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A Conversation with Microsoft Student Partners

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Beyond angel investors and venture capital firms, we’ve been actively including the activities and startups emerging out of university entrepreneurship programs whether it be the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute ( or UniSeed ( which is part of The University of Queensland and Melbourne in the Australia.

To this end, we are always looking to highlight efforts at Universities that highlight entrepreneurship or that aim to raise awareness of technology and so were glad to recently sit down with Paul Sharer of Microsoft Student Partners (MSP) who manages marketing for MSP.  We also spoke with two students, Josh Bolling and Brian Hendricks, who are participating in MSP to understand the program and some of the projects and activities students are directly involved with.

We started our discussion with Paul who found his way to MSP via an advertisement on Craig’s List.

Can you provide a bit of background on MSP and your role with the organization?

The Microsoft Student Partners are college students whom job is to market and evangelize Microsoft products to their peers.  The MSPs have all sorts of different background from Business and Marketing, to Science and Biology.  Most importantly, they’re passionate about technology.  Worldwide there are over 2000 MSPs. In 2008, the US Student Partner program is compromised of two groups, Tech and Marketing.  There are roughly 200 MSPs between the two groups.  My job is to manage the student partners in the Marketing role.   Next year, we will be combining the Tech and Marketing programs into one MSP team that will be more marketing oriented.

What are the main activities MSP is engaged in with students?

Our MSPs do all sorts of things to get Microsoft’s products in front of their peers.  Some of these things include hitting the street to get contest entries, partnering with student organizations to throw large events, and making presentations in front of a lecture hall.  MSPs are generally interested in technology and evangelize Microsoft through social mediums like Facebook and Twitter.  When they do this, they are not only representing Microsoft, but positioning themselves as an expert in marketing and technology.

Going forward, where do you see MSP going in the next several years?  What are the organization’s critical priorities & goals?

This year we implemented a new system where top performing MSPs were promoted to manage small 6-7 person teams.  These promoted MSPs are called SSPs, or Senior Student Partners. This system is meant to bring MSPs together and give them a platform in which to communicate and collaborate with other MSPs.  So far adding the small teams into the mix has provided positive results, and the level of MSP satisfaction has increased significantly.  Next school year, we will be implementing this system from the beginning and are hoping to bump up the level of engagement big time.

What are some of the opportunities and challenges for the organization?

Having a college student, a thousand miles away, feel connected to the program is difficult.  I do anything in my ability to keep them engaged and productive.  There’s no right or wrong way to do it.  90% of MSP communication is through emails.  You can’t line every email with exclamation points and happy faces, nor can you send very long and boring emails that they won’t read.  If the students aren’t interested, our results will reflect that.

With the explosion of technology and capabilities available via the web (social media for example) and mobile phone, do the students that MSP serves use these mediums and does MSP leverage these tools to communicate with students and/or increase their reach?

Certainly, MSPs use all the resources available to them to reach their peers.  The most obvious one being Facebook for creating Microsoft student groups and promoting various events.  Some MSPs use twitter, but research has shown that college students are not the most popular twitter demographic.

With background from Paul, we wanted to see what students participating in the program are actually doing and the projects they’ve undertaken and so talked to Josh Bolling a student at Mountain Empire Community College, and Brian Hendricks, a junior at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

Josh, please detail your areas of focus with MSP?

I’m interested in nearly every Microsoft technology relating to Enterprise Computing, Unified Communications and Collaboration. Given those interests I began looking at the current collaboration infrastructure offered to MSP’s and found many areas where it could be improved and settled on a Microsoft product, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server to serve as the main foundational element of the new platform. After building a working prototype of the site and looped in Paul Sharer to begin discussing the merits of enhanced collaboration. After a few weeks of discussion we decided to move to the next level and present our ideas to the Global MSP team. After refinements to the overall design the Global MSP team decided to “green light” the project and move it into production over the summer.

Tell us a bit about your project or application that you’ve built as part of the MSP program?  What problem was it trying to solve, how did you approach the project, what you learned?

The application I built was a customized website built on top of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. This website was designed and built from the ground up to allow for easy, rapid collaboration between MSP’s around the world from a single point. I learned a lot about the process of developing a solution around static business requirements and how to pitch a product to multiple audiences.

How about you Brian?  What have you been doing with MSP?

One particularly successful project I completed while working as a Microsoft Student Partner was a marketing campaign for the Microsoft Zune called the “Digital Dorm Room Contest”. In order to increase awareness for the Zune and its Zune Social website, MSPs were instructed to promote the two products and drive students on their campus to enter a raffle to win a “digital dorm room” (computers, TVs, speakers, etc).

When the campaign first started, I created a very in-depth marketing plan: online promotion tactics, offline promotion strategies, event plans, a project timeline, sign-up projections and goals, potential problems and workarounds, and necessary resources. Over the course of 10 weeks, I spent numerous hours promoting via Facebook, distributing flyers and postcards, setting up information tables in dorm lobbies, and planning a Zune-sponsored dance party and football game tailgate. Most importantly, I organized a team of four members of the Marketing Club to assist with me with the campaign – my success is owed to them.

By the end of the campaign, I had 1000 students enter the contest – the next highest school had a little less than 350. In fact, my signups accounted for close to 1/3 of all the signups for the entire MSP program. These results were made possible through careful planning, understanding my target, and committing myself and my team to reaching our goal.

What have you learned as a result of MSP?

The Microsoft Student Partner program has helped me in three ways: it has improved my ability to plan and execute ideas, expanded my connection to other students on campus, and provided me with an opportunity to lead. My prior jobs were all mostly autonomous and I could get away with acting on a whim and “playing it by ear”. However, the MSP program taught me the importance of carefully planning in advance and prepare ahead of time for any potential problems. Also, since the position requires me to communicate with as many different types of students as possible, my network has been expanded beyond the business school and my friends. I have made connections with the leaders of the largest student organizations and other groups within other academic programs. Finally, my role as a Senior Student Partner lets me be a leader and practice managing my peers.

For students interested in learning more about MSP and getting involved, visit the Microsoft Student Partners website or email Paul directly.

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