By: Dann Anthony Maurno
Microsoft has new a way to push cloud-first R&D into the channel. The Microsoft ISV Development Center program, announced at Inspire 2017, opens a conduit between Microsoft development teams and channel partners, with seven ISV Development Centers in between.
The ISV Development Center program emerged, in a way, from the Global ISV Program, which identified key ISVs that were not yet on the Dynamics platform. As Microsoft’s partner development manager for industry ISVs for seven years, Patrick Fitzhenry personally managed over 70 ISVs in rebuilding existing applications for Dynamics. He continues in that role, and as director of the development centers.
As Fitzhenry describes, the Global ISV Program outstripped Microsoft’s capacity as the program grew. “We had ISVs ask us, ‘Is there a firm that is expert at helping ISVs build a product on Dynamics AX or CRM?'” he describes. He began making introductions, and in time, “We probably had 25 to 30 of our global ISV solutions built either completely by a development center or at least with some assistance.”
Last November, Fitzhenry approached Ron Huddleston, Microsoft’s CVP One Commercial Partner, with the idea of formalizing the Dev Centers into a new partner type alongside GSIs, CSPs and hosting providers. “Ron said ‘Love the idea, bring a plan back to me in the next few months,'” recalls Fitzhenry. Fitzhenry completed the plan in April, which was quickly approved, for development around Dynamics AX, CRM and particularly Dynamics 365, both the Enterprise and Business editions.
The mission, the structure
The mission of the Microsoft ISV Development Centers (or “Dev Centers” as it calls them in partner documentation) is to provide strong third-party technical services that can be contracted and leveraged by Microsoft VARs, ISVs, NSIs and GSIs.
The first seven Dev Centers are Dynamics-focused, and were nominated by the various Dynamics engineering teams (NAV, AX, CRM). Fitzhenry is actively identifying Dev Centers in APAC, and expanding into other Microsoft technologies such as Azure Machine Learning, Predictive Analytics, Cortana, Power BI, Flow, PowerApps and SharePoint.
Microsoft endorses the Dev Centers, but has no investment in them, and remains arms-length; partners in no way contract with Microsoft.
Naturally, they raise an eyebrow among partners, who worry about losing customers to the Dev Centers. But the Dev Centers are obliged by Microsoft to honor Microsoft Partner-of-Record (POR) relationships. If a Dev Center is after repeat business, says Fitzhenry, it is with a partner, versus a customer.
Qualification no small feat
“It is possibly the most rigorous vetting process that I’ve seen in our industry,” says Fitzhenry, referring to ISV Development Center acceptance. Among the minimum requirements:
- A minimum of 25 developers with proven Microsoft Development Competencies
- 50+ referenceable ISV/development projects, for either Microsoft partners or their customers
- 15+ customers with an aggregate satisfaction score of 8 or higher.
- Referenceable experience with AppSource solution vetting and curation
- A Quality Assurance plan approved by the appropriate Dynamics 365 R&D vetting teams.
The program has launched with seven companies offering Dev Center services, including SAGlobal, 1ClickFactory, Ciellos, Cloud Ready Software, Innova, Sonata and Sonoma Partners.
“[Clients] have to feel comfortable with us as an organization that we have staff that we say we do, and that we provide the quality of work that we say we do, and that their customers are assured that when they engage us they get that level of service,” says Jen Wisemore, business development manager and a senior solutions architect with SAGlobal.
A side benefit of such rigorous vetting, she says, is that “It’s required us to formalize some of our practices. We’ve been doing peer-to-peer work with partners for 15 years, but we’ve never had the blessing from Microsoft that this program brings.”
Bandwidth, capabilities and guidance to the cloud
Microsoft envisions partners engaging Dev Centers in one of two ways: to assist them with Microsoft technologies with which they are not yet familiar, or for additional bandwidth and scale. They are expected to operate like hosting providers, offering easy ramp-up of capacity.
As Fitzhenry describes the explosive Dynamics 365 cadence, “One of our VARs may have dozens and dozens of customers on AX 2009 and AX 2012, and want to move those customers to Dynamic 365. We’ve trained the Dev Centers on how to do that development upgrade work of customizations, integrations and data migration in almost a factory-like methodology. It allows a Dev Center to get really good at it and be ready to do hundreds of upgrades, where a partner may only do two or three,” with in-house resources.
