Way back in July 2013, I received the email that informed me I had been presented with the Microsoft MVP award:
Almost exactly 10 years later, in July 2023, I received that annual email from Microsoft for the eleventh time. It was once again a special moment. To be honest, every year that MVP award renewal day has been a special day filled with excitement.
Yet this time it was a bit different. I knew this would be the last time I will get the renewal email. Because I had made the decision at the start of this year that my journey in the MVP program is coming to an end.
First of all: no, I’m not joining Microsoft as an employee. For those who keep track, that has been the most obvious explanation over the years for voluntary exits from the program – with MVPs trading their blue sticker for a blue badge to become FTEs.
What’s my reason then? Well, the extremely short version of it is: today I am getting less from it all than what it is giving me in return. It no longer makes sense for me to try and be a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional.
There is obviously a lot more to it. I’ll talk a bit about it in this post and possibly return back to the specific topics at a later date. Also: since the awards are for an annual period, I want to remind you all that my current MVP award is still valid until the end of June 2024. By giving an early notice, I believe things will work out the best.
I want to start by stating this: being a Microsoft MVP has been an amazing ride. Beyond what I could have imagined. I have zero regrets for signing up to it a decade ago. It was at that time a very logical progression of what I was doing as a member of the community. Checking back on my own blog post about receiving the first MVP award, I still believe in the same things I believed at that time:
The virtuous cycle of communities is truly a powerful force. In exchange for receiving help from complete strangers with no expectation of monetary remuneration, you start to feel compelled to give back to them in one form or another, to pay it forward. Once you do, you begin to notice that there are others who in turn are benefiting from your actions, which makes the cycle just start to spin faster & faster.Jukka Niiranen, fist day as Microsoft MVP, 2013
Getting a formal network established not just with the Microsoft product team but also (and most importantly) the fellow MVPs who are deeply passionate about the same technology as you are – that really is quite something. It introduces you to this secret world filled with detailed knowledge about every possible corner of the technology you specialize in.
You gain a wealth of new perspective on things by being part of such a network. It’s not only about learning something new – it’s also about validating that others feel the same way you do. That no matter how big the projects and budgets may be somewhere out there, people still suffer from similar issues as you do. Your reality is also the reality of many others out there. And most importantly: what you’ve personally learned about a specific corner of the product can be of considerable value to everyone else in this ecosystem.
While the MVPs tend to be highly knowledgeable in their own domains, we must remember that the MVP award is not given out based on how much you know. It is awarded to those persons who are most active in sharing with others what they know. There’s no value to the community in what you yourself learn unless you’re willing and motivated to help others learn it as well – and without any direct financial compensation.
This model doesn’t always work well with the traditional mindset of consulting organizations where information itself is seen as the source of value – something you need to charge money for. For me, as a person with deep beliefs in the idea of working out loud and how that benefits both organizations an society as a whole, there was never a conflict here. I didn’t start blogging and tweeting because I wanted to achieve some award status. I did it because there was intrinsic value in it for me. It was (and still is) the most natural way for me as a professional to achieve great results at work. The rest is just a nice bonus.
Becoming a member of the club with the blue MVP logos on their blogs made it more straightforward to explain what I am & what I do. It accelerated the growth of network connections within the MS BizApps ecosystem. I hardly ever actively leveraged it myself, instead I relied on the “inbound marketing” approach of waiting for people to reach out to me. There were more than enough opportunities coming in that way for community engagements in different formats. I no longer needed to maintain my CV for work gigs either.
The limits to growth
Passion is something to cherish, but how do you separate it from addiction? When there is an endless source of interesting topics to explore in your professional field AND you also have amazing networks at your disposal for getting deep insights about them all – passion can become dangerous to your mental health. Especially when the boundaries are blurred in a way that makes it impossible for you to see where they used to be drawn. You may gradually forget how the world looks like outside this bubble.
I’m sure many of the readers of my blog experience the difficulty of separating work time and personal time. If you are consuming tech blog content like this instead of just googling for answers to specific problems (or today using ChatGPT / Copilot to get the solution), chances are you’re invested in solving problems with technology far beyond what your current day job would require. You go the extra mile – again and again.
We should of course be grateful about our situation. I honestly cannot imagine what life would be like if I had to work in a 9-5 job doing tasks that I stop caring about once the working day ends. It is a privilege that not too many people on this planet have. Even if it would so happen that AI comes for our jobs first and takes over the cognitive work that evolution had far too little time to prepare our brains for, I’m truly happy that this opportunity existed in my lifetime.
