Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

Summary: Ray Ozzie announced yesterday that he plans to step down as Microsoft's Chief Software Architect, after five years at the company. The question for Microsoft now is not "Can Ozzie be replaced?" Instead, they should be asking whether the company needs a chief architect at all.

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Ray Ozzie announced yesterday that he plans to step down as Microsoft's Chief Software Architect, after five years at the company.

The question for Microsoft now is not "Can Ozzie be replaced?" Instead, they should be asking whether the company needs a chief architect at all.

Trying to assess Ozzie's impact on Microsoft is tricky. He joined Microsoft in 2005 as the designated successor for Bill Gates. The company made it official the next year, giving him the Chief Software Architect title when Gates stepped down from full-time duties at Microsoft. But as my colleague Mary Jo Foley noted last year, Ozzie wasn't exactly a drop-in replacement for Gates. He "hasn’t found it easy fitting in culturally in Microsoft’s dog-eat-dog culture," she noted, accurately. Aside from a few keynote appearances, Ozzie has been almost invisible as a public face of Microsoft. And behind the scenes, I cannot remember ever talking to a Microsoft developer or manager who brought up Ozzie's name as a source of inspiration or ideas.

There's no question that Ozzie is supremely gifted intellectually. Ironically, though, he's best associated with products that don't exactly enjoy a reputation for excellence. His chief accomplishment before joining Microsoft was designing the product that eventually became Lotus Notes (which in turn was purchased by IBM in 1995). Although it was filled with groundbreaking ideas and continues to have a large user base, Notes was a critical flop. Find any review of Notes written in the past 20 years, and chances are it will include some variation on the following verdict: "Although Notes is an incredibly powerful platform for building collaborative applications, its user interface leaves much to be desired." Most companies deployed Notes as an e-mail program, where it became a source of intense frustration—I don't think I have ever spoken to a happy Notes user.

After Notes, Ozzie's next big accomplishment was Groove, which Microsoft acquired along with Ozzie himself. Groove's collaborative capabilities were added to Microsoft SharePoint, and it was a part of the enterprise version of Office 2007. Most of the Groove users I've met through the years have worked for Microsoft, where it inspired intense loyalty among developers. Among Office customers, it's still a well-kept secret. It's telling that for Office 2010, Microsoft kept the core Groove feature set but streamlined the product and renamed it SharePoint Workspace.

At Microsoft, Ozzie made his mark initially with a sprawling all-hands memo that outlined Microsoft's vision for cloud computing. Ozzie hit the Send button on "The Internet Services Disruption" almost exactly five years ago, on October 28, 2005. Re-reading that memo yesterday, I winced at the very first paragraph: "Next year we have a double barreled release of our two largest products with Windows Vista and Office '12'.  It’s a great time for customers, our partners, and for those at Microsoft who have put so much of themselves into these products." Vista, of course, was probably Microsoft's most spectacular failure of the last decade, and it's noteworthy that Steve Ballmer's memo announcing Ozzie's departure doesn't mention it at all.

There's no question that Microsoft has focused on cloud services since that 2005 memo, and it has delivered a fairly impressive portfolio of cloud-based offerings. On the consumer side, Microsoft now has a full range of Windows Live services, and it's done an impressive job of moving Exchange and SharePoint to hosted services that aren't just for enterprises anymore. Under Ozzie's watch, Microsoft introduced the Windows Azure platform, which has tremendous potential. But those individual products gloss over a failure of vision that's particularly acute for Microsoft. At the November 2009 Professional Developers Conference, Ozzie outlined Microsoft's "three screens and a cloud" vision. Microsoft is still playing catch-up on two of those three screens—phones and TVs—and it's telling that Ozzie announced his departure just before the launch of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 platform.

