Ray Ozzie at Microsoft – A review

With the announcement of Ray Ozzie’s pending departure i t seemed to be a good time to finish a blog I had started many months ago.  Partly with this announcement in mind. It seemed apparent for some time while at Microsoft and after I was gone that Ray had become very silent. It was also pretty clear that the rumors that Ray and SteveB never talked were true.  It ended with Ray not even participating in Microsoft’s company meeting recently held at the hollowed venue: Safeco Field.  It’s good to look back on Ray’s time at Microsoft and what to expect moving forward.

To start let me be clear: In the tech industry Ray Ozzie is a legend.  When Microsoft acquired his company Groove Networks, what really happened was Microsoft acquired Ray Ozzie.  The happiest person on campus was probably also his biggest fan, Bill Gates.  It was like two kids in a candy store.  Two men who were software guys who had helped create the tech industry now together talking about the power and impact that software could have on day-to-day lives, what could be better?  As time would move and Bill Gates would move on it was apparent that Ray would be the new Chief Software Architect.

Early on Ray would send an important memo around the company called the “Internet Services Disruption”.  It as important at the time because this was the type of memo that BillG would send which would have great impact in mobilizing the forces at Microsoft as to what the new company imperative should be.  When I read it it was what I viewed as a brilliant piece of work.  Not just because of what he viewed the challenges would be moving forward, but some of the great technologies we already had to meet these challenges.  In some cases they were things that maybe had lost their pizzaz but when Ray took a fresh look at them he saw value. An example was technologies like AJAX and DHTML which were created at Microsoft and fueled a lot of growth on the internet (AJAX was more evangelized by Google, but invented by MS). It was those set of fresh eyes on our assets that impressed me so much.  It was a brilliant memo and one that seemed to lay the ground work for who would be fueling the vision post Bill Gates.

Where did  it then go wrong?  I can point to a number of instances.  I will start with my own Ray Ozzie experience.  He was speaking in Silicon Valley and the topic of Bill Gates “Think Week” came up.  BillG had done this for years.  Anyone could submit a paper to BillG’s “Think Week”.  He  would then accept papers and go to his compound in Hood Canal and armed with just a personal chef read and review all the papers submitted.  When he got back he would post all the papers so we as employees could see what was on his mind.  Some papers were about the future, others about internal Microsoft technology challenges.  It was a fascinating read.  When asked if he as going to do one, Ray as blunt, “No that was really a Bill thing”.   I was not impressed.  In fact I was so upset about it I sent him an email.  It was pretty simple, but my point was firm.  Microsoft is a technical company, with very technical people.  These people crave this type of peer review.  Especially from some one like Ray Ozzie.  I said in the email “don’t sell your self short, people really do want to hear your opinions”.  Ray did reply to me saying thank you and being very gracious.  I guess in the end it was something he did not want to do.

A second area was just Ray’s personality.  He was not a comfortable speaker.  I am not saying he was bad.  When Ray spoke people listened.  Anyone in the tech industry wanted to hear hat he had to say.  But everything about Ray was about a guy who was most comfortable in a meeting room with a whiteboard.  Everything I heard internally was when he was doing this he usually wowed the people in the room.  He was a classic wingman.  Loved operating behind the scenes and influencing those around him.  Front and center was just not a big driver for Ray.

Finally there was the cult of Steve and Bill.  I was once told by someone at Microsoft that the company suffered from a cult of personality.  It was personified in Steve and Bill.  Ray was Bill’s choice to replace him.  That however does mean that Steve had to accept it, despite the title bestowed upon Ray of Chief Software Architect.  The relationship between Steve and Bill was very close, forged over 30 years,  I would also say it was not one of pure peers.  Steve would often say it is “Bill’s Company”, much to the annoyance of other execs.  My impression was despite the outside perception they worked in tandem, Steve deferred and I think to a degree was in awe of Bill.  When Bill left it would be a void no one could fill.  Ray was put in a position to fail.

With Ray’s departure it raises the question “Who will provide the technical leadership, the technical vision for Microsoft?”.  Yet another tech legend is leaving Microsoft.  It is paramount that someone is there to anticipate the tidal wave changes that impact the industry, because when they come, they come fast, furious, and with no remorse.  Are there candidates?  Hard to say at this point.  In his announcement SteveB said there would be no new Chief Software Architect.  No one to set the internal trends for future software development.  Oh well I guess it is not really that important to have a visionary at the worlds largest software company.  All I can add is pathetic.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann Oct 19, 2010

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