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Jason Zander, Microsoft’s Azure chief, speaks at a past company event. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota.)

Microsoft Azure Executive Vice President Jason Zander has worked for many different companies, despite the fact that he’s worked at Microsoft his entire career.

He started working for Microsoft in 1992, a few years before the Windows 95 launch cemented the company’s place at the center of the tech industry. In the years that followed, Microsoft was the subject of an antitrust lawsuit, the smartphone become the center of the tech industry, and a philosophy of software development diametrically opposed to Microsoft’s worldview became the driving force behind enterprise software.

Those titanic industry shifts forced Microsoft to change gears many times as it searched for direction and vision. And throughout that all, according to current and former colleagues, Zander was known for supporting the team, putting his head down and getting the job done, no matter what the job entailed. Call him Microsoft’s 12th Man, as an homage to his beloved Seattle Seahawks.

In his new role, overseeing perhaps the strongest contender to dent Amazon Web Services’ big lead in cloud infrastructure computing, Zander has a different sort of challenge. His elevation to lead Azure and core Windows development builds on years of experience building tools for software developers, and he must strike a balance between the all-out developer lovefest that Microsoft has put on over the past year with the corporate buyer types whose knowledge of code is limited to unlocking their smartphones.

In a recent conversation with GeekWire, Zander acknowledged that task is a little easier now that Microsoft seems to have settled on a direction for the 21st century.

“I can say from personal experience that over the last five years, we’ve been more aligned as a company and contributing together as a ‘One Microsoft’ banner than we ever have,” he said. (We’ll be sure to ask Microsoft Azure CTO Mark Russinovich for his take on that notion at our GeekWire Cloud Tech Summit, June 27th in Bellevue.)

Jason Zander (left) and Ben Golub announce Microsoft-Docker partnership at Microsoft Ignite 2016 (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

In some ways, Microsoft’s own journey over the past few decades from old-school packaged software to software-as-a-service is reassuring to potential customers, he said, given that many enterprise companies are still struggling to figure this out themselves. “I had another partner this morning (who) was asking, ‘Can you come talk to us and explain what you did?'” he said.

Zander, who graduated from Minnesota State University in 1992 with a computer science degree, has been a key leader on the Azure team for several years, but it took some time for Azure to become more than just a Windows-oriented cloud. Microsoft’s embrace of Linux is well-established at this point, and a central part of its decision to spend $7.5 billion on GitHub this past week, but that wasn’t always the case.

Prior to joining the Azure team, Zander had spent years creating, developing, and refining .NET, Microsoft’s longtime development platform. But around that time, at the beginning of Barack Obama’s second term, Microsoft began discussing a move that few would have even joked about just a few years prior: releasing .NET as an open-source project.

S. “Soma” Somasegar, longtime Microsoft executive and current managing partner at Madrona Venture Group, recalled much discussion and debate around the issue among the .NET leadership team. In his recollection, Zander was an early convert to the groundbreaking step for Microsoft, and in late 2014 Microsoft’s rehabilitation within the open-source world began in earnest.

“He is a guy who sort of thinks about what matters, is focused on what matters, and spends all of his energy working on teams,” Somasegar said. “He just gets things done, amazingly well.”

A lot of those important but difficult decisions are in Microsoft’s rearview mirror in late 2018, freeing the company to look out into the future and plot its course. During that period, of course, AWS carved out a huge chunk of the cloud infrastructure market that Azure is chasing, and Google also finally woke up to the fact that its world-class computing infrastructure could make it money in more than one way.

“It’s an exciting market that’s moving very quickly and of course, I think all of us are working hard to compete and earn business,” Zander said. “It’s moved incredibly fast and yet, as you look out at the rest of the landscape, it’s still pretty early.”

AWS offered the most mature array of infrastructure services for years, but Microsoft and Google have caught up in a lot of the basic areas. Zander offered a subtle preview of what might become Microsoft Azure’s marketing strategy as the cloud vendors look to differentiate themselves using more than just their tech cred.

A Microsoft Azure data center. (Microsoft Photo)

“There’s even competitive aspects of which (cloud) vendor do I want to choose, especially if a lot of the functionality is getting pretty similar. You know, is this done by your competitor? Do I trust them with my data?” he said, hitting AWS and Google in familiar places.

When it comes to the cloud, it’s sometimes amazing to realize that for all the work that’s been done over the past decade, most enterprise companies are still putting together their computing infrastructure the old-fashioned way. The hot cloud-native technologies of today — containers and serverless computing — might give way to something else very quickly, and there’s no reason to think any of the three major U.S. cloud companies pouring money into computing capacity couldn’t beat their rivals to that next big thing.

Zander singled out two areas of future investment that he personally finds exciting: Microsoft’s work with mixed reality and enterprise computing, and quantum computing: “just because I love physics.” As he takes on his biggest role at the company he’s worked at for pretty much his whole life, he’ll need to keep one eye on the future while making sure Microsoft wins enough business in the present to allow it to make those investments.

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