Ironically, Microsoft has just finished one of its most successful years ever in terms of shipping products, led by Windows 7 and its online companion, Windows Live Essentials 2011. Although Ozzie's big ideas about cloud computing were the focus of that 2005 memo, his real contribution to Microsoft might have been more subtle and more lasting. This section, near the end of the memo, is a nearly perfect description of what went wrong with Windows Vista:

Complexity kills.  It sucks the life out of developers, it makes products difficult to plan, build and test, it introduces security challenges, and it causes end-user and administrator frustration.  Moving forward, within all parts of the organization, each of us should ask “What’s different?”, and explore and embrace techniques to reduce complexity.

Some problems are inherently complex; there is surely no silver bullet to reducing complexity in extant systems.  But when tackling new problems, I’ve found it useful to dip into a toolbox of simplification approaches and methods.  One such tool is the use of extensive end-to-end scenario-based design and implementation.  Another is that of utilizing loosely-coupled design of systems by introducing constraints at key junctures – using standards as a tool to force quick agreement on interfaces.  Many such tools are not rocket science: for example, by forcing a change in practices to increase the frequency of release cycles, scope and complexity of any given release by necessity is greatly reduced.

Indeed, the Microsoft that produced Windows 7 and Office 2010 has embraced many of those concepts. The post-Vista Microsoft products I've seen over the past three years have paid much more attention to detail and user experience than their predecessors.

Steve Ballmer says Microsoft has no plans to fill the Chief Software Architect role when Ozzie retires. Maybe that's a good thing. Microsoft has never been short of big ideas. Ironically, most of its disappointments historically have come about because the company focused too much on those big ideas, with an overemphasis on architecture and not enough attention paid to the process of actually building the product. Maybe Microsoft needs to spend the next few years dusting off some of those old blueprints and drastically reducing their complexity. In short, maybe it needs more skilled builders, not another architect.

Topics: Microsoft, Collaboration, Enterprise Software, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

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37 comments
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  • Does a new building design need an architect?

    M$ is lagging on innovation and architecture.

    M$ is losing ground to Google and Apple.

    The company is desperate for new architectures, a managment team and culture which will deliver customer value and quality products by collaboration with its ecosystem partners ... before revenue (the latter will follow naturally).

    Or it will continue to sink slowly before a rapid demise.
    jacksonjohn
    • RE: Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

      @johnfenjackson@...

      The interwebs is rife with drivle like this... My question to you is do you really believe what you write?

      This is like something from 10 years ago on /.
      mikefarinha
      • Aging self deception

        1. Whilst man is the only creature on the planet capable of self-deception ... I actually believe what I write.

        2. Can we make it 13 years ago? The oldest of my PC's is a GATEWAY 2000 machine from 1997: top of the range ... Pentium PRO CPU, SCSI disks totalling 4GB, NT4 Workstation, graphics at 1280 by whatever. I've saved an old COMPAQ keyboard from my job - superb keyboard. You know what the difference in software architecture is to the DELL 430 (4G RAM) I'm typing on now?

        None whatsoever.
        jacksonjohn
      • RE: Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

        @johnfenjackson

        And the facts you outline in your post pertain only to Microsoft? Furthermore this is a problem how?
        mikefarinha
    • agreed

      @johnfenjackson@...
      or as mdn puts it:
      "Hopefully this means that Ballmer is consolidating his power in order to remain ensconced atop the dysfunctional Redmond waste heap for as long as it takes. We like his strategy. We like it a lot."
      banned from zdnet
    • RE: Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

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      xiaodou
    • RE: Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

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  • RE: Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

    They really don't need a new chief software architect as long as the execs are having meetings with the developers to get the products out the door.
    Loverock Davidson
    • RE: Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

      @Loverock Davidson
      Another brilliant suggestion from the local "genius". Forget innovasion, forget any vision, let the propeller heads at MS design and ship sub-standard products (a la Vista) and let the executives rubber stamp it. After all, MS customers have no choice but to submit to their product cycle and the bonuses are sweet...

