Microsoft's next CEO: Is an insider Redmond's best bet?

Moderated by Larry Dignan | September 30, 2013 -- 07:00 GMT (00:00 PDT)

Summary: Steve Ballmer's successor will have to steer Microsoft through some rough seas ahead.

Robin Harris

Robin Harris

Yes

or

No

Ken Hess

Ken Hess

Best Argument: Yes

45%
55%

Audience Favored: No (55%)

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Life after Steve

    Welcome back for our weekly Great Debate. Today Robin Harris and Ken Hess argue over the tech world's biggest contest going on now - who will replace Steve Ballmer as Microsoft's third CEO?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Insider

    Redmond needs someone who already knows the players.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    Outsider

    Microsoft needs new blood.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Qualities

    What are the unique characteristics a CEO of Microsoft would need relative to other companies and industries?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Experience counts

    There are several:

    • She has to be experienced working in a very large company. Microsoft has almost 100,000 employees, multiple multibillion-dollar businesses and a productline that spans the range from phones to massive clustered cloud services. Not the place for on-the-job training.
    • She has to have a keen appreciation for what customers like and don't like about Microsoft products and how it does business. The default behavior at Microsoft is to try to tie everything to Windows and Office. But that isn't working now and it won't work better in the future. Even if the Department of Justice did like it.
    • Finally, she has to be able to identify and empower the real visionaries in Microsoft. Too often Microsoft's vision has been limited to one operating system to rule them all. That is not the future and the next CEO has to take a much more nuanced view of the technology and market landscape.
    • The new CEO has to recognize that Microsoft has been much more successful in the enterprise then it has with consumer products. IBM left the consumer space 10 years ago and has been more successful than ever. Microsoft can do the same.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    Cloud cover

    Microsoft's new CEO needs to have a sense of partnership and a vision to move Microsoft's applications, games, and operating systems to the cloud.

    He or she needs to be "partner minded" because it is only through strategic partnerships with successful cloud companies that Microsoft will be able to make headway in the cloud space. Although it's not necessarily true, Microsoft is seen as a cloud late-comer. It's only been in the past couple of years that Microsoft has made any real visible effort in cloud with offerings such as Office 365, Outlook.com, Skydrive, and Windows Server 2012. Through these partnerships, Microsoft can say that it has a solid cloud strategy and it's moving forward with it. There are very few 100 percent Microsoft shops out there and a Microsoft-only cloud will be seen as vendor lock-in and not business friendly. Microsoft's new CEO needs to take a kinder, gentler approach to licensing and compliance.

    Sure, businesses need to purchase licenses and to be compliant with copyright and trademark laws but the old "iron fist" approach isn't going to work anymore.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Future needs

    What do you think Microsoft needs going forward?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Humility

    A healthy dose of humility. Microsoft's executive team needs to acknowledge that they have consistently blown consumer facing technologies for the last 20 years. There needs to be a deep soul-searching determine if their future includes consumer products. If they do decide to continue with consumer facing technologies they will need a level of focus, innovation and investment that they have never done before.

    Its expensive failures in search, music players, mobile devices, in fact just about everything other than game consoles, Microsoft needs to ask itself if the finicky world of consumer devices makes sense for a company whose core strengths are in ecosystems and software rather than hardware and design.

    They will also need to have the support of the board to make what will undoubtedly be some difficult decisions. The strategy that Ballmer endorsed is not a strategy, but only a wish list that given the competition – Apple and Google, two of the most powerful brands in the world who already own the space that Microsoft seeks to enter - will require some difficult decisions and significant retrenchment.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    Cloud and mobile vision

    Microsoft needs a clear cloud vision. It needs a clear mobile vision. It needs to uncomplicate its licensing labyrinth. It need to tone down the "we're coming after you" point-of-view. It also needs a new, play nice attitude with Linux, Mac OS X, and other virtualization players. The excusionary, elitist attitude of days gone by is outmoded and unattractive.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    An insider's take

    Can an insider deliver on those needs? Why or why not?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Insiders know the culture

    The ideal inside candidate will likely be someone who is been at Microsoft no more than 3 to 5 years and who comes from a strong technology and marketing background. They need to have been at Microsoft long enough to understand the internal dynamics and have a good sense of who the most valuable players are.

