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Does Nadella Really Want Bill Gates Second-Guessing Him?

When Satya Nadella was in discussions with Microsoft's board to succeed Steve Ballmer as CEO, Nadella reportedly wanted to have Gates close at hand to advise him on technology and product strategy.

Perhaps that's true or maybe that was the message purposely leaked because it was the board and/or Gates who wanted the founder to work closely with the new CEO. Yesterday's news that Microsoft has tapped Nadella to take over as the company's CEO immediately is a huge milestone for the company. Yet the fact that Gates is handing off his seat as chairman to John Thompson to spend a third of his time working with Nadella and the product teams raises a number of questions.

Most notably, does Nadella really want Gates second-guessing him? Nadella is a 22-year veteran and has a strong understanding of Microsoft's legacy, business and technology and has the monumental task of taking the company forward. Whether you like him or not, Gates is a legend for bringing PCs and office productivity to the masses. But as Microsoft charges into the post-PC era, it's a very different world.

It's rather ironic considering Gates always envisioned the post-PC world but even when he was around, he never saw Microsoft making the transition. Most famously as CEO, Gates overlooked the growth of the Internet in the mid-1990s and, of course, had a hand in the Windows Vista fiasco. But most dramatically, despite having projects such as the WinPad and other mobile tablet efforts in the labs, Apple and Google beat Microsoft to the punch. Gates pooh-poohing the iPod and later the iPhone when it was still a Windows Mobile vs. Blackberry world were gaffes Microsoft is still trying to recover from, though Ballmer shares that blame as well.

Maybe it wasn't Nadella looking for the comfort of Gates' presence but a board that, even though it was confident in Nadella's ability to lead Microsoft, was aware that Wall Street wanted star power in the mix. Another possibility is Gates, as founder of the company, wanted to become more involved, as some sources told The Wall Street Journal. The board may have also offered Gates this new role to compensate for giving up his seat as chairman.

Just as Mary Jo Foley has often and once again pointed out, Gates' main focus in this chapter of his life is his focus on philanthropy -- and rightfully so. The notion that Gates will become more involved at this juncture for any significant period of time sounds questionable, as I also noted just a month before Ballmer announced his retirement. It's also debatable the extent Thompson and the board want Gates involved.

Gates is a brilliant person and I'm not suggesting he doesn't have a lot to offer to Nadella and the product chiefs at Microsoft. I just wonder if Gates' presence will be helpful or if it will hold Nadella and the company back. What do you think?

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 02/05/2014 at 1:58 PM


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