Allison Watson is out as Microsoft’s channel chief, and Jon Roskill is in

When Microsoft Corp.‘s (NASDAQ: MSFT) Worldwide Partner Conference kicks off next month in Washington, D.C., it won’t be with Allison Watson as channel chief.

The vendor announced Thursday that Watson was out as corporate vice-president of Microsoft’s worldwide partner group, as of July 1st. Taking her place will be Jon Roskill, currently, corporate vice-president of Microsoft’s business and marketing organization in the U.S. Watson will assume Roskill’s old position with the U.S. business and marketing organization.

Microsoft declined a request for interviews on the news but its statement does provide some perspective on Roskill’s tasking, signaling a desire to focus on new areas of growth such as unified communications, virtualization and cloud computing. It noted that in his previous role, Roskill played a key role bringing Microsoft’s cloud computing offerings to market.

“Our customers are relying more and more on our partners,” said Kevin Turner, Microsoft’s COO, in a statement. “Jon deeply understands the critical factors a customer goes through in making IT buying decisions. He will leverage his depth of knowledge in his new role, and I’m confident he will ensure that our partners continue to win and grow in the marketplace.”

After leading the Microsoft partner organization since 2002, Watson’s tasking in her new focus on U.S. marketing and strategic development will be around helping customers take advantage of Microsoft’s latest product releases and “have a clear view” into the company’s cloud computing offerings.

The analysts react

Darren Bibby, program director, software channels research with IDC Corp., spoke with Watson shortly after news of the change was released. Bibby said every year Microsoft sits down with their executives to discuss career planning and their futures within the organization. While Watson had opportunities to take on new roles in the past, he said this year she decided the time was right for a new challenge.

“Microsoft is looking at Allison as someone who could continue to rise within Microsoft, and this may help her rise further,” said Bibby. “It’s a role that will broaden her experience, and sets her up for future roles. I think she sees this as a positive career development.”

While it may seem like a lateral or downward move in the short-term, Bibby said longer-term it should give her needed experience, adding he knows Watson is looked on well by the Microsoft leadership team.

While it’s not being portrayed as such, the channel chief role that Watson is vacating, with its worldwide scope, still does seem more senior that her new U.S.-only role said James Alexander, senior vice-president with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

“Heading-up a worldwide partner organization and reporting into the head of SMS&P (Worldwide Small and Midmarket Solutions & Partners Group) you have a mandate to leverage the partner network to sell products to every enterprise in town, whereas the North American role is to be more limited in scale and scope,” said Alexander.

He speculates part of the motivation for the switch could be Microsoft’s recent fundamental overhaul of its channel program, and the increasing importance of cloud computing. Cloud computing will mean major changes for how Microsoft partners go to market and the conversations they have with clients, shifting from one around technology to much more of a business needs evaluation. Partners are going to need to adjust to the new models.

“For someone new to the role, it may be easier for them to have those hard conversations with the partner community as a whole,” said Alexander.

While he doesn’t think the executive shuffle is related, IDC’s Bibby does agree cloud computing means big changes for the Microsoft channel and its partner community.

“Cloud computing and how it affects the Microsoft partner organization is a critical piece, and it will be the number one topic at the partner conference this year,” said Bibby. “It’s a pretty fundamental challenge for a lot of these partners.”

The partner view

Elisabeth Vanderveldt, a principal with Montreal-based solution provider Conamex International and a board member of the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners, agreed Watson’s move to the U.S. role should strengthen their partner ecosystem because of her overall knowledge of global best practices.

“I know she has done tremendous work in LATAM whose partners have really expanded their presence and importance on the global stage,” said Vanderveldt. “What I like about Jon in this role is that with Microsoft’s full focus on the cloud, virtualization and unified communications and his background in key product areas like SQL, Commerce Server, BizTalk Server, Application Center and their development tools, namely Visual Studio, I expect partners will benefit from his ability to understand and assist them with the immense challenges of changing a complete sales and service strategy. With many partners still working to transition to the new MPN program he’ll have a lot on his plate.”

It’s unlikely a change at the worldwide level will have too much level for partners at the regional level said Brian Bourne, president of CMS Consulting, a Toronto-based security consultancy and Microsoft partner. Programmatic changes at the worldwide level would filter through Microsoft Canada, which is where the “rubber hits the road” for partners such as CMS, said Bourne.

He did note the timing of the move as interesting though, coming as Microsoft prepares to implement and offer more insight into an overhaul and transition from the Microsoft Partner Program to the Microsoft Partner Network.

“Many details about exactly what that means and how it will impact partners are still up in the air, and (Roskill) will have the ability to influence substantial changes of a programmatic nature,” said Bourne.

The announcement came as a surprise to Karen Brodie of Brodie Comptues, a Guelph-based Microsoft partner focused on CRM, who said she didn’t see the change coming. Brodie said Watson made a huge impression on her when Microsoft held its partner conference in Toronto and Watson took the time to have a lengthy conversation with her, a relatively small partner, about the challenges they were facing around Microsoft’s CRM platform and strategy.

“It really impressed us at the time, and we really appreciated someone in such a senior role being so interested in partner feedback,” said Brodie.

The jury is still out for her on the changes, said Brodie. She does think Roskill’s experience and focus on cloud computing will be a positive for Brodie Computes, which has a focus on both the cloud and on-premise CRM, although she added Watson was certainly supportive of the cloud as well.

She added though that she has some concerns about some of the recent dramatic changes to Microsoft’s partner program, their timing as the economy comes out of a recession, and what it means for the smaller, boutique partners like her company that she notes are so vital to Microsoft’s success. She’s hoping Microsoft uses the upcoming partner conference to announce a re-think of some of those changes.

Follow Jeff Jedras on Twitter: @JeffJedrasCDN.

Also, read CDN editor Paolo Del Nibletto’s take at our CDN Varbose blog.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
A veteran technology and business journalist, Jeff Jedras began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the booming (and later busting) Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal, as well as everything from municipal politics to real estate. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada. He would go on to cover the channel as an assistant editor with CDN. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and a wide range of industry trade publications.

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