Top Microsoft exec calls it quits

The Microsoft brain drain continues as Tod Nielsen says it's time to go back to being an entrepreneur

Another senior Microsoft official is heading for greener pastures. Tod Nielsen, vice president of developer marketing, becomes the latest in a string of high-profile departures from the software maker. Nielsen plans to join a startup.

"I've got three offers that I'm considering seriously" he said. "I'll decide where I'm going in the next week."

Still, Nielsen's departure follows upon the heels of last week's sweeping judicial breakup decree, a turn of events that analysts say will invariably challenge the company's ability to retain top executives.

In recent months, former company hot shots such as Nathan Myrhvold and Pete Higgins decided to leave the company. And group vice president Jim Allchin, a key Microsoft strategist, is leaving for a two-month sabbatical amid uncertainty about whether he plans to extend his leave indefinitely.

"It's a little bit sad and unfair in the way the timing worked out, but it's just a case of new horizons," Nielsen said, adding that he notified Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Paul Maritz about his intentions in April.

However, he did allow that it became increasingly difficult to foster a sense of working for a small group as the complexities and interdependencies involved in participating on core business projects at Microsoft intruded.

The 35-year-old executive had been with Microsoft since 1988 -- before Windows became a popular seller and before the Internet.

More recently, Nielsen had been catapulted to prominence by virtue of his advisory role during the Microsoft antitrust trial in Washington, DC. Long before that cameo role, he was one of the key executives who helped guide the software maker's entry into the database market with Access, a project he said was probably his most lasting contribution.

More recently, Nielsen was sent out on the road, where he was charged with presenting what he jokingly referred to as "the kinder face of Microsoft".

"The point was to let folks know that we're not evil people with fangs, but people who care about customers and are passionate about technology," he said. Before joining Microsoft twelve years ago, Nielsen ran his own database company in the Seattle area.

"One thing I learned is that when times were good, they were great, and when they were bad, they were really bad," he said. Still, Nielsen confessed, he had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.

"Bill, Steve and Paul were certainly disappointed, and they did everything to keep me there, but it was time for me to move to the next chapter of my life," he said. "I wanted to do my own thing again. My market value to try my own thing was high, and it was just a good time."

In an e-mail interview, Maritz described Nielsen as an important member of the team who did a "great job communicating Microsoft's product strategy and technical information with software developers throughout the world".

Another former senior Microsoft executive, Brad Silverberg, recalled that Nielsen "was very good at taking difficult technical developer concepts and communicating them to a broad audience in appealing and comprehensible terms. He made hard things sound much simpler."

Nielsen, a self-described "geek," found himself in the eye of the storm when he was suddenly called in to provide air support to Microsoft's attorneys during the company's antitrust trial last fall. After the court testimony of the government's first two witnesses, Netscape's James Barksdale and David Colburn of America Online, Nielsen was brought in to advise Microsoft's legal team on cross-examining Apple technologist Avadis Tevanian.

"Our guys felt Tevanian was a tech guy, and they would need someone who could decipher in real time what was being said," Nielsen recalled.

He was originally scheduled to be in court until Tevanian concluded his testimony. He wound up being there until the trial concluded early this year. "For me, personally, the trial was an eye opener. I grew up in Bothell, Washington and I thought trials were about truth and justice," he said. "What I really witnessed was bunch of lawyers throwing out definitions they didn't understand. The number of people who had an understanding of the truth and actually wanted to get to the bottom of things, are few and far between."

Nielsen said he will "continue to be a die-hard supporter" of Microsoft. "If anything, the judge's decision made me want to stay more -- because I won't be part of the team that celebrates when the appeals court overrules him."

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