Early Retirement

Hoa with little James

A few weeks ago, I was removed from the Microsoft MVP program. This occurred as a direct result of a presentation I gave about DIY Deep Fakes to other MVPs during the MVP Summit in Redmond, Washington on March 21st. I was told on the following Monday that someone had found a slide in my presentation offensive, that this constituted a violation of the MVP Code of Conduct, and so it was time for the MVP program and I to part ways immediately. All my MVP benefits would be revoked. All my email access to the MVP program would be cancelled.

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Normally people lose their MVPs at renewal time for not doing enough for their technical communities, whatever that means, or for revealing NDA secrets of one sort or another. All MVPs live under all manner of non-disclosure agreements with the understanding that from time to time they will receive previews or roadmaps of upcoming Microsoft technology in exchange for honest feedback. For the most part, this is a good arrangement, except that over time the scope of the NDA has grown to include trivial things that have nothing to do with Microsoft technology and a lot to do with Microsoft’s self marketing, while at the same time fewer and fewer “secrets” are shown to MVPs of any real value. But more on this later.

The customary way to accept losing one’s MVP is to go to social media, express regret over not being in contact with all the great friends one has made, state that the MVP program is Microsoft’s to run any way they want, and that you don’t really care one way or the other. And then you go cry in a fetal position for about a week and never really get over the trauma and humiliation of losing your MVP. Life goes on.

My earlier DIY Deep Fakes talk in Utrecht

Except in my case  1) I really loved being in the MVP program. I loved being able to sit next to someone I admire in the program and we both could take off our public masks at the same time and just shoot the breeze about tech stuff. I enjoyed meeting with the indie consultants who eke out a living doing technical presentations at conferences and converting them into short term development gigs. They are the high plains drifters of the new economy. And I loved moving with the same group of international experts over the past eight years from the Kinect MVP program to the Emerging Experiences MVP program to the Windows Dev  (HoloLens) MVP program and sharing their dreams for these technologies, exchanging tips and advice, developing a shorthand around discussing these tools and always helping each other out. And while I know I’ll continue to know them, it also won’t quite be the same anymore. I was lucky to have this privilege for the time that I had it and know I have lost something meaningful now that it is gone.

2) I didn’t violate the MVP Code of Conduct. I look at the thing and it says you shouldn’t show pictures of child pornography, incest, bestiality – which definitely sets the bar pretty high. And when I’ve asked about this I’ve been told that if anyone is offended by an image then the image is offensive and it is a Code of Conduct violation.

Which I don’t think is right. It isn’t right because it is arbitrary. If someone is offended by a picture of inter-racial kissing, it is then offensive? Really? It also isn’t right because it turns out the human race and the legal tradition isn’t new to changing standards of offense, which is why obscenity and offensiveness are traditionally understood to mean “offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community” rather than reported by someone as offensive.

And if I offended one person in the audience, I would really like to speak to them and understand why. Short of that, I would still like to understand how I harmed someone, because that is mortifying and not something I would ever want to do.

Instead, in an invitation marked we have some feedback about your presentation I was told to call into a Microsoft Team meeting on a Friday afternoon and then as I was about to call in had the call rescheduled for the following Monday. On the following Monday I talked to three men (and a fourth in the background who didn’t introduce himself). The meeting started off with a man high up in the MVP organization expressing regret that we hadn’t ever had a chance to meet in person, after which he quickly went into a let’s cut to the chase moment and told me I was being retired from the program for my presentation.

I asked for what and was told there was a pornographic image in my presentation – in the section of my Deep Fakes talk about the dangers of Deep Fake technology. I pointed out that the image was pixelated and was told that pixelated pornography was still pornography. I pointed out that image was part of a video clip I excerpted from a Wall Street Journal piece but was told that Microsoft has different standards of offensiveness than the Wall Street Journal does. I then pointed out that I had already done a longer version of the same presentation the week before in the Netherlands and had gotten an incredibly positive reaction. I was told that the standards in the Netherlands don’t really matter in this case because someone was offended in Redmond. Finally I pointed out that I had no intention of offending anyone and following the talk I gave in the Netherlands I didn’t expect that anyone would. I was told that my intentions didn’t matter. The lead indicated that it was time to end the call by saying that this was really hard on all of them, too. So I thanked them for their time and hung up. It was rotten and seemed like a bureaucratic thing, but there was nothing I could do at the time and needed to move on with my day.

