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Microsoft's Rodney Clark: Digital Engagement Among Key Priorities

The new channel chief shared his expectations of partners with Channel Futures.

Jeffrey Schwartz

June 21, 2021

11 Min Read
Q&A

Microsoft will invest most in partners with advanced specializations and those who make digital engagement a priority. While that should come as little surprise, it is among the key priorities of Rodney Clark, Microsoft’s new channel chief.

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Microsoft’s Rodney Clark

On the digital engagement side, that’s MPN, Partner Center and online marketplaces and B2B exchanges. As for advanced specialties, is focusing its incentives based on their competencies.

For example, Microsoft added five new advanced specializations last week. Among them are Azure VMware Solution, AI and Machine Learning, Cloud Security, Hybrid Operations and Management with Azure Arc and Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure with Azure Stack HCI.

Since taking over as corporate vice president, global channel sales and channel chief in April, Clark has maintained a low profile. But last week he began sharing Microsoft’s key go-to-market priorities for the company’s upcoming new fiscal year, beginning July 1.

Clark wants partners to hit the ground running next week when Microsoft’s FY22 year kicks off. On July 14-15, Clark will articulate his vision at the annual Microsoft Inspire global partner event.

In an interview with Channel Futures last week, Clark shared his key priorities, and then fielded questions. Here is synopsis of our interview, edited for clarity.

Channel Futures: Since taking over 10 weeks ago, have you made any key management changes in the Microsoft partner organization, or are there any that you envision in the near term leading into Inspire?

Rodney Clark: No, I have not made any specific leadership changes to my team. Those are things that we evaluate all the time, just to make sure that we are the most effective face to our channel, but nothing to share at this point. We did form the Global Partner Solutions Organization last spring. We did that to bring together our ISVs, our systems integrators and services partners, as well as our device partners, which is really a lean and focus on an edge to cloud solution. And we have an organization that is focused on edge to cloud. This is how our customers are buying, and how they’re thinking about their own transformation with Nick Parker leading that organization.

CF: As you’re aware, Gavriella Schuster was very popular among Microsoft partners. Do you feel that you need to fill her shoes?

RC: Gavriella is one of my favorite people in the world. We’ve grown in the company together and I have tremendous respect for her. And we have partnered together on many things. She is an amazing leader and advocate and supporter for the channel. There is no desire to fill shoes. There’s a very different path in front of us for the next five to seven years than Gavriella had in the previous five years. And so this next wave of growth and innovation for the industry id what I’m focused on, being the best eyes and ears and the best advocates for our channel internal to Microsoft, and then Microsoft as our channel. I’m doing all the things to support this growth.

CF: One thing Gavriella did during her tenure was forge close ties with the IAMCP [the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners]. Many of its members aren’t yet familiar with you, but have you met with its leadership and members, and do you plan to have a similar type of engagement with them?

RC: I’m very familiar with IAMCP, although I haven’t yet engaged with them in this current role. I will spend time with them post-Inspire. I have had some meetings here and there with specific members, but not the group and body at large. There absolutely will be a commitment on my part to continue to support and grow and partner with IAMCP. And they’re just as committed in helping me gain the insight needed and necessary to be effective in this role.

CF: How would you how do you envision your relationship with them?

RC: The organization is phenomenal, and they represent a collective voice of the channel. And my work with them will be to listen and learn. Quite frankly, I expect that the same relationship that we’ve had with them, and that Gavriella forged, will take some time to build. These are…

…trust-based relationships. But in the end, I look at IAMCP as a collective voice. And I will lean on that organization to help grow, drive and direct the changes to be the most effective channel in the ecosystem. That’s our goal.

CF: Do you see any specific opportunities?

RC: I hope that they will help us as they have in articulating and supporting the value of the move to cloud. They were super instrumental as an organization in carrying out the message and the justification and the case for companies moving to cloud. Now we’re in this mode of tech intensity, and we’ll lean on IAMCP to give a feedback on how we progress and how we develop the channel in this next phase. I’m looking forward to connecting and digging in with them and in developing that relationship.

CF: Late last year, I spoke with [the GM of Microsoft’s worldwide partner co-sell program] Alyssa Fitzpatrick [Channel Futures Top Gun 51 Rising Star] and among other things, we discussed a transition of the Partner Sales Connect to Partner Center platform. At the time, she said a large population of partners have migrated to Partner Center. But there was still a larger population that need to make the transition with a goal of sort of getting there by this summer. How is that coming along?

RC: Partner Center still for us strategically is at the heart of our digital engagement. As I mentioned, one of my priorities is digital engagement. Digital engagement for us starts with MPN [Microsoft Partner Network]. Thinking of that as your virtual partner development manager (PDM). Partner Center then becomes where you have all of your information and your relationship with Microsoft, then that’s the pathway to marketplace. So, you’ve got MPN on the entry and on the engagement side, you’ve got marketplace, that is the transaction part, while Partner Center sits in the middle. It’s very core to our strategy. And it’s very important for us that as we take these steps to engage more digitally with our ecosystem, that partners adopt Partner Center. We’ll actually share stats at Inspire in terms of the progress that we’ve seen on Partner Center adoption, the enhancements that we’re making to Partner Center.