    They will also need to have the support of the board to make what will undoubtedly be some difficult decisions. The strategy that Ballmer endorsed is not a strategy, but only a wish list that given the competition – Apple and Google, two of the most powerful brands in the world who already own the space that Microsoft seeks to enter - will require some difficult decisions and significant retrenchment.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    Stuck in the mud

    I think it would be a rare person inside Microsoft currently who could deliver on those needs. Maybe I'm wrong but corporate cultures are closed and self-sustaining--meaning that insiders begin to create and believe their own press. They believe their own corporate taglines to a fault. It's unfortunate but only an outsider can see the flaws of corporate dysfunction so clearly. It makes sense, if you consider that when a couple or family has relationship problems, you don't see them seeking the help of another family member. If someone truly wants help and wants things to become better, they seek outside help. You also often see intelligently run companies hire outside consultants to evaluate policies, procedures, and workflow. The results always yield interesting data. Microsoft needs an outsider. I don't think an outsider is the right answer for every company situation but it certainly is for Microsoft at this point in time.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The weather outside

    What would an outsider bring to Microsoft?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Too many ifs

    An outsider would have some definite advantages if they had strong board support. But with Ballmer and Gates still on the board and the rest of the board members being capable executives and non-visionaries, an outsider would bring 12-18 months of uncertainty that Microsoft can't afford.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    Brings clarity

    An outsider would bring clarity to Microsoft. He or she would bring Microsoft back into focus. Microsoft is mostly a software company. They do it very well. An outsider would have Microsoft focus on its strengths rather than trying to shore up its weaknesses. An outsider would bring a new, enthusiastic viewpoint to Microsoft. Microsoft needs to be excited about itself again.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Time factor

    Does Microsoft have the time to hire an outside CEO and then get him or her up to speed?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Can't wait for action

    No. The mobile market is maturing rapidly. The Android and iOS ecosystems are sucking up development cycles and generating revenues that Microsoft needs to succeed. The next major open opportunity is wearable computing, but Moore's Law needs a few more years before a must-have device is possible.

    In the meantime, the cloud infrastructure market is getting sewn up by Amazon and Google. Gartner estimates that Amazon has over 80 percent of the cloud IaaS market. That's a much bigger threat to Microsoft's longterm viability than smartphones and tablets.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    Plenty of support

    Certainly it does. We have to remember that the CEO doesn't stand alone but has the entire company to shoulder him or her. It is not a lone wolf position. The CEO has the Board of Directors, other C-level executives, mid-level managers, employees in the trenches, and millions of customers. And let's not forget Bill Gates himself as an advisor. No doubt, in my mind at least, that the new CEO should schedule an extended visit with Bill Gates to gain some of his insight and some of his enthusiasm for the company.

    In the meantime, the cloud infrastructure market is getting sewn up by Amazon and Google. Gartner estimates that Amazon has over 80% of the cloud IaaS market. That's a much bigger threat to Microsoft's longterm viability than smartphones and tablets.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Ford CEO Alan Mulally?

    Ford CEO Alan Mulally has been mentioned as a possible CEO. What would be the positives and negatives if he were hired?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Age factor

    Mr. Mulally would bring the stature and gravitas of a successful executive - not to mention adult supervision - that Ballmer never  achieved. As he did at Ford he would sweep out a hidebound bureaucracy and kick some of the money-losing and focus-sapping businesses to the curb.

    If he did join Microsoft - and given his age he might well be ready to retire - he would certainly negotiate a very broad mandate. He could sweep out the deadwood, but restarting growth requires a clear and realistic vision of the future of computing. Building better cars is a simpler problem than defining new markets. That is where Mr. Mulally would stumble.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    Not in the long term

    I think he's a fine CEO of Ford but he's not the right person for Microsoft. But, to answer the question, his positives are his ability to turn companies around in the aerospace and transportation industries, so he has some idea of how to restructure a failing system. That comes from being an outsider at Ford. Could he be a great CEO at Microsoft? Yes, but not in the long-term. He, for Microsoft, would be an agent of change, and then would need to bail after three years. Microsoft needs to be led by someone who is more "in the know" of technology companies. Assembly line work and engineering are different than software and the tech industry is different than being a government contractor or a mass production company. He's obviously a smart guy but Microsoft needs more than just smarts, it needs a long term vision.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Outside success?

    Can a CEO from another industry succeed in technology? Or is it a unique market?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Risky business

    Lou Gerstner did well at IBM, basically by performing radical surgery on a dysfunctional organization using his consulting skills. The jury is still out on Meg Whitman. John Scully was a disaster for Apple. All in all, technology is not an easy industry to move into because the technology and the markets move so quickly.

    Bottom line: possible, but very risky.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    Herding cats

    Funny you should ask that considering my answer about Alan Mulally. I think that any business has the same basic principles to apply to its business side (buying, selling, supply chain, profit, loss, marketing) but technology companies are different. The primary difference is that the tech consumer is fickle--very fickle. If you try to  run a tech company like you run a car company, for example, you'd simply change out the taillights and front grilles of your products every fall and announce them as new versions. Tech buyers are looking for more than simple cosmetic changes to the products. Tech companies are also different because of the technology employee. We're a different breed. Remember the old EDS commercial about herding cats? That's what it's like to manage tech employees. If a leader doesn't see that difference and understand it, he or she will fail because of the frustration level associated with herding those cats. Herding cats isn't easy but if you do it correctly, it can be extremely rewarding. Think Steve Jobs and Apple here.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Splitting up?