The real danger isn’t AI, though. It is us. With nothing physical in the world setting the boundaries for how and where we can engage in this work related cognitive activity, our reptilian brain may end up on the driver’s seat far too often. External stimuli from the pervasive, growing and ever present information networks we’ve surround ourselves with to find the answers to our day-to-day questions can end up teaching us to always crave for more interactions. We get hooked on the process itself, instead of applying these tools to achieve desirable outcomes.
The Microsoft MVP award can certainly be one outcome that many aspire to achieve based on the investments they’ve made to the community work. Yet the dangerous part is in how that is achieved. Because it is all about quantifying the impact of your community contributions. What does that mean in practice? In short, you need to keep track of all the various activities that you as an individual perform in the chosen area of expertise and then provide as much measurements about them as technically possible. Posts, videos, books, speaking, mentoring, facilitating, arranging, participating, amplifying… It all becomes a number in a system that tracks your performance.
If that sounds a lot like typical work KPIs – you’re spot on. Except it’s a measurement performed by someone who doesn’t give you any money in return. All you get is the aforementioned email from Microsoft once a year that lets you know whether you passed the bar or not. Plus a glass disc to insert into your award trophy. And that’s all the tangible things you get. Period. (You used to get physical stickers and diplomas, too, but starting from 2023 those have been cut away from the MVP program. As for swag, it never was a formal thing. So, the ecological footprint of the award has largely been about travel.)
It’s all voluntary, of course. Since no financial transactions ever take place between the MVP & Microsoft, technically it’s all fun and games. Every year in July the award renewal email either comes or it doesn’t. You can never be sure about whether you’ve performed enough activities to be kept in the program for another year. That’s because it’s a very asymmetric relationship. Microsoft will ask all the details from you about what you’ve done, yet they won’t ever disclose how much you should have done in their eyes.
I don’t want to complain about the system too much, though. I can totally understand why it is built this way, with no predefined criteria to meet. It is completely different from taking a certification exam, for example. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, there is a finite number of MVPs that can be awarded in a given year. Furthermore, there are as many different individual ways to contribute to the community as there are MVPs out there. There could never be a publicly visible “passing score” for something like this.
That’s the system, but what’s the impact to our lives as Microsoft MVPs then? In practice, we start to live under a self imposed surveillance system. Like it or not, the awareness of a scoring process that will evaluate your performance in the community on an annual basis will change what you think and do. Community contributions become a virtual currency in the style of NFTs, in the sense that they only really have monetary value to yourself.
The positive side is that for people who crave for speaking engagements, podcast invitations and all the other activities – there will be more than enough opportunities for those. You can contribute practically in unlimited ways in today’s combination of physical and virtual worlds. Yet the one pressing question remains: if there could always be more, how do we ever know what is enough?
During the past 3-4 years, I have personally reached my limits to growth. I am intentionally referring to the title of the 1972 study of what happens with exponential economic and population growth with finite supply of resources available to us on planet Earth. It’s all about that one flaw in the thinking that we the people tend to fall for. We ignore the long-term consequences of our actions and focus only on the short-term benefits – and set our targets accordingly. We think “more is better” and thus keep striving for more, even after the net impact from all of it turns negative.
Then finally, we’re forced to deal with the consequences of our own actions. We have to choose, not just strive for more.
For a few years now I’ve had the constant feeling that something in my life is not quite right. As if I was an outsider observing myself going through a path that has been laid out in front of me. While there have been several moments of joy along that path, increasingly I’ve found myself not truly looking forward to anything. All I do is aiming to get through the day, so that another day filled with the same exact feeling may begin.
In many ways, I have it all. Yet I’ve never felt as empty inside as right now. As I’ve come to understand my own reality better through reflecting on what exactly it is that I do here in this job position called “life”, the problem has become obvious. My responsibilities in here fall under these areas, in no particular order:
- Co-founder and Power Platform Advisor
- Father and husband
- Microsoft MVP and community activist
Between those three main roles that have filled my life, there has been precious little room for anything else. These have been the modes in which I have operated 24/7/365. Unless something out of the ordinary happens. Yet when planning for things that I could be doing when nothing has yet been booked, the obvious list of To Do’s that comes to my mind is always from one of the three.
The fundamental issue is: I can’t find myself in there. At which point do I begin to exist? Not as someone who is acting in a predefined role, together with other actors, to do something expected from that role. Rather as just a human being on this planet. Just me.
