MVP awards are given only to the most exceptional and passionate members of the Microsoft community. Essentially, they are a way for Microsoft to recognize and thank the most active contributors in their ecosystem, regardless of their area of expertise or form of participation. According to Microsoft, there are only around 4,000 MVPs worldwide, and at the time of writing, only 17 in Finland in addition to Michael.
I had a short but captivating chat with Michael about the award over a cup of coffee one afternoon. So captivating, in fact, that I was compelled to learn more – so a day later, I sat down with Michael for a good half hour to interview him about the award, his contributions over the years, as well as the unlikely way he got involved with the Microsoft community in the first place. Keep reading to find out what he shared!
Lead image (above): Michael's Microsoft MVP trophy. He has six stacking year discs instead of five due to changes in the program's annual cycle over the years.
What is your history and personal relationship with the Microsoft community, and how did you first get awarded as a Microsoft MVP?
It’s an interesting journey in a way, because way back in the day I was actually the original Apple enthusiast at Futurice. I made the switch to Mac around 2001 and was fully committed to the Apple ecosystem for a long time. I used to have a hobby business around Mac software development, too, and I was also one of the people to actively push Futurice to expand into iPhone development back in 2008 when Apple first opened the Developer Program for European companies.
Back then, people had a hard time seeing why anyone would want to use what was essentially seen in Finland as a toy platform compared to Symbian, which was what we were largely developing for at the time (laughs). We had a very strong and long-running client relationship with Nokia, and had probably done hundreds of projects with them. But just a few short years later, Nokia made the switch to Windows Phone, and naturally we ended up doing a lot of Windows Phone development for them as well.
Eventually Futurice became a member of the Nokia Consultancy and Training Network. At first we did a lot of trainings around Windows Phone development for our clients, but before long I also wound up as a speaker at various developer events. I believe that’s largely why the local Microsoft team in Finland first recommended me as an MVP. This was back in 2013 when Windows Phone was still a priority for Microsoft, so they chose to give me my first MVP award.
Michael on stage
What benefits does the award offer you?
The award comes with a couple of great perks, such as a full Microsoft Visual Studio subscription and some other things, but by far the most important and useful benefit is an unprecedented level of access to the Microsoft HQ in Redmond, Washington – from individual product teams all the way to the Senior Vice President level. This is an amazing privilege. As an MVP, you have several channels and ways to get directly in touch with the engineering teams working on specific features of upcoming Windows SDK releases, or Visual Studio, and have very open and frank discussions with the team members.
At Microsoft, input from MVPs is valued a lot, and their teams ask for our opinions on different features or approaches very actively. So although we obviously don’t have any decision making power per se, we have the chance to influence and contribute to the choices the teams make by offering feedback. Tooling, APIs, whatever it may be, and from a consumer or developer perspective. I personally have contributed both through my work at Futurice and privately, through my hobby projects.
This unique access has also given me the opportunity to witness a significant shift in Microsoft’s internal company culture over the years. Having worked with quite a few of the industry giants out there, it’s amazing to see how open-minded and approachable many of their engineering teams are today, especially compared to other major vendors. And I think Microsoft doesn’t get enough credit for that openness.
So openness wasn’t the norm before the shift?
No, I don’t think so. Futurice started working more closely with Microsoft in 2011 through Nokia, and the change from that point to where we are now has been pretty visible. To give credit where credit is due, the changes already started with the previous leadership under Steve Ballmer, so you could already see some gradual results five or six years ago. But now with Satya Nadella as CEO, positive changes have been amplified and happening at an increasing rate.
At Microsoft HQ in Redmond, WA
You ended up in the Microsoft ecosystem through your work. What has kept you in?
A couple of different things. First of all, Futurice has been incredibly helpful by offering its employees the chance to travel to and attend tech conferences that are relevant to their area of expertise, and this level of participation in these developer events wouldn’t have been possible for me without the support from Futurice.
Secondly, I really don’t like the idea of a unidirectional world where every technology slowly converges under one massive and monolithic platform or service provider. As an MVP I’ve been clearly able to see how Microsoft has changed over the years, and although I have a long history as an Apple advocate both professionally and personally, seeing the change that Microsoft has been going through has had a tremendous impact on me. Especially their approach to hardware. Whether the Surface product line has been a huge commercial success so far is up for debate, but Microsoft has made it very clear that they are in the hardware business to jumpstart emerging hardware categories and models that their partners can then pick up and build on. And I think that has worked out well for them, for example they have played a huge role in making the 2-in-1 computer a viable option in the device market.
