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Should Microsoft trade rain for fog? Photo by Mark Dalmulder, via Flickr
Should Microsoft trade rain for fog? Photo by Mark Dalmulder, via Flickr

Put down the coffee and take a deep breath before you read this one.

In his new column for Forbes, business consultant and strategist Peter Cohan contends that new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella should move the company to San Francisco. His argument, in essence, is that Seattle’s culture is too soft to challenge Microsoft to be innovative.

New Microsoft chairman John Thompson addresses employees last week as new CEO Satya Nadella, left, and former CEO Steve Ballmer look on. (Microsoft photo)

“If it is serious about innovation it needs to move where the innovation is happening so that its new business creators will be in entrepreneurial soil that values betting big on transforming enormous markets instead of playing bureaucratic games to hang on to a comfortable job until retirement,” Cohan writes.

He writes, “Today the most fertile ground for entrepreneurship is shifting from Silicon Valley to San Francisco. And that is where Microsoft must move if it hopes to break free of the yearning for a pension that keeps its people from the kind of thinking and action that spurs innovation that could accelerate Microsoft’s revenue growth.”

He adds, “There would clearly be significant turnover from people who did not want to move. But some of that might open positions for people who are more entrepreneurial. Attracting and motivating that talent in San Francisco would require Nadella to manage differently.”

Cohan delivers an indictment not only of Seattle’s tech workers and entrepreneurs but also of its venture capitalists and angel investors, quoting former Microsoftie and Clipboard founder Gary Flake to support his argument that an overall aversion to risk is bringing the Seattle region down.

It’s easy to pick apart the stereotypes in Cohan’s assessment of Seattle’s tech community and Microsoft’s workforce. From his perch somewhere outside of Boston, he also overlooks the emerging competitive dynamic between Microsoft and Amazon, especially the way the two companies are battling for talent and market share in cloud computing, and making each other better in the process.

He misses the influx of Silicon Valley and San Francisco companies into the Seattle region, with companies including Google, Twitter, Facebook and many others running large engineering centers here. He also ignores the fact that Microsoft already has a substantial presence in Silicon Valley.

But with Seattle native Bill Gates stepping down as Microsoft chairman, replaced by Silicon Valley tech exec John Thompson, this promises to be a recurring topic, or at least an ongoing concern, in a region that still remembers the sting from the departure of Boeing’s headquarters. So the healthy response in this case might be candid introspection, vs. quick rebuttal.

So is there any truth to what Cohan writes? And if so, can the Seattle region seize the opportunity of Microsoft’s leadership transition to make our tech community even stronger? 

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