Most Microsoft people get asked “Do you know Bill Gates” when we tell people where we work. We don’t all know Bill. Back in 2002, I spent a month “on attachment” in the building where he and Steve Ballmer had their offices. We were told “Don’t freak out if someone really important gets in the elevator with you, they find it a bit upsetting”. Bill’s third child had just been born, and we never saw him. Two of us walked past Steve Ballmer on the way to our car one evening, and without turning our heads or even moving our lips managed to say “Was that … ?” “Yes.. Keep walking … just keep walking”
In my new job as an Evangelist, I think about the issues of scale: engaging with all the people who want to have different conversations with us isn’t easy. Here in Britain, more people use Windows each week than use the National Health Service, but we have only two thousand people and they have over two HUNDRED thousand – and for one IT project they’re spending between £34,000 and £100,000 per employee (that’s $63-185,000 US). Stop the average Briton in the street and ask who is in charge of the NHS and 5 top brand name companies – say Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Nokia, McDonalds and Toyota, and you’ll only get Bill’s name. I once asked a self employed consultant, who spoke at a “Customer focus day”, why he said he expected a personal relationship with Microsoft but not (for example) BMW. He couldn’t really isolate a reason, “But I know your Chairman. I’ve no idea who runs BMW”. Maybe Coca-Cola makes people think of the contour bottle, McDonalds the golden arches logo, and Nokia that ring tone. “Do you know Bill Gates?” is a sign that Microsoft’s is personified as its chairman You’d be hard put to find anyone here wouldn’t like that to change. As Bill himself said on Thursday . “The world has had a tendency to focus a disproportionate amount of attention on me. In reality, Microsoft has always had an unbelievable strong depth and breadth of technical talent”
We all knew there would be a Microsoft without Bill one day. He turned 50 last year and the most popular guess was he’d turn to the foundation full time at 55, so the date we have to get along without our founder has been set, and set sooner than we planned. There will be a Microsoft after Steve Ballmer too. He turned 50 earlier this year, and he and Bill can’t both be handing over at the same time. If Steve wants to announce 2 years ahead that he will retire on his 55 birthday (he hasn’t shared his retirement plans with me … but if he did) that would be in the Spring of 2009, and Bill’s transition to part time chairman is from summer 2008. If you want to believe in conspiracy (and personally I prefer to believe in cock-up), this piece of Thursday’s press conference shows that Ballmer’s wishes were considered in Gates’ plans. “For the last couple years, I started a discussion with Steve about how to shift my priorities and yet maintain strong ties to Microsoft. After careful consideration, Steve and I decided to announce ….
The succession was well planned, and Bill’s talks with Steve go back before we bought Groove, and got Ray Ozzie – who has assumed the title of Chief Software Architect. Did they have this in mind at the time of the take over? Few know for sure, and I’m not one of them, but what are the chances it didn’t cross anyone’s mind ? There will be life after Ray, as well. By a staggering co-incidence he was born a few weeks after Bill and 4 months before Steve. My guess is when the time comes his replacement will be one of the guys Bill name-checked on Thursday
Robert Scoble is also leaving Microsoft. Some people are making a big deal of losing Gates and Scoble together. Hugh McLeod wrote that Robert was the canary in the coal mine. And Microsoft’s just lost their canary. Very few parts of Microsoft stand comparison with a coal mine (even I wouldn’t describe my old job as a grim, dark hole which tries to kill you). Nor was Robert ever a caged bird. Bill’s words about disproportionate attention could have come from Robert. Actually, what Robert said was “I’m not the only blogger at Microsoft. There are about 3,000 of them here. They are not having the plug pulled on them. They changed the world. I just was the cheerleader”
Robert links to Michael Gartenberg at Jupiter Research, who says “Robert’s a good guy and has done a lot of good for Microsoft but this isn’t that big a deal. Robert doesn’t write code, ship product, create marketing campaigns or sell software. That’s why this doesn’t mean a lot nor will it likely have any impact. As my grandfather was fond of saying, “the cemeteries are full of people who couldn’t be replaced”. Michael’s grandfather’s quote (which he liked enough to use in his post about Bill leaving) was made famous by General De Gaulle who said “The graveyards are full of indispensible men” – my Dad likes that quote too. No one is indispensible, not Bill, nor Robert nor Steve, nor Ray. And they get that, even if others (like Hugh) don’t. There are thousands of people besides Scoble who realise that (borrowing from De Gaulle) “PR is too important to be left to the PR people.”
One of the subtexts of “Do you know Bill” is the assumption he runs everything. This view seems widespread among Microsoft critics: one moment they will criticize Vista for being late and complicated (observing it is complexity that causes projects – like that NHS one – to take longer and cost more than they should). The next moment , they will talk about this or that change that Bill commanded, as if he micro-manages Vista, and Office too, plus X-box and IP-TV in the home, Windows Live and Office Live on the internet, Windows Mobile … everywhere, and Exchange, SQL, Biztalk, SMS, MOM and so on in businesses. De Gaulle famously said “One Cannot simply bring together a country that has 265 kinds of cheese”, nor can one simply bring together a single detailed view of 265 kinds of software (I suspect we have more than that)
There is only thing to do when you realise you have quoted De Gaulle 3 times, and that is to end quickly with a quote from Churchill: Bill and Robert should follow their passions and I wish will them well. Hugh McLeod wrote “What does this really say about Microsoft? To me it says, “Party Over”, no Hugh
“This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”
This post originally appeared on my technet blog.