what is a Solution Specialist at Microsoft?

As anyone who reads my blog can probably tell, I’m not a developer. Neither am I a technical evangelist. I don’t write books. I don’t write code. I don’t speak at many events. I’m not a MCSE, MCP or MVP. I’m what Microsoft internally calls a “solution specialist”. Specifically, I am currently the e-business solution specialist in the Microsoft Australian subsidiary.


What does a solution specialist do? That’s a good question. Quite frankly, we’re still trying to figure it out. It’s a fairly new role at Microsoft, 3 years in the making, and there is still a lot of confusion and debate internally about what we role we should play. It’s got a lot to do with helping customers and partners develop and deliver solutions built around our server technologies. As the e-business guy, I’m primarily interested in products like BizTalk Server, Commerce Server, Content Management Server, and Host Integration Server. The trick in getting these particular products to market is that they don’t get a lot of “air-cover”, as we like to call it, from our marketing folks (no fault of theirs, of course, they are awesome people, they just don’t get sufficient budget to promote these technologies when compared to the bigger money spinners, like Windows and Office). For example, you don’t drive down the street and see a billboard for BizTalk. You won’t see an ad for it during the Superbowl or AFL Grand Final. It’s without a doubt one of the best products ever to come out of Redmond, but I still find most of our customers don’t even know it exists. So much for Microsoft the marketing machine, huh?


So in the last few years I’ve mostly found myself working with large enterprise customers, usually at a CIO level, helping them develop a vision for how they can leverage technologies like BizTalk to do things like reduce costs, streamline certain business processes, exchange information with trading partners more efficiently, implement mobility solutions, etc. We’ve had some great successes even in Australia with these technologies in recent years. I worked with one CIO last year who deployed BizTalk as the core of a process re-engineering exercise which saved his company $7 million in the first year alone. The cost of the project? About $200,000 (that’s software, hardware and services, folks). And we’ve got a whole bunch of those stories here and around the globe.


One of the challenges with all this is that before you can credibly build and execute a vision like this inside an organization you need to know a lot about their business. You also need to have a trusted relationship with a senior business or technical decision maker. Believe it or not, this is non-trivial, even (or especially) for Microsoft. We still live in an era where many IT decision makers like to keep vendors and partners at “arm’s length”. And, believe it or not, Microsoft’s direct sales force is relatively pretty small (relative, that is, to the amount of revenue it generates and when compared to rivals/partners like IBM), and our sales force is usually incredibly thinly-stretched and bandwidth-restrained, so they rarely have time to develop deep, trusted relationships with all of the CxO’s in their account list. Thankfully, Microsoft is addressing the situation by hiring more account managers and pre-sales support staff (like Solution Specialists), but this is a new model for us and will take a few more years to be fully realized.


Another imporant role of the solution specialist at the moment is to work with our business partners to develop solutions we can jointly take to market. These partners include Systems Integrators (SIs) and Independent Software Vendors (ISVs). In Australia I’m lucky to be working with some excellent ISVs who have very exciting products developed using .NET which we can add significant value to by coupling them with our own server technologies and taking these as a co-ordinated offering to our enterprise customers.


One of the most under-appreciated reasons for Microsoft’s success, IMHO, is our partnering model. We understand totally that we don’t have a corner on the market for smarts. Sure, we have 55,000+ bright, passionate, dedicated people working here. But that is a very, very tiny fraction of all of the smart people working on developing great software solutions in the world. Fortunately for us, a lot of those smart people are prepared to work with our tools and technologies to develop their solutions (not exclusively, but that’s okay… really… no, really, I mean it… okay you can relax now… to all the MSFT-ers reading that… breathe… breathe… it’s going to be okay… ;-) ).


So, what does an e-business solution specialist do? We help customers and partners create business value by designing and deploying business solutions using Microsoft server technologies.