      My advice to Ozzie - join Google, you are too smart for MS.
      prof123
  • RE: Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

    Lotus Notes was not a critical flop. It was the victim of Microsoft's agressive price bundling with Office and Exchange through Enterprise Agreements. IBM's lack of sales leadership during that era didn't help. There is a key difference from a Chief Technology Architect perspective. If Ozzie were EVP of sales, then yes, credit him with the demise but that isn't the case.

    Ozzie is a huge loss for the company.
    dericksc
    • RE: Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

      @dericksc Lotus Notes was on the verge of disappearing from the landscape until IBM put their name on it. Then the legions of directors across the country who think the sun rises and sets with IBM got onboard.
      happyharry_z
      • What is technology or sales and marketing?

        @happyharry_z I agree it was headed no where and not saying that MS sales/marketing plan wasn't brilliant. I just hate to see Ozzie get dinged for that product as it was one of the first products of its kind that let users work the way they wanted to and didn't confine them to the rules of relational database drive UI's.
        dericksc
    • RE: Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

      @dericksc I heard him at Pan-MS yearly conference and I must say he delivered the most comprehensive vision about MS. It is true that MS is dog-eat-dog environment and people like Ozzie inspiring others has no place in the company. MS's management is very strong at all levels and it is extremely efficient for the company of that size, but company experiences huge lack of ownership at all levels. I read all news about MS only over internet from public sources, there is no live link between top management and developers. Being full-time employee I had a filling that I worked in huge consulting company unrelated to MS at all. There are only few people who personally interested in company's success, all their ESPP (Employee Stock Purchase Programs) and stock bonuses cannot out weight benefits of promotion in hierarchy. They say "Thank you" all the time, but they never approve others job and efforts, because it is like HREF over the web, it costs money.
      Nikolayev
      • RE: Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

        @Nikolayev spent 10 years there myself and saw first handed the lack of connection between technologists and senior management. It is sad as there are some very talented technologists at the company.
        dericksc
  • If this "Doesn't need one" thing is viable...

    Then considering that little has changed at Microsoft for quite some time, then why did they ever need a CSA?
    zkiwi
  • Microsoft should keep Ozzie and can Ballmer.

    The problems at MS are not architectural nor are they technical, they are a result of a lack of vision and poor ethics -- and those problems come right down from the top: Ballmer.

    If they had removed Ballmer and cleared the way for Ozzie to do what he does best, then you would have had a vigorous renewed Microsoft within five years.

    Microsoft's loss of Ozzie will be some other company's red-letter day as they hire on one of the best minds in modern computing.

    Regards,
    Jon
    JonathonDoe
  • Really big mistakes

    The problem with having a "chief" anything is that when he makes a mistake, it becomes a huge, company-wide mistake. Instead of a failing division that has to be shut down, you get the failure of the entire $10 billion Digital Equipment Corp. because the "chief" technical brain thinks "there is no reason for anyone to have a computer in their home." Better to have 20 new products per year and have half of them fail than to install a big-brained gatekeeper to throttle the failures in their cribs.
    Robert Hahn
  • Ozzfest Fall 2010

    "Ray Ozzie announced yesterday"

    Check that. SteveB announced yesterday. No official e-mail from Ray to the troops ever went out (at least on the scale of the SteveB e-mail).

    Ray is good in is specific field, but did not have the breadth. For example, he was not necessarily an OS guy. Whereas CSA BillG reviewed every product (OS or Application).

    Microsoft is missing that visionary to unify the products and technology into one cohesive strategy moving forward. Only time will tell.
    jed.leland
    • Well...

      @jed.leland

      Point taken, although the announcement said "Ray and I are announcing today Ray?s intention to step down from his role as chief software architect..."

      But yes, the e-mail didn't come from him.
      Ed Bott
  • RE: Does Microsoft really need a chief software architect?

    LOL sure why not they might as well be top heavy too.

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    DongFow