27 August 2013
The news is atwitter with Ballmer’s impending departure from Microsoft. I’ve read analysis from technical, business, financial, and investor perspectives. Some seems good, a lot seems like just noise.
I am personally rather ambivalent about his departure. I’ve met Ballmer, and even “opened” for him at a fairly large speaking event in Detroit (back when Detroit was reasonably vibrant). He is a very intense, focused, and intelligent man. Pretty much what you’d expect from the CEO of a megacorp.
(yes, I’m a hard-core cyberpunk fan, and if “megacorp” doesn’t apply to Microsoft, then it doesn’t apply to anyone!)
The reason I’m ambivalent has less to do with Ballmer than Microsoft itself. I think Microsoft has gotten itself into such a predicament (undoubtedly in part due to Ballmer’s leadership) that anyone stepping into the CEO role will have a major uphill climb. Of course they have a lot of great raw material to work with, because Microsoft is loaded with extremely smart and dedicated technologists, but they’ll also have such massive issues to overcome that it’ll be really challenging.
The way I look at it is this (keeping in mind that I’m an outsider with nearly 20 years of “insider” status – so I’ve had a great/close viewpoint from outside the company to watch things unfold, but I’ve never been an employee, so I’ve never actually been in the belly of the beast):
Microsoft is not a monolith. In fact, its culture breeds internal competition at a personal, departmental, product, and division level. It is really like a whole bunch of companies that are sometimes allied and sometimes bitter competitors with each other.
When BillG was active in the company he conducted what were infamously known as “BillG reviews”. I remember friends sweating as they prepped for these events, because their product or initiative or idea would live or die based on such a review. As a result of these reviews, a lot of stuff did die – or at least got merged into other products/initiatives. When BillG left these reviews stopped – or at least changed.
The thing is, Bill (who I’ve also met) is amazingly smart and focused, and always seemed to have some idea of everything that was going on across the whole company – at a pretty technical level. Perhaps that was illusion, but I don’t think so. I think he is really that smart, and was really that tuned into what was going on, not in small part because he reviewed everything at one time or another.
These “BillG reviews” provided a failsafe, or level of regulation, against wholesale internal competition within Microsoft. Once they stopped there was nothing to prevent everyone from pursuing their own goals, driven by their personal, departmental, and division motivations (largely staying employed, getting raises, getting bonuses, and doing cool work).
(please note, I’m not judging these motivations – we all share them – or if you don’t want to keep your job and make more money, etc. then you are an odd duck)
As a result we ended up with silly things like multiple new data access frameworks being released all in a year. I strongly believe that BillG would have killed all but one via his review process. But in the absence of any global oversight, we ended up with a confusing array of publically released data access frameworks. What a mess!!
The thing to keep in mind is that developing multiple solutions to a problem is deep in Microsoft’s DNA/culture. It has always worked that way. What was new after the BillG reviews stopped is that nobody prevented the previously-internal chaos from becoming public chaos. Chaos we all have to deal with as developers or consumers.
Ballmer is a sharp guy, but he’s no BillG. He doesn’t have the technical chops for it. Obviously Ray Ozzie didn’t either – or if he had the technical chops, he didn’t have the organizational power. Either way, he wasn’t what many of us hoped he’d be.
Will the next CEO have technical chops? I expect not. And that’s OK, as long as they figure out some way to tame the wild beast that is the individual/departmental/product/division sub-companies that comprise Microsoft. One way or another somebody or something needs to harness that internal innovation and energy, pruning the duplicate bits, and focusing effort toward some unified technical vision.
Personally I feel really bad for a lot of my friends and colleagues who’ve had to work in the chaos over the past many years. Perhaps they haven’t had to sweat out the prep for a “BillG review”, but they must have seen how the uncoordinated chaos was working against the overall interests of their company…
So Ballmer leaving makes me neither happy nor sad. He merely administrated over this chaos for a few years, and was perhaps a good cheerleader. The real question is whether his replacement will be another administrator, or a marketing wonk, or the puppet of investors – or perhaps we’ll get lucky and it will be someone who (if not a deep technologist themselves) understands the core of Microsoft – the power and depth of its technical resources, and the desperate need to focus those resources on a reasonably common goal.