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Will Microsoft be directionless without Bill Gates?

In her book, <i>Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era</i>, Mary Jo Foley predicts that "a Gates-less Microsoft is going to be a directionless Microsoft--at least for the near term." I disagree.

Dan Farber
4 min read

Bill Gates will step away from the day-to-day activities at Microsoft in about a month to focus his estimable intellect and energy on his nonprofit work, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He will remain chairman of the company.

Dan Farber

As the figurehead, spiritual leader and most forceful personality at the company he founded in 1975, Gates will be missed in some of the daily skirmishes and debates over technology issues and how Microsoft wages its battles with Google, Apple, Oracle, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the European Union. But, Gates gave up the CEO title to Steve Ballmer in January 2000 and his chief software architect title to Ray Ozzie in June 2006.

In her new book, Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era, Mary Jo Foley wrote that "a Gates-less Microsoft is going to be a directionless Microsoft--at least for the near term. The existing set of to managers is too mired in old thinking and old ways to turn the Redmond ship quickly."

I asked Mary Jo if she thought Gates was able to inject his way of thinking about software and business within the Microsoft DNA. "I don't think anyone thinks like Gates at Microsoft. Jeff Raikes was the most like him, in the way he could look ahead for what's coming in technology and put it in a way that everybody could understand it, but he is retiring this fall," she said.

She goes on to say that without Gates leading the charge and with too many MBAs in leadership positions, Microsoft cannot be successful in the next decade of its existence:

"If Microsoft were still the company it was 10 or 20 years ago, with the simultaneously ruthless and cautious Gates at the helm, I'd have no qualms predicting that the Redmond vendor will be successful in its next decade-plus transition. But can a company that is becoming more and more MBA-heavy (not to mention employee heavy, with a workforce approaching 100,000 when/if the Yahoos are added) be guaranteed of continued success in an ever more technology-driven, nimble and Web-centric world. In a word, no.

I think that the "ruthless" and "cautious" Gates she describes (I would say "intense" and "relentless" for the graying Bill Gates) has prepared the way for a succession that won't adversely affect the company. Ballmer already knows how Gates thinks and has his ear. They have been working side-by-side for over 30 years. It wasn't only Ballmer who missed the Internet the first time around.

Gates has spent time with Ozzie and hundreds of other top managers over the years, and they must be clued into his work ethic and way of thinking. They have been to the Bill Gates school of software development, envisioning and business management. That doesn't mean they start rocking in their chairs as Gates does or they sprinkle the word "super" in their orations. Ozzie has a more genial style than Gates, but there is more than one way to communicate a software architecture vision.

No one can replace Gates--that is not the point. Microsoft is in several businesses and generates more than $50 billion in revenue and a very healthy profit. The company is fighting battles on a lot of fronts, especially with Google, which could generate nearly half the revenue Microsoft does just selling search ads. That's not something Gates has been able to fix during the last few years.

What Gates brought to Microsoft was a focus, intellect, and tenaciousness that propelled the company forward. It was a culture that thrived on having the smartest kids on the block, who had all the confidence in the world, and enjoyed vanquishing established giants like IBM. Now Microsoft is the giant and Google has many of the smartest kids on the block and supreme confidence, sometimes interpreted as arrogance.

As chairman, Gates is not going away. If a crisis arises, he will be in the middle of it. Gates could also pull a Michael Dell, who handed the reigns of his company over to Kevin Rollins, but retook the CEO job when the company's performance faltered three years later.

But the challenge for Microsoft isn't filling Gates' role in the company or that Microsoft will be directionless without Gates, but in getting the smartest kids on the block to come and build products for 16 hours a day. This is where Mary Jo gets it right. Microsoft needs to attract the best and brightest. That requires an inspired leader who the troops believe can take them to the promised land. It remains to be seen if the software+services vision led by Gates and carried on by Ozzie and his team will be innovative enough to attract the talent and technical brilliance needed for the next decade of Microsoft.

Below is an interview I did with Mary Jo about the her views on Microsoft's future:

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