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Allison Watson: Channel Executive of the Year

Allison Watson, Microsoft's channel chief, assures partners that she has only just begun to deliver on her vision.

The figure is more than all but a handful of U.S. software companies' annual sales. It's more than many Third-World nations' gross domestic products. For crying out loud, it's higher than the security budget for the summer Olympics in Athens ($1.5 billion, in case you were wondering). Ponder that for a moment. One-point-seven-billion dollars is what Allison Watson, vice president of Microsoft's worldwide partner sales and marketing group, has at her disposal. She will shepherd those extensive funds prudently and intelligently to Microsoft partners--775,000 of them--around the world, for her job is to make certain that one of the IT industry's largest channels stays profitable and healthy. That was her message at Microsoft's Velocity Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto this summer. It's a task of epic proportions, of course. And all Watson has done in two years as Microsoft's channel chief is make it look easy. VARBusiness takes a closer look at the 2004 Annual Report Card Channel Executive of the Year: Allison Watson.

Regaining Focus
George LaVenture is CEO of Trinity Consulting, a Boston-based solution provider and Microsoft Gold Partner. He is also the head of Beantown's chapter for the International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners (IAMCP). LaVenture has been around a long time, and he echoes what many Microsoft resellers feel about Microsoft, its partner program and, in particular, Watson's leadership. "She has refocused Microsoft on the partner," LaVenture says. "I think the company lost its channel focus a few years back, but it has really gone back to its roots."

Losing its channel focus is a nice way of saying that Microsoft got a little greedy. Starting around 2001, solution providers began to see less of the partner tools and marketing funds they were accustomed to and more of Microsoft Consulting Services, and not in a good way; resellers were complaining that the software giant was competing for business against even its top certified partners. Plus, on the heels of a landmark antitrust settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, Microsoft, seemingly unhumbled and as aggressive as ever, launched its controversial new licensing program, Software Assurance.

All the while, Microsoft officials were zealously pushing new efforts, such as Windows XP and .Net products, to channel partners. It didn't help that Microsoft's channel leadership was in flux: When Watson arrived in 2002, she succeeded Rosa Garcia, who had been on the job a short time after taking over for Ian Rogoff less than a year earlier. It was, all in all, the low point for Microsoft's channel.

Luckily, Watson had an immediate impact, helping to bring stability to Microsoft's channel. She served several years as chief of staff for Kevin Johnson, then as senior vice president of Microsoft Americas, and general manager of the company's Washington, D.C., mid-Atlantic sales region. Although she assumed the role of lead channel executive weeks before Microsoft's Fusion 2002 conference in Los Angeles, she outlined a new vision, pledging to focus on helping small and midsize VARs.

One of her first acts was consolidating the numerous partner programs across the company's divisions and product areas, followed by a cutting-edge portal for members of the newly consolidated Microsoft Partner Program. Watson highlights the program relaunch as her most important accomplishment in the past year.

Perhaps the most notable action, other than the revamped partner program, was nearly doubling the number of presales support personnel. An additional 200 channel sales reps have been put into place for certified partners. And it's not just quantity, but quality. Robert Whiton, president of Net Solutions, a Microsoft certified partner based in Tustin, Calif., says the software company's partner-engagement sales force has been superb and has helped his company get traction with new Microsoft products, such as Windows Server 2003 and SharePoint Portal.

Thus, sales support is where many solution providers see the greatest improvement and the biggest impact on their bottom lines. "I think what Allison and her team have done with upping the business-critical support for partners has been outstanding," LaVenture says. "The programs today are geared for the satisfaction of our mutual customers [as well]."

That's a crucial difference; the old Microsoft mentioned earlier has changed. Partners say the software giant routinely goes out of its way to help partners close business and keep customers happy.

"Microsoft is bending over backward," says Dean Guest, director of business development at iFusion Solutions in Vancouver, British Columbia. "It seems like the company is always available to sit at the table with us to help us get that client."

IFusion started in 2002 with the goal of being one of the early leaders in the newly launched MS-CRM software, and became a Microsoft-exclusive partner. Thus, iFusion was rewarded with go-to-market resources, co-marketing funds, sales leads and Microsoft personnel to assist the budding solution provider with road shows and customer-focused events. As a result, iFusion quickly exceeded its revenue goals for fiscal 2004 and put the company on the map as one of the go-to Microsoft partners in Western Canada.

It's that kind of extra effort that has helped Microsoft gain traction for new products like Microsoft CRM, .Net and others, which have never been the company's strength.

Watson has quickly become a popular figure among partners and respected by her colleagues. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer praises Watson for her tenacity and creativity. "She has assembled a strong team and works hard," Ballmer says. "She's smart, aggressive and competitive. And she has managed to elevate the importance of partners within our corporate structure, which has been a plus for VARs."

Microsoft certainly will need Watson and her team's penchant for going the extra mile; with the rise of open-source competition against Windows, the software giant will need to do more to ensure that longtime Microsoft partners and developers don't defect to Linux. John Marks, CEO of JDM Infrastructure in Rosemont, Ill., says that although he's a Microsoft reseller, there's an increasing number of competing software offerings in the market today. "I think there are a lot more players today with platforms that people should look at instead of Microsoft," Marks says. "Linux is an especially good choice."

Linux is definitely a threat, but it's a long way off from rivaling Microsoft's power. According to VARBusiness' recent application development research, a survey of software developers and solution providers showed that 76 percent consider Microsoft their top platform vendor. And while 46 percent reported they plan on developing applications for Linux this year, 66 percent said they will develop .Net-based apps in the next 12 months.

"Microsoft is committed to winning against open source," Watson said during her keynote address in Toronto. She got the crowd pumped up by touting components of the $1.7 billion channel investment, like the Partner Learning Center portal.

Along with Watson, solution providers credit Margo Day, vice president of Microsoft's U.S. partner group, and Watson's superior, Orlando Ayala, senior vice president of small and midmarket solutions and partner group, with getting Microsoft back to the good ol' days. "It's like the Microsoft of old. Allison, Margot, Orlando--none of them are afraid to take risks," Trinity's LaVenture says. "We can't let Allison leave!"

Considering the year's high turnover rate of several notable channel executives, that fear isn't irrational. Watson insists she's not going anywhere and, with a new three-year plan ahead of her, she says she has only begun to deliver on her vision.

With $1.7 billion at her disposal, why would she want to go anywhere else?

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