Bill Gates’ widely-reported departure from Microsoft yesterday is the kind of event that aptly evokes cliches like "end of an era". Demonised by many, revered by others, Gates’ exit has been a remarkably gradual and more importantly a managed affair. As a Microsoft employee of 5-10 years ago, I recall the beginning of the end vividly. Despite working for IBM, I’ve been personally touched by the moment.
Steve Ballmer has been the (rather unimpressive) CEO for the last 8 years. I understand from insiders that Bill & Steve first spoke about Gates retiring in 2004. Ray Ozzie, arguably the best hire at Microsoft in recent times, has been doing the Chief Software Architect job for some time now. Since it was announced 2 years ago, there have been endless pieces in the media on Bill leaving from almost every angle. Over the last week, the media coverage has been extraordinary, particularly in blogs.
But it’s not just a media feeding frenzy. Just 2 days ago, a former colleague from Microsoft in Melbourne retired after 15 years. I wasn’t the only one of the "old guard" at his small invitation-only farewell celebration. A few of them still work there; only 3 of us don’t. Despite the intimacy of the gathering, the guy leaving couldn’t help himself making an oblique reference to Gates "having his Microsoft chip removed too". The mood in the room was palpable.
Both Steve & Bill were brought to tears in public at the handing-over of a scrapbook on the final day. They’re not the only ones weeping. Ballmer and his team have their work cut out for them. New threats to (and opportunities for) Microsoft are everywhere – Google & Apple among them. The majority of the senior leadership in Redmond are long-time employees. The company is bigger than ever. Can the old guard change something so big and commercially successful?
Calls for Ballmer to retire are mounting. The disappointment with Windows Vista alone would have brought any other CEO unstuck. It has certainly cost some senior execs their jobs. Renewal may well need to come with new blood at the top. Changing the company sooner rather than later is widely thought to be a decisive factor in its future. Shedding the tarnish of the anti-trust case(s) will need some serious successful delivery of new and better products & services, not just marketing, PR and perception-management. Buying Yahoo was never going to do it.
If "cloud computing" and wireless handheld devices are the future, no wonder Google & Apple are doing so well. Eric Schmidt & Steve Jobs must feel just wonderful, as they were both roundly beaten when they competed with Microsoft before. Personally, I’ve been waiting for Microsoft to offer me me everything as an online consumer that they offered me as an online employee. 5 years after leaving Microsoft. I’m still waiting for much of it.
Change doesn’t often happen until the pain of staying the same exceeds the perceived worst-case pain of change. If that day comes for Microsoft, as it did for IBM in their near-death experience of the early 1990s, it will be traumatic. Maybe a changing of the guard will help.