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Partners Liked Gates' New Role in 2014, And He's Still At It

When Microsoft elevated Satya Nadella to CEO in 2014, the company simultaneously announced that co-founder and chairman Bill Gates would be stepping down to a regular seat on the board but taking on a bigger tech advisory role for Nadella.

"I'm thrilled that Satya has asked me to step up, substantially increasing the time that I spend at the company," Gates said in a welcome video accompanying Nadella's promotion to CEO in February 2014. "I'll have over a third of my time available to meet with product groups, and it will be fun to define this next round of products, working together."

At the time, partners told RCP in a quick, informal poll that they really liked that idea. As we noted in our March 2014 cover story, "CEO 3.0":

A majority felt Bill Gates' decision to spend more time at Microsoft helping Nadella would be a positive, and half described themselves as "reinvigorated about Microsoft" as a result of the C-level and boardroom changes, which also included Gates being replaced by former Symantec Corp. CEO John Thompson as chairman.

Although you don't hear about the tech advisory role very often anymore, partners who approved of Gates getting more technically involved in Redmond should be happy to hear that he's still at it.

Most of the headlines Gates makes these days relate to his philanthropic work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or to his default role as a public intellectual. He's frequently quoted on topics ranging from technology trends to global health to economics to environmental issues to his current reading list. Only rarely is Gates deployed by Microsoft as an intentional public spokesman. Usually any Microsoft-related comments he makes come up in the context of interviews about the Foundation.

Nonetheless, in a pre-recorded Wired video segment about key moments in Gates' life and career that was posted last week, Gates confirmed that he's still putting in time with engineers and technical strategists in Redmond.

"Even to this day I do some architecture things on the various products," Gates said during the segment.

Microsoft hasn't been secretive about Gates' continuing technical involvement. In an early 2017 interview, Gates revealed that his attention within Microsoft was focused on natural language, virtual assistants and various ways to be more contextual about user information. Rather, it's been more of an issue of emphasis.

When Nadella took over as CEO, Microsoft made a point to communicate that Gates would be getting more involved on a week-to-week basis with the company than he had been during the latter part of Steve Ballmer's tenure as CEO.

At the time, Gates' technical advisor role was widely viewed as a critical step to reassure investors that Nadella, who was less well-known on Wall Street than he was in Silicon Valley, would be able to handle the CEO job.

Most of those concerns have evaporated as Microsoft stayed near the forefront of a historic run in tech stocks over the last few years. Microsoft's stock value has roughly tripled on Nadella's watch. "He's done a good job of repositioning the company in investors' minds," Ballmer said of Nadella during an interview with Bloomberg in July.

Microsoft's unstated reason for involving Gates -- to calm investors -- is no longer as important. On the other hand, the surface-level reason -- leveraging one of the sharpest minds in the business of technology -- is as strong as ever.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 22, 2018