The Futurice delegation at a Microsoft Build conference (Left to right: Riku Valtasola, Osmo Haapaniemi, Harri Hälikkä, Jarno Montonen and Michael Samarin)
Personally it’s been fun to see how the tables have turned in the context of our company. Today, the majority of Futurice employees seem to prefer Macs by a pretty wide margin, so now being seen around the office with a Surface Pro suddenly makes me the rebel again, just like it used to be with Macs years ago (laughs).
And the third reason is related to the level of access inside the Microsoft ecosystem that I mentioned earlier. There’s a certain thrill in being able discuss the aspects and features of the Windows platform on a very technical level, directly with the engineering teams, and at the same time knowing that the input I offer has a realistic chance of actually impacting what will eventually end up in the next version of Windows development tools, or a future Windows release that will be used by hundreds of millions of people globally. That in itself is very motivating. Being connected to the amazing MVP network with thousands of other Microsoft experts around the world is also a huge privilege.
You got involved through your speaker gigs at developer events and your personal hobby projects. Are these still your main forms of involvement in the Microsoft community?
Those are still very central, yes. But over the past year and a half or so, a large share of my contribution has happened through the internal communication channels, by providing feedback to the product teams.
How do these exchanges with the teams typically happen?
These discussions take place in a variety of ways – telcos, group discussions or one-on-one conversations. Of course there are NDAs in place, and after you are awarded as an MVP, your level of involvement and access tends to expand gradually as you build trust and make a name for yourself internally through your continued contributions over the first couple of years.
Depending on the topic, some of the discussions can also be very, very heated, because both the MVPs and the Microsoft engineers tend to be passionate about these things. It’s important to understand that it’s not just a bunch of people patting each other on the back – there are real arguments from time to time. The MVPs’ criticism towards Microsoft can be fairly blunt now and then, and it’s not at all uncommon for MVPs to disagree with each other considerably, either.
With this in mind, you have to give credit to Microsoft for being so open and able to maintain a healthy and positive attitude towards the feedback they get. It’s a very safe environment to voice your opinion, because the people involved in these discussions are trusted with real-world cases and examples under NDAs. Even certain members of Microsoft's senior leadership team are known to have open internal discussions with MVPs from time to time, and share quite detailed roadmaps that outline future release plans.
Michael with Scott Hanselman, an accidental guest at an impromptu .Net meetup at the Futurice office in Helsinki
Is it a lot of work to participate in the Microsoft community as an MVP?
It depends, there are busier weeks and quieter weeks. Having worked in this industry for so many years, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. It feels very natural to participate, so while it can be intense, it has never felt like a burden. And it’s not like they’re just asking things from us, the whole recognition aspect makes it a two-way street. I mean, we’re talking about what is essentially the Oscar of the Microsoft ecosystem here – it’s a big deal in the community. There’s even a glass trophy, and they organize a summit in Redmond every year.
What does the MVP award mean to you?
It’s of course really nice to be recognized for my contributions by a Fortune 500 company, and an industry giant with a massive ecosystem. As a professional, it never hurts to get additional recognition from organizations other than your own employer. And then there’s the fact that I can just wake up in the morning and write an email to Microsoft engineers, knowing that it will actually get read and initiate an open discussion with them.
What does the award mean for Futurice and its clients?
Given the fact that there are only around 4,000 MVPs in the entire world – and fewer than 350 across the five countries where Futurice currently operates – it certainly doesn’t hurt to have at least one person in the company with very close ties to Microsoft. Even though some people have the habit of downplaying Microsoft’s relevance from time to time, it is still a massively influential player in the tech industry, and will remain one for the foreseeable future. A lot of the main speakers at Microsoft events are also MVPs, so whenever I’m out there giving a presentation alongside them, I’m also there representing Futurice and contributing to the fact we are seen as a versatile industry expert.
For our clients, I think it is very beneficial to work with a company that is vendor agnostic, and at the same time has very deep knowledge of competing ecosystems, and also connections within the industry. The tech landscape is ever-changing and multipolar, so in order to stay competitive and relevant, we have to be able to advise our clients based on extensive industry knowledge – not just a specific narrow tech stack that we simply happen to like.
"We recognize and value your exceptional contributions to technical communities worldwide."
What’s next and what do you have in store for your fifth year as a Microsoft MVP?
Most probably it’ll just be business as usual, contributing roughly the same way I’ve done so far. I also still have my software hobbies that will continue to serve as a personal playground for experimenting with the newest Microsoft stacks in terms of Windows development, which will then help me give back to the community.
Michael will attend Dotnext Moscow in November 2018 – if you’re around, catch him there and come say hi.
Read more about the Microsoft MVP award here.