Microsoft Cloud Program divides A/NZ partners

Microsoft Cloud Program divides A/NZ partners

Four Microsoft partners from across Australia and New Zealand weigh in on the global vendor's controversial new program.

Clockwise from top left: Dave Howden (Umbrellar), Steve Johns (LAB3), Mark Grogan (Productivity) and Michael Russell (The Instillery)

Clockwise from top left: Dave Howden (Umbrellar), Steve Johns (LAB3), Mark Grogan (Productivity) and Michael Russell (The Instillery)

Credit: Supplied

Microsoft has a way of courting controversy with every new partner program change. Indeed, no other global vendor can claim to have sparked two online petitions in three years, albeit both by the same Australia-based partner, pseudo-named ‘George’. 

The anonymous partner's latest petition is in response to Microsoft Partner Network rebranding to the Microsoft Cloud Partner Program as of October and the host of changes it brings with it.

For George, these changes are "unwelcome" and only serve the vendor's goal of "cut[ting] down the 400,000 loyal partners".

Although George's latest protest has only – at the time of publication – generated 631 signatures, a stark contrast to 2019’s 6,000 signees, it is undeniable that the updated program will have an impact on partners’ businesses, though some more than other. 

As a reminder, the Cloud Partner Program will overhaul the traditional metal tiers in favour of the new qualifying level 'solutions partner”. Channel players will also receive a capability score and must reach a point score of 70 in order to gain the solutions partner ranking.

In the words of David Howden, CEO of Auckland-based partner Umbrellar, the new program presents a “big step forward” in simplifying “what has been traditionally very complicated”. 

“In reality it is clear to see that Microsoft are not only simplifying and consolidating their program, but also continuing to hold Microsoft Partners accountable for maintaining competency in Microsoft solutions across biz apps, workplace productivity and Azure,” he said.  

“Whilst it may appear the bar has been raised for Microsoft partners, it's evident that Microsoft want to ensure their customers are working with solution partners that have a proven track record and are deeply competent. Understandable given the costs and risk profile of getting a tech implementation wrong.” 

Indeed, Microsoft itself said it hoped the changes would provide a “robust, objective measurement of progress against a partner’s chosen solution areas”. 

And for partners that fail to meet that 70-point standard? When asked by ARN and Reseller News about the next steps for these partners, Microsoft simply referred partners to its Partner Centre for guidance on “performance, skilling and customer success”. 

However, in a briefing to partners on 31 March, Microsoft stressed that no partners would lose their benefits. Upon their anniversary dates, after October 2022, partners do have the option of maintaining their old benefits aligned to their gold or silver status. Partners that qualify as solutions partners, however, will get the opportunity to switch to the new benefits.  

Although Mark Grogan, solutions architect at Queensland-based Microsoft gold partner Productivity, is unconcerned about meeting the 70-point expectation, he believes it may prove challenging for some smaller players to retain their status. 

One thing of concern is one of the pillars of becoming a solutions partner: new customer additions rather than on renewals for existing customers.  

“In an ecosystem where Microsoft partners are encouraged to work together this very much changes the dynamics from nurturing and upselling within your existing customers, to requiring an aggressive growth, to acquire new customers from other partners,” Grogan explained. 

“It is very easy to join the existing ‘Microsoft Partner Network’ and as you grow your company, achieving a silver status is a great steppingstone and recognition that as a partner, you are ready to get serious in the market. The recognition of gold then increases this further and it was simplified by 'sell this number of seats, get this number of new customers, have this many people certified’.  

“The 70 points add a level of complexity to this, though in reality it hasn’t changed the previous method too much – it just puts a number against each part.” 

However, it is worth noting that new customer additions also sits alongside skilling -- intermediate and advanced certifications -- and customer success, which refers to usage growth and the number of solution deployments. Partners will need to achieve points in all three pillars to achieve a solutions partner designation. 

Mostly for Grogan, it was not so much the changes themselves as the approach taken by Microsoft to announce them. According to Grogan, Microsoft did not consult with his company or inform them of the potential changes until the press announcement on 17 March. 

Losing its gold tier, something Productivity had worked hard to achieve and hoped to use as a key differentiator, was a significant blow. As a result, he believes the changes will lead to a lower level of partners. 

“Unfortunately, I can’t see Microsoft changing this significantly now the wheels are in motion," he said. "The existing partner model was well understood by partners and customers. Silver and gold are well understood as ‘Better and Best’. 

“Additional specialisations under each would have been a very simple way to continue evolving this program to address what Microsoft is trying to achieve.” 

As a point of differentiation, the new program will instead offer six areas to achieve proficiency as a solutions partner. These are: data and artificial intelligence (Azure), infrastructure (Azure), digital and app innovation (Azure), business application, modern work and security. 

Meanwhile, those partners that achieve a partner solutions designation can go for a Microsoft Advance Specialisations. These will replace Microsoft Partner Network's existing 18 specialisations. 

Grogan accepts that there is a “strong push” for Microsoft to promote its cloud capabilities but said that “the assumption that on-premises or hybrid is being discontinued is concerning". 

“We saw this similarly with the Microsoft certification programs and it wasn’t until the recent Windows Server Hybrid Administrator certification that we saw a return to any recognition or skills qualification for on-prem. I am very much in the mind of if it isn’t broken, why fix it,” he added. 

However, Michael Russell, managing director of New Zealand’s The Instillery, was more positive about the move from legacy tiers to the six solution proficiencies. 

“As a partner who has invested significantly in our Azure Advanced specialisation and launching development and data practices over the last few years, we see the focus on partners who are proficient in the six solution areas as positive for consumers,” he said. 

“While we can appreciate that it might be perceived as a threat to partners who rely on traditional licensing revenue or legacy services, there has been a universal shift to value added partnering with the rise of cloud services over the last decade, rather than procurement type functions.” 

Steve Johns, alliances head at Melbourne-based partner LAB3, said the new program represents an “intelligent evolution” rather than a “dramatic change”. For LAB3, a start-up founded in 2017, the new program’s focus on cloud and its hybrid offerings, as well as edge computing, is a “recognition of how innovation is being driven in our sector”. 

“We will continue to ensure our people maintain deep expertise through certifications with Microsoft, which is part of our culture of learning and attracting the best people to our team,” he said. 

With contributions from Sasha Karen and Rob O'Neill.

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