this amorphous blob of gold partners that customers weren't seeing differentiation from and partners found themselves competing with each other in scenarios where they really shouldn't have been," he said. "I think we created friction in our own partner base."

The massive increase in partner-to-partner connection has also been very rewarding for Roskill. He explained that part of the reason Microsoft changed the name of the new program to the Microsoft Partner Network was to signify that, at its core, the MPN was there to connect partners with each other to create superior solutions for customers while growing their businesses and Microsoft's business. He went into this WPC feeling very strongly that MPN has fulfilled expectations on all of these levels.

IAMCP
"The IAMCP [International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners] clearly plays two critical roles in this," Roskill said. "They are the voice of the smaller partners, a great way for the smaller partners to aggregate their concerns and get their feedback to us. The second is to be the gathering spot to bring the partners together and to build these partner-to-partner connections."

He then spoke of recent IAMCP chapter meetings he attended and of watching partners exchange business cards and talk about complementary competencies and skills they can share.

Planning for Channel Change and WPC
Roskill advises Microsoft partners to focus on "skilling" -- not just technology skills but also the business skills that channel players will have to be able to address going forward. Partners should be positioning themselves as thought leaders, not only on technology but also on how technology improves business processes.

He also talks about the success Microsoft has enjoyed introducing Solution Selling as a training toward sales accreditation, which over 60,000 people have already gone through. This, too, is available at the MPN Web site. Roskill counsels partners to look beyond the on-premise model and start thinking about ways they're going to take customers to the cloud.

Finally, Roskill closed by recommending that partners focus on learning and delivering the full visionary pitch about the transition from public to private to hybrid cloud solutions. Use WPC to accomplish as much networking as possible, he said. And, lastly, be sure to leave some time to have fun.