Microsoft’s Satya Nadella On Outgoing CEO Ballmer’s Legacy, Management Style, And Vision

ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley today published an interview with Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, one of its key executives and a candidate to be its next CEO. The discussion as written focuses on the legacy and style of the company’s outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer, with whom Nadella has worked closely.

Given the CEO buzz about Nadella, his views, and criticisms of Ballmer matter. If you are at all interested in the internal dynamics of Microsoft, Foley’s piece is mandatory reading. I’ve selected a few short segments that are worth discussing here, but the full interview is worthy.

After asking Ballmer to vet his performance, especially in reference to his past work, his boss pushed aside the concept, according to Nadella:

He said, ‘Why does that matter? Look, this business is not about longevity of any idea. It’s all about inventing new formulas. So the thing that I would want to really evaluate you on and I want you super focused on is not how I did or anyone else did with any opportunity we had, because that’s not going to tell you anything about the future opportunity.

Microsoft is Windows and Windows is Microsoft, but that doesn’t mean that the company, let alone its main brand and platform, have remained static. In fact, the above Ballmer quote fits nicely into the last year of the company under his management.

Ballmer has overseen both a dramatic revamp of Microsoft business model — from software in a box to devices and services — and a reorg of its corporate structure. Those are both new formulas enacted under Ballmer.

Whoever becomes the next Microsoft CEO will be handed the keys to a very different car. The company that shipped Windows 7 is in many ways over. Azure, Office 365, Windows 8.1, Lumia, and the like are essentially products of a new generation. That generation will be Ballmer’s functional legacy, I think, more than the company’s stagnant (until this year) stock price.

Nadella agrees:

Steve’s contribution to broadly computing as well as to this company I think will be better told, quite frankly, in five, ten years when there’s more distance. It’ll be shaped by, in fact, what we do next.

Finally, as you probably expected given his bombastic persona, Ballmer is an aggressive manager:

You come up with an idea, he’ll say, ‘That’s the dumbest thing.’ Or, ‘I don’t buy that,’ But with him, you’ve got to just keep going back. You keep going back. […]┬áHe’s one of our best and most critical users of all our stuff, as we find out the hard way.

Foley conducted the interview a few weeks back, so we can’t really tell much about its timing in terms of reading the tea leaves about what it could mean for his changes in CEO Bingo.

Still, I think that the picture that is coming out of Nadella is that he’s a calm, technology-minded person who understands the enterprise space. In my (admittedly few) interactions with the guy, that’s the vibe I picked up.

In a way, the legacy of a CEO can be compared (if we avoid the comically disparate scales involved) to an outgoing president’s. Both often see during their tenure the launch of new products or initiatives that don’t come to full fruition until after they leave office. George W. Bush’s stellar legacy with AIDS in Africa is an example of this. His paintings are not. (And no, I am not comparing Ballmer to Bush, calm down.)

If the current crop of rumors is correct, we could see a new CEO for Microsoft by the end of the year. If that bears out, and it’s not Nadella, we can at least appreciate that in ten years’ time — at which point he will be a half decade shy of 60 — we’ll know who the frontrunner will be.

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