For a long time I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer to that question. It has literally turned into an existential threat for myself. I have suffered from recurring waves of paralyzing exhaustion that has severely impacted both my personal and professional lives. Not only have I become tired – tiredness has become a part of me.
Through writing down my own thoughts in a personal journal throughout the past 4 years, I’ve been able to reflect on the many conflicts I’ve encountered via the changes in my life. How becoming a parent has flipped the meaning of “home” on its head (from a private safe space to a nest for your family members). How being an entrepreneur still doesn’t help in assigning measurable monetary value on time spent in community activities as opposed to customer work. Forces that have been ripping me in opposite directions, spreading it all too thin. Some of these conflicts have been surprises, others I’ve totally been expecting to encounter.
Just because you can see it coming, doesn’t mean you can stop it. That applies to the deep exhaustion that has taken over me. At the time of writing this blog post, I have been on sick leave from work for several weeks, trying to regain the mental and physical strength to again perform as a normal human being out there in the world. I have probably been holding all this back for an extended period of time, not allowing myself to stop. It’s never a good time for something like this, yet I’m glad that it now became possible to take a break. Or more precisely: to break down.
It’s hard to change the state you are in merely by thinking differently. Knowing is not the same as doing. Therefore, it has been an enlightening experience to be able to temporarily alter my everyday routines during the sick leave. On quiet weekday mornings, instead of powering up the PC and starting the working day filled with processing & responding to the many data streams that form my professional reality – I’ve done nothing. Literally I’ve just stayed on the couch, read the newspaper, listened to music, enjoyed my coffee, browsed non-work forums, opened up a book – and not had anything else on the agenda for many hours. “Doing nothing” has been an option in life that I’ve forgotten the existence of – when it comes to myself.
Often one makes room in his life to get something done. With the aforementioned unlimited opportunities of an MVP, all the empty spaces can easily become filled with the hazardous fluids of productivity. Earlier when I have been resting, it has typically been for the purpose of recharging my battery, so that I carry on. The major difference in what I’ve now been able to experience is: there is no “so that” part. Resting because you are tired and allowing yourself to be just that, in this very moment, seems to be what it actually takes to achieve calm.
Living in a constant state of alertness has done quite a bit of damage to myself, with no ability to properly calm down and free myself from stress on a regular basis. There is no one specific cause for this, nor is it exclusive to one area of my life. It’s the result from the entirety of it all. I don’t know when or if I will recover from it. What I do know is that this same quotation applies to my situation now, just like 4 years ago when I used it to announce my farewell to CRM:
Life after MVP
In the end, the choice has been simple to make when put into the greater context. Of the three roles that cover the majority of my waking hours, the one that I can easily let go of is the demands of an organization that I don’t contractually work for. I don’t have any true need to meet the bar for community contributions required to be renewed as a Microsoft MVP. I can stop thinking about it and gradually free up the mental space occupied by this hugely rewarding yet highly demanding activity. It represents my past self that must now make way for my new self to emerge.
I do acknowledge that I’ve worn the MVP hat for quite some time and many of the readers of my blog will not have known any other Jukka. I remain grateful every day for the opportunity of sharing my thoughts with a community of likeminded professionals in the Power Platform ecosystem – and that someone actually pays attention to what I have to say, occasionally even replying back to me. I intend to cherish this and not disappear from this virtual space we all share. I just won’t think about chasing MVP contribution points, rather I’ll only do what feels natural for myself.
Will I suddenly become a “Formerly Valuable Professional” / “FVP” then? I’m pretty sure my technical skills and ability to help others won’t immediately evaporate as part of this announcement. After all, thousands of highly skilled community contributors before me have had their Microsoft MVP award not renewed, so it’s really just business as usual in this sport. Whatever it was that earned me the last 2023-2024 MVP disc on my award trophy was something I did between April 2022 and March 2023. In every league the season always starts from zero points for all the participants, with new faces entering the game as the senior players make way for them.
I’m convinced that in the end this will be better for me. It will also be better for the people I work with. It will absolutely be better for the people I live with. Somehow I also believe that this is going to eventually be a positive change for the many community members out there who read what I type into text boxes on the internet.
Some things will change. Possibly the content of this blog will also evolve a bit. Yet I’ve been blogging here for 15 years now and I have zero plans on stopping that. If anything, I want to reach a state where the act of expressing my thoughts becomes once again a source of energy for myself – rather than something I need to do to secure the blue sticker.
Which reminds me that I’ve got some scrubbing to do before next July – in both physical and virtual stickers…