A partner with a great sales quarter may ramp up its development bandwidth, like virtual servers; or, its capabilities. An example that Fitzhenry describes would be a partner that is expert at Dynamics AX customization, but, is called upon for predictive analytics around expected equipment failure. In that instance, the Dev Center would provide Azure Machine Learning predictive analytics skills.
And, those skills transfer to the partner. “If the partner involves one or two of their internal developers,” always an option as the contracting organization, “there are people who get trained at the same time,” says Fitzhenry.
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Dev Centers take partners to the bleeding edge
The Dev Centers enjoy a special relationship with the Microsoft R&D teams, from which they receive Level 400 training and support. They participate in new technology previews, beta programs and technology adopter programs (TAP), all aimed at keeping them on the bleeding edge of Microsoft technology.
That access benefits a Dev Center’s partner customers in a couple of ways, describes Michael Levine, senior account executive with Sonoma Partners. The company was an early nominee to the program by Microsoft’s CRM R&D and product teams.
“First, a huge amount of innovation in R&D goes into each release, so understanding what those capabilities will look like how to extend them and how to introduce solutions based on that new set of functionality is a huge value,” says Levine.
“The second piece of the equation is around access to the R&D and product teams and that 400-level support,” he continues. “Sometimes we’re pushing the boundaries of what Dynamics can support and want to make sure that we’re doing things in the smartest way, [to implement] a solution architecture based on best practices. [We’re] also taking into account what Microsoft may be considering from a roadmap perspective.”
Says Wisemore, “It’s often hard to get through the escalation channel, especially on the tough issues where you need to get to the right group that has the answers and has the expertise. This program allows us to have more direct access to Microsoft for those type of escalation issues, where it takes more time doing that as a standalone partner.”
She concludes, “Partners expect us to be ahead of the curve, so that they can gain from that expertise with ease.”
One offering by the Dev Centers is readying ISV solutions for the Microsoft AppSource store – from development through application and uploading.
Partner views on this run from a welcome relief and an annoyance. As one remarked to MSDynamicsWorld, “Why does Microsoft run a program (AppSource) that is so complex that ISVs can’t bring their solutions to market without hiring an outside party for help?”
Fitzhenry acknowledges that the process is not a simple one. But “In all likelihood [the ISV] has one product that’s going to go on to AppSource. For them to get fully trained and knowledgeable on what it takes to get an application on AppSource may be somewhat time consuming and even costly. A Dev Center that offers that service has done it dozens of times.”
Wisemore concurs. “It’s not that they can’t do it; but the learning curve is long, while we’ve done it repeatably, over and over again, so we can do it much faster and more cost effectively,” she says. “It’s a model that allows a cost-effective one-off.”
One such project was the Loki payroll solution, which SAGlobal helped in what Wisemore describes as a “tight turnaround” to be among the first wave of solutions on AppSource and for Dynamics 365 for Operations. “We constantly are looking to keep them aware of when to upgrade to stay on AppSource, so, are helping them with their product lifecycle management on AppSource.”
A recent Sonoma project was with Glance Networks, “The Enterprise Cobrowse Company,” which provides omnichannel visual engagement solutions for personalized customer service, sales, and support interactions. Sonoma helped Glance Networks build the integration between Cobrowse and Dynamics 365, then to go through the AppSource listing process.
“Are you Dev Centers just looking for bigger VAR projects?”
One ISV remarked that they expected ISV Dev Centers to make their nut from VARs, not the traditional ISV partners that, by definition have enough development resources to ship their own products.
“Yes, certainly,” says Levine. “Like any other professional service organization, Sonoma is looking to grow and work with new and exciting clients all the time. But I wouldn’t say that the program changes the dynamic for other partners who may be pursuing development projects. [The program is] not meant to be competitive between the data center and another partner or another Microsoft partner who may already be engaged with a client,” he concludes, pointing to the Partner of Record safeguards.
Fitzhenry emphasizes that “These centers do not replace or infringe on anything that our existing Dynamics partners do today. The partners bring the customers; we don’t want a situation where a Dev Center becomes a threat because the VAR is afraid they’re going to steal the customer. That’s one of our requirements.” So the Dev Center – which may be giant compared to the partner – is a subcontractor in a customer engagement.
Wisemore understands partners’ reticence very well. “It can be hard, handing over some very important and critical part of your business, which is developing solutions,” she says.
“But ultimately the goal is to make it easier to do business with us. Who wants to search through Web sites to go into that partnership? People don’t have time for that. They need something that works and is easy to engage with.”