And I did okay with that until towards the evening I received about 20  emails asking if I had broken the CoC at summit. It turned out that while I was told that I was kicked out for showing an offensive image, 400 Windows Development MVPs were told that an unacceptable violation of the Code of Conduct had occurred during the summit involving the exploitation of women and pornography—without mentioning that I had been kicked out for it. This was followed by instructions on how to handle sexual harassment situations, everyone’s obligation to report sexual harassment, what to do when victims of sexual harassment were too afraid to speak up for themselves, and finally guidance on how to recognize potentially offensive material in your presentations which boiled down to you really can’t.

In case you are wondering why so many people were able to identify me as the person being accused of sexual harassment in the email, there were only 8 speakers at the event in question, the schedules had been distributed previously, and my talk was the only one not involving databases, devops or frameworks.

I was devastated.

Before continuing, let me tell you a little more about me. I am mixed race and I grew up in Vietnam. My mother is Vietnamese and my father is a U.S. native. Vietnamese was my first language and when we got to the United States I begged my family not to speak it at home because I wanted to be American so kids at school wouldn’t make fun of me for being different. As a kid we used to host boat people who escaped from the poverty and authoritarian government in Vietnam. We used to visit with people who had been tortured in re-education camps and had no fingernails. My mother spent a lot of time depressed, having been violently exiled from her homeland, her village, her extended family and her ancestors.

For me, being mixed race means never quite being American enough but also not being able to go back to being Vietnamese like I was as a child. I don’t fully have either identity. I also normally don’t have to think about it unless other people force me to. I’m just me most of the time.

I ended up getting a classical education at a small four year college in Maryland and then entered a Phd program in Philosophy at Emory University. I did three years of course work that covered logic, feminist theory, philosophy of consciousness, ethics, critical theory, Renaissance philosophy and phenomenology – and I even taught ethics to the undergraduates on occasion. At about the time I was getting ready to write a dissertation, my wife and I were also getting ready to have our first baby and I realized I needed to go find a real job, which is how I discovered computer programming.

I bring up my background and my education not as a way to say I don’t make mistakes in judgment. I do all the time.

I bring it up to share with you how strange it felt, on that Monday morning, to have three white men who run the MVP program instruct me over the phone on inclusivity and diversity as they were kicking me out. Because feeling excluded without explanation or justification is what it feels like when you are a small mixed race kid with broken English getting picked on at school. Because your intentions don’t matter. Only the intentions of the people with power over you matter.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t find humor in the MVP leads expressing how hard it was for them to kick me out of the program. Their jobs were probably on the line. As I later came to understand, someone escalated the talk to an executive at Microsoft who, despite not being at the presentation, determined that the leads had done something horrible and they in turn had to demonstrate that they took harassment seriously by taking severe and immediate action. I’ve worked in places where employees are motivated by fear of losing their jobs. It isn’t pleasant and it is very hard to think clearly under those circumstances, much less act like yourself.

I do want to point out, though, that as a result of these Code of Conduct reinterpretations and warnings, a lot of MVPs are infected with the same fear that drove those MVP leads. They feel like anything might be interpreted as a form of sexual harassment or that they could similarly be expelled from the program without justification, discussion, or a right of appeal. It’s difficult to express how deeply wrong this is, or how bizarre it is to watch adults become stressed over what has essentially become a part-time job working for Microsoft and following Microsoft’s HR policies rather than the MVP CoC. No one should be afraid of losing the MVP arbitrarily.

I also want to clarify what I was taught about diversity and inclusivity in my ethics and women’s studies classes at Emory, because I think it will be helpful. The goals of diversity and inclusivity are to encourage people to exercise their empathy more fully, to increase understanding of those different from you, and to develop the ability to question our own preconceptions. A system that results in increased fear—or even ends up threatening the jobs of good employees—is not going to achieve any of these goals.

There’s another piece of the puzzle that may provide a deeper context for the events described above. On March 20th, an email chain was started by women who had suffered harassment and career marginalization inside Microsoft over the years. They shared their stories of institutional sexism at work, complaints ritually ignored by HR, and a culture that routinely discouraged them from telling their stories. I gave my talk on March 21st, the day after the #metoo movement finally came knocking on Microsoft’s door.

Microsoft has agreed to start taking complaints more seriously and has promised to investigate reports of misconduct more thoroughly. This is a great thing. But as Microsoft embraces these new policies, I hope they also take a look at revamping the process used to retire MVPs to actually include a formal review process. I should not have been humiliated the way I was and would hate to see any future MVP go through anything like it again.

3 thoughts on “Early Retirement”

  1. Too bad that such a (non-)situation turned in you being kicked out of the MVP Program. I’m really amazed that such a decision was taken based on a distortion of the facts you described, a bit like as you being victim of a “fake situation”.
    Keep your good work.

  2. my gut feelings, simply from reading this: s/o wanted to oust you for some different reason, the “pornographic” picture and the “offended person” are only the official reason to get you kicked out.

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