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Executive Shakeup at Microsoft: Didn't That Already Happen?

If this is Steve Ballmer's version of spin, then Microsoft needs to put a merry-go-round on its Redmond campus. Because Steve's spinning so slowly and poorly that he's actually standing still, not unlike Microsoft's stock price.

Strong rumors this week have it that there's an executive shakeup on the way at Microsoft. Oh, really? There's one on the way? So the fairly recent departures -- for various reasons -- of, say, Ray Ozzie, Jeff Raikes, Stephen Elop, Robbie Bach and Bob Muglia didn't count as a shakeup? Ballmer released Bach and Muglia, and just kind of let Ozzie depart, but the shakeup is apparently still to come. Oh, do tell.

What Bloomberg is reporting in the story linked above is that Ballmer wants to put engineering types in charge of various Microsoft divisions and get the more business-minded folks out of the executive suites. That doesn't really explain why Ozzie and Muglia (among others) are gone, given that they fell much more on the engineering than on the business side of the spectrum.

The most revealing paragraph in the Bloomberg story, though, is this one:

"'You see the engineering team ascending because Steve is realizing that there is a need to execute on a vision and in order to do that you have to actually understand how software is built,' said Wes Miller, an analyst at the Kirkland, Washington-based research firm Directions on Microsoft. 'It's a whole other thing to be able to say, "I've been at Microsoft, I understand software, and what you are saying will or will not work."'"

Hmm, understand how software is built...decide what will or won't work...execute on a vision... You know who did that? You know who was maybe the best ever at doing all that, who made billions doing it? You know. It was Bill Gates. Yeah, there were anomalies, but for the most part Gates' sniff test of product suggestions was the best in the industry, and his scathing reviews of employees' ideas were as legendary as they were critical to Microsoft's success.

The truth is that Microsoft has never replaced Bill Gates successfully. Oh, sure, the company still makes billions of dollars. It's doing fine. Most of its partners are doing fine. But in terms of vision, even innovation -- and certainly in terms of market and business savvy -- nobody has stepped into Gates' shoes.

Ray Ozzie couldn't do it; he wasn't that type of executive. Ballmer has never done it. He has plenty of enthusiasm (and money) but lacks Gates' cunning in dominating markets and taking down competitors. Now Ballmer, who has made Microsoft very much his company in recent years, is trying to recapture the Gates magic with an only somewhat voluntary reshuffling of names on the company org chart.

It's not going to happen. Ballmer might succeed, and his rumored shakeup might be positive for Microsoft in the long run. But Microsoft is a different company operating in a different world now compared to what it was in the 1980s and '90s, and nobody there has thus far really shown the leadership to become the next Bill Gates. That's because there won't be a next Bill Gates. There was only one.

The really odd thing about Ballmer's alleged shakeup talk (remember, this is all still hearsay at this point) is that as part of his consolidation of power, he has made Microsoft a somewhat leaner, much more cost-focused company. Everybody in Redmond now works under the steely gaze of powerful COO Kevin Turner, who not only isn't an engineer but actually came to Microsoft from Walmart. He's not even a technology guy.

Together, Ballmer and Turner have slashed experimental projects (as well as jobs) and have cracked down on spending on anything that doesn't look like an absolutely guaranteed winner. If anything, there is less innovation at Microsoft now than there was 10 years ago -- or, at least, the atmosphere there is less amenable to new ideas and off-the-wall thinking.

All of the talk, then, about Ballmer wanting a more engineering-focused company with less influence from business types seems a bit odd, to say the least, given the power afforded the business-oriented Turner. And it also seems odd for Microsoft to be talking about an executive shakeup (although, to be fair, Microsoft has said nothing on the issue so far -- only "sources" have talked) given that most of the recently departed executives did the shaking themselves.

So goes life on the post-Gates Microsoft leadership merry-go-round. Round and around it goes, but where it stops—well, you get the idea.

What's your take on the leadership situation at Microsoft? Send it to lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on February 09, 2011 at 11:57 AM


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