Do you need to be a programmer to run a software company?

Joel Spolsky, the CEO of Fog Creek Software -- and a one-time member of Microsoft's Excel team back in the early 1990s (Microsoft's "glory days") -- has a really great look back at the significance of the famed "BillG" reviews.

The parade of articles and blog posts on Bill Gates' legacy continue to roll out as Gates' last day as a full-time employee (June 27) rapidly approaches.

Joel Spolsky, the CEO of Fog Creek Software -- and a one-time member of Microsoft's Excel team back in the early 1990s (Microsoft's "glory days") -- has a really great look back at the significance of the famed "BillG" reviews.

It's Spolsky's take-away about surviving one of those reviews which most caught my attention:

"What did I take from all this? Bill Gates was amazingly technical, and he knew more about the details of his company's software than most of the people who worked on those details day in and day out. He understood Variants and COM objects and IDispatch and why Automation is different than vtables -- and why this might lead to dual interfaces. He worried about date and time functions. He didn't meddle in software if he trusted the people who were working on it, but you couldn't bullshit him for a minute because he was a programmer. A real, actual programmer.

"Watching nonprogrammers trying to run software companies is like watching someone who doesn't know how to surf trying to surf. Even if he has great advisers standing on the shore telling him what to do, he still falls off the board again and again. The cult of the M.B.A. likes to believe that you can run organizations that do things that you don't understand. But often, you can't."

The implication is Microsoft won't be the same without Gates at the helm. Ballmer is not a programmer; he is an MBA.

There are some out there who believe that Gates' time has passed. Time Magazine, last June, had this to say about Gates' pending retirement:

"Gates is probably getting out of technology at the right time. Funnily enough, it's not really a business for nerds anymore. Gates was at the center of the personal-computer revolution and the Internet revolution, but now the big innovations are about exactly the things he's bad at. The iPod was an aesthetic revolution. MySpace was a social revolution. YouTube was an entertainment revolution. This is not what Gates does. Technology doesn't need him anymore."

I don't buy that. I agree with Spolsky that one of the biggest reasons Gates' loss will be felt inside and outside of Redmond is his obsessive attention to technical detail.  At the recent Tech Ed Developers Conference in Orlando, Gates was addressing user questions about whether Microsoft planned to support the Unified Modeling Language (UML) in its "Oslo" technologies/products. It's clear Gates is not a guy who is phoning it in, despite the many demands on his time as he transitions to focus on the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

What's your two cents? Do you need to be a programmer to run a software company? Will the fact that CEO Steve Ballmer is more of a sales guy than a tech guy negatively affect the kinds of products, people and strategies which characterize Microsoft?

Newsletters

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All