Microsoft's geeks might miss Gates the most

One of the most disheartening things that can happen in any job is when the boss that inspired you, the one you loved to learn from and who made a grueling job more bearable leaves the building. It may be no different at Microsoft this week, as the "geeks" or the software people at Microsoft that were Bill Gates's biggest fan club mourn his departure.

One of the most disheartening things that can happen in any job is when the boss that inspired you, the one you loved to learn from and who made a grueling job more bearable leaves the building. It may be no different at Microsoft this week, as the "geeks" or the software people at Microsoft that were Bill Gates's biggest fan club mourn his departure.

As my colleague Mary Jo Foley has duly noted, Microsoft has operated during its 33-year history largely as a partnership between a "dynamic duo," the tech-focused Gates and the sales-focused Ballmer.

"Now that it's going to be Ballmer alone running the show, some of the more tech-focused Microsoft developers (known internally as "Bill's Guys") and products that Gates championed could end up falling by the wayside," Foley explained.

Joel Spolsky, CEO of Fog Creek Software and a former Microsoft employee talks about his admiration for Gates's technical prowess in a July 2008 Inc. column, but warns of what can happen when the business guys take leadership of the techies.

"Watching nonprogrammers trying to run software companies is like watching someone who doesn't know how to surf trying to surf," writes Spolsky. "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."

But not everyone is so worried.

Laura DiDio, a research fellow with the Yankee Group, disagrees that Gates's departure could be bad for some facets of Microsoft's employees, reasoning that it's been a very long, well-planned transition and Gates is not leaving, but changing the distribution of his time.

"I think that it was certainly like that in the past but I think that those lines of demarcation [between Gates's people and Ballmer's people] have been blurred in recent years virtually to the point of indistinction. Ballmer was the sales guy, Gates oversaw a lot of the technology and there will be changes, but I think they've known this was coming for a while," said DiDio.

Peter O'Kelly, a Burton Group analyst, thinks that those who are concerned about the loss of Microsoft's pure-tech focus are actually longing for days that are long past.

"It's not about the transition from Gates to Ballmer but about the transition from a 2,000 person company to being a 90,000 person company," O'Kelly said. "It's not about who's sitting in the big chair but the fact that Microsoft has become as complex as the central government of a medium-sized nation."

It remains to be seen whether Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's Chief Software Architect who is seen in both the industry and the company as both a tech pioneer and visionary, despite saying that he is no Gates, will try to fill the Gates' void--or at the least, serve as a buffer between the geeks and the suits. But there is little doubt that a certain faction of Microsoft employees will be looking to him with hope.

"Ray Ozzie is a really deep techie guy. He may not be as visible or outspoken as Gates but I don't think that there is any question that Ray is someone who is going to be a great, inspirational leader to people who are serious about technology," said O'Kelly.

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