Commentary: With his booming voice and boundless optimism, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is the technology industry’s version of a head coach. But these days he’s trying to run his team without a star quarterback.
But as long as we’re all going down this path again, there’s actually a larger issue to address: Microsoft no longer has an overarching technology leader next to the CEO at the top of the company — someone with a strong engineering background and technical vision, surveying the field and calling the plays.
There will never be another Bill Gates. But there should be someone in his former role as chief software architect, if not in title, then at least in effect.
Ray Ozzie was supposed to be the one. When Gates announced plans to leave the company five years ago, Ozzie stepped in to replace him in that role, with “all technical architecture and product oversight responsibilities.” For whatever reason it never really worked out.
Ozzie left at the end of last year, and rather than replacing him, Ballmer decided to shutter the office of chief software architect, relying instead on a patchwork of technical leaders in the company’s divisions.
It’s an experienced group. Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer, oversees the long-term vision (as in years out). There’s Don Mattrick in video games; Steven Sinofsky in Windows; Qi Lu in online services; Kurt DelBene in Microsoft Office; Satya Nadella in servers and cloud computing. Not to mention other technical leaders such as Scott Guthrie in developer tools and Jon DeVaan in Windows engineering. And a large roster of technical fellows.
The list goes on. And that’s part of the problem. The company would be stronger with one technical leader at the top.
Who should fill this role? Admittedly, that’s a tough one. Ozzie seemed to make sense at the time. Consumer technology guru J Allard might have been a logical candidate before his departure. Same with outgoing server chief Bob Muglia. Maybe it should be one of the divisional leaders from the list above, or someone from outside.
Maybe the person doesn’t exist, except for Bill Gates — who remains Microsoft’s chairman but made it clear that he’s not coming back full time. And to be clear, even Gates was far from perfect in the role. Windows Vista happened on his watch, as did the company’s fall from grace in mobile phones, and its initial decision not to directly challenge a little search company called Google.
But if Microsoft can find the right person, he or she would run product review meetings with a critical eye, shape a cohesive technical strategy across the company and make sure Microsoft’s divisions don’t step on each other’s toes or work at cross-purposes. Someone who can not only foresee technology trends but also know when to capitalize on them, and when to wait.
This would also be a person with deep credibility in the tech industry and the broader world. One of the greatest spectacles during the Gates Era at Microsoft was the crowd of Wall Street types who would surround him during the company’s annual meeting with analysts — a circle of people, ten deep or more, leaning in for any scrap of insight they could glean. Some of Microsoft’s divisional leaders can walk around the same meeting without being stopped.
An argument could be made that this new technical leader should actually replace Ballmer as CEO, not stand beside him. That may be the case, and the naming of this person would no doubt play into Microsoft’s CEO succession planning.
But in the short term, a wholesale ouster of Ballmer seems unlikely, barring something dramatic and unexpected inside the Microsoft board. The concept of giving the company a top technical leader might be something more pragmatic for shareholders grab onto and advocate if they’re interested in bringing about meaningful change.
As Microsoft’s CEO, Ballmer is no mere cheerleader. He has years of experience running the business. And despite his public persona, he’s highly analytical. During my first interview with him, in July 2003, I remember being surprised when he took to the white board like a college math professor to explain, with great precision, why he had decided to shift the company away from employee stock options.
This was not the caricature I had been expecting.
Ballmer knows how to sell and market technology. He listens to the company’s customers. And despite Microsoft’s stagnant stock during his tenure, the company has grown a series of new billion-dollar businesses on his watch. And at least as viewed from the outside, Microsoft has gotten better at integrating technologies across product groups, as evidenced by the incorporation of Bing into Windows Phone and the upcoming revamp of the Xbox Live media interface.
A few years later, the Apple and Google devices have redefined the way we use our phones, and reshaped the mobile market, forcing Microsoft to try to catch up. And now Android and iOS are powering machines that are chipping away at Microsoft’s flagship Windows business.
In the end, this is where those shareholders calling for Ballmer’s head may ultimately win their argument, at least in principle, if not in effect. Ballmer’s shortcoming isn’t as much his day-to-day oversight of the business, as it is the fact that he hasn’t put a technical wizard by his side at the top.