The end of the Gates Era

Bill Gates equals Microsoft.  No statement about a corporation is more true than that single statement.  Bill Gates is an industry icon, one of the legends who helped build the industry.  There are many Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Ray Ozzie, Paul Allen to name but a few.  But possibly, with the exception of Steve Jobs, no one individual has meant more to the success of an individual company than Bill Gates.  Which was why when he left Microsoft it left such an enormous empty space in the company.

In my early days at Microsoft, when I was new to the industry and new to computing, I sat in a cubicle managing the front lines of customer service.  I would receive a hundred calls a day ranging from feature questions about Word for Windows 1.1 to replacement parts for a MACH80 board.  It was trial by fire.  It was fantastic. To educate us the Product managers would often come over from Redmond to our building in Bellevue and provide us the latest details of a recently launched product or an upcoming product release.  In most instances they would talk about a recent product review they had with Bill Gates as during those days of a smaller company he was engaged in every aspect of product development.  Despite not being those meetings, in still felt like everyone in the company had a close personal connection to Bill Gates.

The Gates era did not end when he retired to focus on the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, it really ended when he stepped down as CEO and handed the reigns to his designated number two, Steve Ballmer.  I remember stepping off  of a plane in Atlanta seeing a TV screen right as I entered Hartsfield Airport terminal a  CNN Breaking News Alert with Bill announcing his plans to turn over the running of the day-to-day business of the company so he could focus more on setting the development strategy for Microsoft.    Looking back I could understand.  This was coming on the heels of the DOJ trial that weighed heavily on Bill (and everyone at the company) as it was not so much an attack on Microsoft as it was a personal attack on him.  He was tired.  In some ways it was a good thing as the companies strategy  at the time internally was getting very political as different groups pursued similar goals with different views of what technology to utilize.  Groups were fighting amongst one another. Bill quickly came in and settled those disputes as despite the change in roles Bill’s word was still law. 

During the next 8 years Bill’s voice became much softer at Microsoft. He was  no longer the front man in talking with the press and representing Microsoft.  Steve recognizing the growth at Microsoft set out upon a path of creating a dynamic corporate structure.  While Bill was always focused on technology and the promise of what it could deliver, Steve was reading Jack Welch and how he could create the next GE.  At the annual Microsoft Global Sales Summit, where the highlight was always the closing Bill Gates talk, it was now replaced with the prancing gorilla, Steve Ballmer.  Where the talk was usually a presentation of where Microsoft was technically and where it was going.  It was now replaced with talks of responsible corporate governance.  Technical junkies do not respond well to that type of mantra.  It is no wonder since Microsoft has seen a significant “brain drain” of talent.  The list is long – Paul Maritz, Ray Ozzie, Adam Bosworth, Bill Baker, Todd Nielsen, Brad Silverberg, Cameron Myrvold, Robbie Bach, Brian Valentine, Jim Alchin, Kai-Fu Lee, etc…More importantly since he has left it has been much harder for Microsoft to recruit top-level talent, as Bill was a great recruiter.

When he finally did leave, it was without much fanfare, outside of a funny Bill Gates last day video.  Bill had agonized with his wife Melinda and when he announced he provided a long lag time before he actually left – a little less than 2 years.  He checked out long before that day.  The reigns would be handed over to Ray Ozzie (who has sin ce departed) and Craig Mundie.  What has been left is a gaping hole devoid of leadership.  Microsoft has struggled with the weight of its own identity and its own history.  It was probably unavoidable that without Bill there would be no one individual or group of people who could fill the void left by a legend. 

In the end what has been most missed at Microsoft in Bill’s departure is the calming influence he could have with his words and classic emails.  The ability to craft a strategy that utilized all our assets and take it to the future in a cohesive strategy.  In doing so he inspired those beneath him to follow and follow with passion.  What Bill is doing now with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is monumental.  The fact that he is accumulated wealth that he has decided to try to change some of the big issues and challenges in the world should be admired.   But can Microsoft survive without his guidance may be the true legacy of the Gates era.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann Dec 13th, 2010

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