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Microsoft Server and Tools: Nadella Takes Command

First off, let's make one thing perfectly clear: All the talk about an executive shakeup at Microsoft is media-driven; it's not actually coming from Microsoft.

Sure, changes are happening, but our take yesterday that suggested that Steve Ballmer is failing as a spin doctor was off -- Microsoft, in fact, isn't really saying anything at all about its executive shuffle. (Literally, spokespeople won't make an official statement on it. Yes, we called and checked.) There's no spin coming from the Greater Seattle area, then. So, shame on us for becoming part of the media frenzy. We usually like to avoid things like that.

Nevertheless, we stand by our take that Microsoft has never really replaced Bill Gates and won't be able to. Again, that doesn't mean that the company is down for the count -- that's not the case at all. But what we've seen these last couple of weeks with a major change in the company's executive ranks illustrates what we're talking about.

Microsoft this week divulged the promotion of Satya Nadella to president of its Server and Tools Business. This was a great choice. Your editor remembers Nadella from a few Convergence shows a few years back; the Microsoft executive used to head the company's Dynamics enterprise-software business.

Nadella is an extremely capable executive who has done what few people at Microsoft have had to do in recent decades: He has fought from behind in markets dominated by other companies. He helped turn Dynamics into a legitimate alternative to long-entrenched offerings from Oracle, SAP and Sage. And he has managed to put Bing on the map -- while it hasn't caught Google, the Microsoft search engine is a bigger success than many pundits (we're looking at ourselves here...) thought it would be.

The only slightly odd thing here is that Nadella is a 19-year Microsoft veteran, meaning he's not exactly going to be a revolutionary in Redmond. That's probably not a bad thing, as outsiders (see Ozzie, Ray) don't always fit in well at Microsoft. But what does Nadella have that Bob Muglia, his ousted predecessor, didn't have? We're not sure. Steve Ballmer must know (hopefully), but we don't.

(What we do know is that Nadella has a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin, and that permits us once again to post something related to TCU's victory in the 2011 Rose Bowl. It's just the gift that keeps on giving -- and it's only February, folks. Football season doesn't start again until September...)

Then there's the consequence of Ballmer's decision to promote Nadella, namely the departure of Amitabh Srivastava, a senior vice president in Server and Tools. Now, obviously, Ballmer made a calculated move in choosing Nadella, and we'd like to think that he knew that Nadella's promotion would lead to Srivastava's departure. Such is the nature of the corporate game.

But while we're huge Nadella fans here at RCPU, we're still not sure how much of this move was cold calculation on the part of Ballmer and how much of it was floundering. In this case, Ballmer dismissed Muglia, so he seems to be in control of this situation. But what about some of the other recent executive departures, notably that of Ray Ozzie? How much control did Ballmer have over those, and how many of his subsequent executive moves have been a sort of assertion of power and compensation for the exits of Ozzie and other execs Ballmer might like to have kept around?

Ballmer might be getting everything right. Or he might, as we suggested yesterday, be trying to create an executive elixir -- with what ingredients are left in Redmond -- in a futile attempt to rekindle the magic of the Bill Gates good ol' days. If the former is the case, great. If it's the latter, however, there's going to be a lot of frustration ahead for Microsoft and its partners. Is this Steve Ballmer, leader, moving his company in a positive direction? Or is it Steve Ballmer, abandoned CEO, trying to make a difficult situation look better than it really is? We'll find out eventually.

What are your thoughts on Steve Ballmer's executive moves? Send them to lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on 02/10/2011 at 1:23 PM


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