Influencers and Innovation

smc_logo_tag[Update! The event was cancelled and will be rescheduled!]

I’m appearing in a Fireside Chat with Brian Solis at the next Social Media Club of San Francisco meeting on Wednesday, February 26 at 6pm. The event is split into three separate parts, but the overarching theme will be innovation. For my segment, we’ll be talking about Using Influencers to Drive Innovation, and I’ll be talking about the VMware vExpert Program and how they help drive innovation at VMware. Tickets are still available as I’m writing this, so please stop by and say hi. The other guests should be good – the managing editor of the SF Chronicle and the CEO of BrightIdea, a purveyor of software that helps you manage innovation. Brian Solis is one of the smartest folks in social media who always has insight in how social is impacting business.

vexpert-logoFive years ago we started a new program to work with the biggest influencers in the VMware ecosystem. We named it the VMware vExpert Program and included 300 of the most passionate bloggers, book authors, user group leaders, and tool makers in the program. It didn’t matter who they worked for — they could be customers, partners, independent consultants or even employees of VMware itself. Over the years we’ve expanded the prototypical role we’re looking beyond public evangelists, but our defining criteria for vExperts has remained the same: people who had given back to the community and gone above and beyond their jobs. In 2013 we had 580 designees, and the 2014 applications are now underway.

The vExperts have grown into an formidable force. They have produced dozens of books on VMware technologies, spoken to thousands in user groups and sales meetings, and searching on most VMware-related technical terms yields a long tail of blog articles alongside our own documentation and web pages.

In the context of innovation, the vExperts have contributed greatly to VMware:

1. vExperts use VMware’s products daily, either as customers or as consultants working with customers. As hands-on users and active IT pros, they are in many ways more qualified to comment on VMware’s products than the engineers who built them. Their blogs are well-read inside the company as feedback. The scripts and tools and workarounds they build to make our products work better are also feedback into the system. In fact, many vExperts have come on board as employees of VMware, and not just as sales engineers or consultants — some have innovated so hard they’ve ended up in engineering! There’s more than one story of a vExpert joining the company and being surprised that their blog posts were being circulated around engineering or were even taped to the walls.

2. The vExperts are important participants in VMware’s private beta testing programs. Not only are many of them hands-on experts, but they have been selected because they are good communicators, and many of them are very comfortable working in online forums. They are exactly the kinds of people that we want participating in our beta testing. They fire up their home labs and put the hours in to install and test software and report bugs so that they can give us feedback but also so that they can get an early grasp of what’s coming in the next release. Years ago, we tried to distinguish early vs late testing programs by only admitting our customers to the early beta tests and then gradually allowing our wide variety of channel partners in. Now, it’s alpha geeks first — which means the vExperts. We also have a more formal Blogger Early Access Program which gives a few selected vExperts a higher-intensity series of briefings and interaction with the product team.

3. The vExperts have turned out to be innovative when it comes to our education as well. Not only are they creating literally thousands of posts around how to use our products, they’ve also helped many study for our certifications. Writing about certifications can be tough — although all companies publish certification topic roadmaps and reams of documentation, they also strive to stamp out “dump sites” of dubious legality that  post remembered test questions from recent test takers and basically let people cheat. This diminishes the value of certifications for everyone. The vExperts not only keep up the culture of not cheating, they’ve created their own study materials that supplement the company’s own materials without just giving away test answers. Along with the blog posts, study guides, books, and videos that help with certification, one programs stands out: the vBrownbag podcasts. This podcast series started x years ago as a simple study group, and has now expanded to four regional podcast series and a program of live-streamed technical talks at our main conference. These have all be organized by a geographically disbursed crew of community members who met each other via social media and the vExpert program.

4. Innovative marketing approaches. While I don’t want to compare vExperts to a million typing monkeys, any time you have hundreds of people trying to explain a topic in their own words,  you’re bound to get a few works of Shakespeare in there. We’ve got blog posts about every topic relating to our company, stickers, games, videos, podcasts , online events, offline events, scholarship programs, and more — all organized by the vExpert community with zero guidance from us. One of the more interesting programs has been the Virtual Design Master competition. This online reality competition, dreamed up by two of our vExperts in Toronto, had contestants building actual  data center technical designs and other challenges. Last year’s contest was won by a technical architect from Bangalore. Again, innovation driven by the vExperts without any oversight from VMware itself.

We do have formal innovation programs inside VMware, but the vExperts, as a voice of the customer and as a group of alpha geeks, are certainly an engine of VMware innovation. They are passionate about the technology, they give back to the community, and they drive forward how businesses — who are our customers — can take advantage of technology innovations.

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