Developer Labor of Love: Volunteer “Directors” Connect Microsoft Developer Network to Local Programmer Communities

REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 6, 2001 — This year, more than 22,000 software developers will gather at Developer Days events in over 34 cities in the United States and Canada. “DevDays” is an annual event hosted by the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) that exposes developers to the latest Microsoft technologies, and lets Microsoft help developers build community.

At each DevDays event, a local MSDN “Regional Director” delivers the keynote speech. Regional directors are independent developers, volunteers chosen for their leadership in their local technology circles, whose primary purpose is to share information about Microsoft technologies with their developer communities and to provide feedback from developers to Microsoft As developers themselves, they bring important insights to their developer community and provide critical DevDays leadership, helping to choose speakers and prepare content.

“Developers are a no-nonsense bunch, and are always skeptical of vendors,” says Tim Huckaby, MSDN regional director for the San Diego area and CEO of Interknowlogy, a software engineering consulting firm in southern California. “Regional directors have gained developers’ trust by providing an objective viewpoint and talking with developers in their own language.”

David Lazar, Microsoft group product manager for Visual Studio .NET, acknowledges their role. “Regional Directors are not Microsoft employees, so they tend to be very open about our products, both good and bad. At the end of the day, though, customers get the information they need to be successful.”

MSDN Program Helps Reach Out to Developers in the Field

Microsoft initiated the Microsoft Developer Network eight years ago to reach out to independent developers like Huckaby. Lacking a large field presence at the time, Microsoft decided to turn to third-party users of Microsoft development tools.

“Basically they were looking for people who were on the leading edge in using the tools and good at communicating with people about those tools,” Huckaby says. The Regional Director program has grown from a handful of partners to the current roster of 115 throughout the world.

As independent technology leaders, RDs have credibility with developers. “We could use any development tools that we want, but we choose to use Microsoft’s because we genuinely believe that they are the best,” says Billy Hollis, the regional director for Nashville, Tenn., and CEO of a company that does software development and training. “We can give a balanced perspective about what works well, which is more credible than a salesman coming in who will tell you that everything is perfect.”

Key Information Resource for Developers and for Microsoft

The importance of regional directors extends well beyond DevDays. They provide ongoing, two-way information between Microsoft and developers who actually use Microsoft products. A large part of their role is to evangelize information about Microsoft technologies to their local developer community. Throughout the year, regional directors speak at industry and user-group meetings, and lead training sessions. Many also author books, articles, white papers and other materials.

Evangelizing can have a decidedly large impact. For instance, Gary Dickinson, regional director for Quebec and executive vice president of Cactus Communications, was a big proponent of XML three or four years ago, before most developers knew much about it. At the time, Microsoft was busy moving forward on its vision to make XML ubiquitous in all its tools and platforms. But the company needed to get the message out to developers in the field so that when the tools were actually released, developers would understand their significance.

“Basically, nobody was using XML out in the field, so we started evangelizing that,” Dickinson says. “Some people took it up fairly quickly, and these are people that are now leading the charge to XML Web services.”

Regional directors also transmit valuable feedback from developers in the field to Microsoft’s engineers, helping the company better respond to developers’ needs.

“At our gatherings in Redmond, we get involved in tech briefings, giving feedback to Microsoft on what the next round of products ought to do, what the weaknesses are in their products, the things they need to fix,” Hollis says. “We’re a good source for that kind of information, because they know that we genuinely believe that they have the best technology and we want to make it better — we’re not just carping and complaining.”

Because of their direct relationships with Microsoft, regional directors are also in a position to get answers to developers’ specific product questions. “There are certain things that just cannot be gleaned from the product manuals or training classes,” Dickinson says. “Some things developers need to get from the product teams in Redmond directly. The Microsoft RD program facilitates that.”

Volunteers Gain Early Exposure and More

All regional directors are volunteers, devoting time and energy in addition to their substantial “day jobs.” What do they get out of it? Quite a lot. Through technology briefings at Microsoft’s corporate campus in Redmond, Wash., as well as alpha and beta product- and technology-release programs, they are privy to Microsoft technology very early on, which helps them go into the community and apply the technology to solving actual business problems.

“We do this unpaid work because we believe that promoting the technology is going to be good for everybody,” Hollis says.

Visual .NET is the Star at DevDays 2001

The focus of the regional directors’ efforts at this year’s DevDays events is on Microsoft’s Visual Studio .NET, a suite of tools that allows developers to build XML Web services quickly and effectively.

“For the first time ever, Visual Studio .NET allows actual Web sites to talk to each other over the Internet without any manual intervention,” Dickinson says. “Microsoft has the absolute best tools hands down to do that.”

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