What is Microsoft Doing?

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If you talk to its competitors, partners and even unrelated third parties today, most will eventually ask some form of the same question: what is Microsoft doing? The company’s macro strategy is well understood, of course, and even the object of much admiration. The fact that a company as large and successful – and as religious, it must be said, about software – could begin to pivot their business towards a new future in the cloud is a testament to the systemic impact that a change in leadership can bring. As is the newfound acceptance of and commitment to open source.

But attracting more attention than that transition, in many quarters, is the hiring spree that Microsoft has been on in the developer advocate and evangelism space. The hires have come so fast and furious, in fact, that my colleague has written it up not once but twice. From Ashley McNamara to Bridget Kromhout to Jessie Frazelle to Paige Bailey and on and on, Microsoft is bringing high level and highly visible technical talent on board at a rapid pace, and in some cases, directly from competitors.

There are three interesting aspects to this trend.

  • Quality
    Most obvious is the fact that this level of candidate is willing to join Microsoft in the first place. Four or five years ago, these types of adds would likely have been impossible, or at least financially impractical, because the market perceptions of Microsoft both organizationally and directionally were far less positive than they are today. Burdened by a history of unfortunate rhetoric around open source from its leadership, an insular focus and without the track record in the cloud the company has today, Microsoft was not an attractive destination for developer advocates from communities outside of those few directly in the Microsoft orbit – in spite of often heroic efforts from internal open source advocates.

    What a difference a few years can make. Not only is Microsoft’s cloud platform widely regarded as the number two in the space behind Amazon, but the company has done a remarkable job rehabilitating its image with open source communities and the vendors who commercialize them. To the point that at OSCON these days, a conference in which a Microsoft employee once had to be assigned security because the company was so hated, commercial open source organizations almost uniformly report that the most productive partner conversations they have with any cloud platform are with Microsoft.

  • Quantity
    Next to the quality of the candidates Microsoft is on boarding, the most notable aspect to this trend is the sheer volume. It’s almost as if Microsoft has decided to unleash a “Shock and Awe” campaign of recruitment, one aimed at a very particular type of individual with a very particular set of skills. Via these hires, Microsoft is improving its visibility into a wide variety of communities from AI to containers to Go to Java to Node. Perhaps more importantly, with the types of people it’s hiring, Microsoft’s improving the company’s visibility within those communities.

    There are many highly qualified technical people in all of these communities that could be hired, but Microsoft appears to be putting a premium on reputations and standing. It’s not acquiring influence, exactly, because open source is generally resistant to direct financial manipulation. Microsoft’s arguably acquiring something more important: individuals who themselves are influential. The difference is subtle, but important.

    Historically, when commercial entities have attempted to directly financially influence open source communities, it’s been done crudely: in return for this investment, we require this addition or change. But it’s rarely as simple as “hire this committer and we can make the changes we want.” Those who are best at the influence game instead understand that influence is a two way street. High end developer advocates appreciate that influence needs to operate in both directions. The organization gets something of what it needs from a project, but the evangelist is at the same time influencing the organization they work for on behalf of the open source project itself.

    Unsurprisingly, given that this is more art than science, individuals who have these abilities are harder to find than pure technical talent.

  • Valuation
    How then was and is Microsoft able to bring so many on board so quickly? While we haven’t spoken with them about this, most reports suggest that it’s because they’re willing to pay a premium for these abilities. A significant premium, in many cases, one that many of Microsoft’s competitors are unwilling or unable to match. The question is: why?

    The scarcity of the resource accounts for a great deal of the premium. But based on the available evidence, it seems clear that Microsoft is willing to exceed the standard industry rates to acquire the people they want. As a mature and meticulously run company, this suggests that Microsoft projects a clear economic return, whether direct or indirect, on their outsized investments in developer advocacy talent.

    Which, on the one hand, shouldn’t be a surprise. This is the “Developers! Developers! Developers!” company, after all. But on the other, the scope and focus of their hiring is quite distinct from what we’ve seen in years past.

    Some of it is that within the cloud, Microsoft, like everyone who’s not Amazon, is playing catch up. But throwing bodies at a problem like that is a tactic, while Microsoft’s recent hiring appears to be much more strategic. The most likely explanation for Microsoft’s approach is that it has internalized the lesson of developer importance in a way that it was fundamentally unable to in years past. RedMonk believes, of course, that developers are Kingmakers, the most important single constituency in technology. In many respects, this idea dovetailed with Microsoft’s historical strategy – with one key limitation.

    Pre-Nadella, Microsoft was outwardly a developer-focused company. But with limited exceptions it was a developer-focused company primarily on Microsoft’s terms, if you were a Microsoft developer. When your executive leadership sees open source as existential threat rather than opportunity, it’s difficult for your developer outreach strategies to not reflect that. Post-Nadella, Microsoft has been widely empowered to be developer-focused – no matter what communities those developers come from, and no matter what technologies they use.

    Consider the context, then: what would you do if you believed:

    1. That developers were the New Kingmakers and the surest path to technology relevance
    2. That you needed to reach all developers not just those in your orbit
    3. That you were behind in the market that represents your company’s future

    One potential response would be to stop considering those who wield the most influence over developer populations as a marketing function and think of them as something closer to sales.

    And pay them that way.

That’s all just theory, of course. But whatever the actual internal justifications are here, Microsoft’s behavior is telegraphing its strategy. Its investments in premium talent at scale are not made lightly, not least because the talent being brought on board would want to understand and embrace the plan. These are not people desperate for jobs, remember.

Whether Microsoft’s aggressive approach here will yield the dividends the company expects is an open question, and will be for some time, because influence doesn’t generally work quickly.

If Microsoft’s play here is clear, however, the potential responses are not.

What does Microsoft’s hiring binge mean for the rest of the industry? First, it’s important to acknowledge the recency bias at work. While it often seems like Microsoft has hired every talented developer advocate in the industry, that’s not close to being the case. There are many organizations with incredible talent. While Google lost a talented and visible developer in Jessie Frazelle, for example, they still have people like Kelsey Hightower, who is one of if not the best in the world at what he does. Amazon, likewise, has a diverse bench of developer advocates, headlined by one of the best in the business in Jeff Barr.

But it’s important for organizations competing with Microsoft to accept that the aggregate effect of these hires has a real impact: just because it’s recency bias doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. More important, however, is understanding changes in the valuations and economics of developer advocates and evangelists. If Microsoft is treating their advocates as a profit center while you consider yours a cost center, it might be useful to understand how their economic model differs from yours.

It’s possible, of course, that Microsoft will not see a return on the premiums it’s investing in talent. But if it does, it’s imperative to adapt to the new economic reality sooner rather than later, because the implications from talent acquisition to revenue generation would be substantial.

Disclosure: Amazon, Google and Microsoft are RedMonk clients.

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