Here at Windows IT Pro, we’re finishing up our determination of which products will be finalists in the 2012 Best of TechEd awards program. Those finalists are being notified as I type, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about this awards program from the perspective of the Windows IT Pro judging panel.

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Windows IT Pro
has been heading up this awards program for over a decade, and the program has only grown in prominence since its inception. We view it as an invaluable, unbiased way to recognize stellar Microsoft products but also—and more vitally—to bring attention to top-tier products from Microsoft’s galaxy of talented partners.

Over time, the list of categories that comprise Best of TechEd has evolved according to the flow of the market, but the overall number of categories tends to hover around 15 or 20, a good number that results in an effective snapshot of the industry (and the trade show itself) and that remains manageable for our team. Our relatively small judging panel—made up of five or six seasoned technical editors and journalists from Windows IT Pro, SQL Server Pro, and DevPro—make the annual pilgrimage to TechEd to experience three finalists in each category firsthand, but before we get there, we have a lot of work to do.

Before June, we spend a few months preparing for Best of TechEd. We determine our panel, which generally consists of the same primary players year to year, although over time we’ve added technical expertise and reassigned categories as necessary. At the end of the Microsoft nomination process, each judge receives his or her category assignments. Generally, the assignment of categories conforms to the individual editor/author’s area of expertise, and this distribution of categories immediately brings the 300-plus nomination list down to something manageable! The judge then has a couple weeks to research the nominated products in each category and really get a feel for how the product works and how it is being received in the industry. Some categories will have as few as five nominees, whereas others will have as many as thirty. We bring our market expertise to bear on the decision-making toward the finalist determination, and we rely on each other, too. Our senior technical editors have a lot to say during these deliberations.

Our three main criteria for the judging process in our awards programs are strategic importance, competitive advantage, and value to customers. Those qualities are always top of mind, whether we’re determining which lucky three finalists are chosen before the show or whether we’re on the show floor, picking one winner from the three finalists. Sometimes, a product will stand above the pack because it solves a pressing need in a clever way; other times, a product will burst forth in its new edition with noteworthy functionality that had been absent in previous editions. Sometimes, a product will have a vast network of customer support that makes it “buzzworthy”; other times, the product is a unique, powerful player from a small, unknown company that’s deserving of recognition. There are many reasons why a product—or a facet of a product—might catch our eye, and these reasons are all part of the intricate research and study we put into the pre-judging process.

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On occasion, we’ve been asked whether our awards programs are merely popularity contests. As the previous paragraphs attest, nothing could be further from the truth. We try our best to give equal weight to the biggest players and the smallest contenders. We often find ourselves unwitting spokespersons for the little up-and-comers—the Davids to the industry Goliaths. We value fantastic new features from the big guys, but we also love the game-changing ingenuity of the new guys. (Sometimes, the big guys have even been known to get upset with us for this mindset!) Our lists of finalists are more than likely to include an industry behemoth right next to a newcomer—and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the newcomer will come out on top!

From giant vendors to the tiniest newcomer, any company can benefit from the distinction of being a Best of TechEd winner and even finalist. Past winners and contenders are eager to highlight their accolades on their websites and in their marketing materials. A Best of TechEd distinction serves as an industry validation of the product, and can be used in myriad ways inside and outside your company, from product development and strategy to marketing and sales. And for the newcomer, it can broaden growth potential.

We look forward to judging all these great products at the show!