CF: With the growth of digital marketplaces, what can you say about their potential to be disintermediating? How can partners navigate that and still be able to be profitable?

RC: That’s an important point. It’s not disintermediation, in that it replaces the partner engagement — that human connection and human touch. What we’re seeing is that digital enhancement and digital engagement actually support profitability. The goal for us is to take steps out of a process, as much as possible, and to automate as many things as possible. What Partner Center is, at its core it’s pulling together today, potentially X number of manual processes, and automating them so that information is available to partners. We have support desk, and a lot of our support calls are, “Hey, how do I gain visibility to the competencies that I’ve had? How do I check on the engagements or the opportunities that I’ve had?” By investing in something like Partner Center or these modern commerce platforms and engagement platform that’s available to partners in one click, or in one touch, as opposed to the manual approach. We see it as a path of profitability as opposed to the other way.

CF: One of the things partners have said they’d like to see is additional transparency from Microsoft, especially from the field. And specifically, with recent changes to EA, MCA and CSP, what can you do to provide better clarity on how partners and Microsoft sellers can provide a more unified front to the customer?

RC: Transparency is key. That’s core for us and foundational for us. If we do have changes coming to core programs or initiatives, we have committed to, and will continue to honor our pledge to consult with partners first and provide them ample notice. We’ve made it a practice. A great example of this is we are announcing some enhancements to CSP, and we’re doing this in phases. starting in our beginning…

…of FY22 all the way through FY 23. Dan Truex posted a blog on this in April, about the approach that we’re taking is to support the feedback that partners need more transparency and need more time to digest any changes.

CF: Given the brouhaha two years ago about the aborted effort to scale back internal use rights, what’s your view on the benefits of continuing them? And do you believe there’s a need to address the abuses, that the changes were initially intended to curb at the time?

RC: When we look at our business, we need to be flexible and respond to the changes in the market. On internal use rights, while we don’t have anything to announce around IUR at this time. If we were to make changes, we would honor our pledge to consult first with our partner community. And, again, we learned through that internal use rights announcement, and we listened, and this is a big part of the adjustment coming out of that. Nothing to share or announce at this time.

CF: With regard to cases where people haven’t used internal use rights for its intended purpose, is that something that ultimately has to be addressed?

RC: Well, the key value for policies like internal use rights is to help partners get familiar with and accustomed to the technology, so they can be better proponents of its use, so they can integrate more into their solutions that they’re building. We always want to provide partners with an opportunity to build and develop proof of concepts, to engage and get their hands on the technology. Fundamentally, we’ll continue to do that. And it’ll manifest itself in different ways. We don’t build programs to keep people from abusing per se, we are building and developing the program, so that we can effectively scale our technology and support the use of technology to those who need it into the customers ultimately benefit from it.

CF: Given the organization that you came from, advanced technologies such as mixed reality and IoT that are now surfacing or about the surface to the mainstream, what is it that you think will excite partners?  

RC: The interesting thing, and this is perhaps a pandemic driven thing, is a lot of the references to some of these use cases were a bit more abstract than they are today. Something like touchless in a retail scenario. And, there is this consumer focus with things like mixed reality, and the use and engagement of digital twins combined with a headset and the ability to digitally construct an entire building.

CF: What kind of non-traditional partners are you seeing coming into the Microsoft ecosystem? And how do you see them meshing with the traditional partners?

RC: We’ve got partners that have traditionally been customers. For example, there is a biopharma company who built and developed solutions for pill manufacturing, that are selling their solutions to like companies. They’ve built a cloud solution and scenario to better manage the flow, to manage the safety checks, and all the things that they’re required from the FDA to build into the solution. Now they are generating revenue streams where before they were just an in house. Another is a life sciences manufacturer that we helped to find a way to incorporate into Partner Center and ultimately promote their solution in marketplace. The other area would be this rush of what we call digital native partners. These are very small, unique, or boutique ISVs that are entering our ecosystem, and need help understanding our competency frameworks. They need help understanding how to leverage the breadth and scale of our ecosystem.  And so today, more than ever, we’ve got these new entrants in the market that are really focused on cloud-based technologies, and then building on top of Azure, that we are helping connect to our broader ecosystem to do business.

CF: How many are there?

RC: We’ve got something close to 300 – 400 partners, almost daily joining our partner network, and it’s vastly made up of the two types that I just mentioned.

 

Want to contact the author directly about this story? Have ideas for a follow-up article? Email Jeffrey Schwartz or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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About the Author(s)

Jeffrey Schwartz

Jeffrey Schwartz has covered the IT industry for nearly three decades, most recently as editor-in-chief of Redmond magazine and executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner. Prior to that, he held various editing and writing roles at CommunicationsWeek, InternetWeek and VARBusiness (now CRN) magazines, among other publications.

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