    Do you think Microsoft should split up into its various parts?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Feeding the vultures

    Microsoft shareholders would be much happier if Judge Jackson's remedy - splitting the company in two - had gone through. Tying Office to Windows - and giving Apple and Google free rein to grow the share of their alternatives - is beyond stupid.

    A rational applications company would look at the mobile market shares and say, "Do we want Office to own this market?" Duh, of course!

    But because Ballmer thinks - wishes - that Office will drag Windows 8 into the mobile market, they've kept their flagship application suite on PCs when, realistically, much simpler products are more than adequate for mobile use. Google and Apple thank them every day.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    Unification not fractionation

    I think Microsoft should cut its losses and focus on its strengths. I don't think splitting it into parts is a good idea. I believe in unification, not fractionation. Fractionation only leads to one thing: selling off of some of the parts that it finds less desirable or less profitable. Microsoft can dump its dead weight without splitting into parts. I don't see any advantage to splitting it.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Microsoft's needs

    In what areas does Microsoft have to innovate the most?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Reality check

    Humility is job one. They need to admit that they can't always come into a market years late and take it over. Apple, Google, Amazon, Red Hat and VMware aren't a Netscape that can be strangled in its crib.

    Number two is they need to put the incredible intellectual and visionary firepower of Microsoft Research to work in product creation and design. That is a resource that none of the competitors has, and they waste it.

    Third, they need to focus on back-end infrastructure rather than sexier but ephemeral mobile devices.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    Focus on what it does best

    Cloud (SaaS), mobile, operating systems, applications. It needs to focus on what it does best (software) and to focus on the future of computing (Cloud and mobile) and forget about hardware. Microsoft should just be software. Let someone else worry about hardware. Its application and operating system business has been great for a very long time and it didn't need to create Microsoft hardware for them to operate on. There's no reason for Microsoft to be in the hardware business. It takes focus away from software.

    And, yes, I'm even referring to the Xbox. Create great games that hardware people can install on consoles, PCs, Macs, Linux, and mobile devices.

    Sometimes innovation means knowing what you do best and doing your best at it. Ford doesn't make gasoline or oil but they make cars that use them both.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Too big?

    Is Microsoft too large and mature to innovate?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Adult supervision

    No. They just need adult supervision and a willingness to abandon a rich and delusional fantasy life. "Everything to everyone" is not a strategy.

    A retailer like Amazon is innovating faster in back-end infrastructure than Microsoft. Does anyone see what's wrong with that picture? No one on the Microsoft board, evidently.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    The need to generate excitement

    Absolutely not. But to innovate, you need someone to lead the company who is excited about Microsoft, its products, and its future. You need a corporate culture that values and rewards innovation. Innovation comes from people who feel like they can make a difference and will get rewarded for it. Companies are made up of individuals--people like you and me. If I know that by innovating, I not only move the company and its profits forward but also my career, my financial standing, and my recognition, I'm more likely to innovate. I think the mistake is that people see a company as this giant, non-living thing and it isn't. It's people.

    Microsoft is a company. It's people are its lifeblood, so to say that Microsoft is too mature or too large to innovate means that its blood has drained out and has drones for employees. Microsoft needs leadership.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Stephen Elop?

    Would you hire Stephen Elop as CEO? Why or why not?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    He's an opportunist

    No. The guy is an opportunist. Running Nokia into the ground doesn't qualify him for anything important. Microsoft needs to get OUT of a ditch, not into another one.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    Poor track record

    Absolutely not. Unfortunately, restructuring and refitting a company means one thing for uncreative CEOs: layoffs. Sometimes layoffs should happen but generally speaking that is a short-sighted and uncreative way to revive a company. If you want to kill morale, start a bunch of layoffs. In my opinion, it destroys a brand. His reign at Nokia hasn't been a good one. Layoffs, plummeting stock prices, and a general lack of taking responsibility for Nokia's problems are reasons enough not to hire him.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Bill Gates: The big comeback?

    Do you think Bill Gates would do well if he came back as CEO?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    He's got other things to do

    No, and to his credit, he seems to know that. His philanthropy is much more important to the world and his legacy than anything he might do at Microsoft. And let's be real, Bill isn't much of a visionary. Ruthless competitor with a keen eye for weakness - yes! Able to spot a market niche and then drive development of the breakthrough product to exploit it - no! He never cracked the tablet market after years of tinkering.

    Robin Harris

    I am for Yes

    He's no Steve Jobs

    That's a very good question. I think that Bill Gates would inspire people to do better but I think the enthusiasm would be short-lived. Bill is better in an advisory capacity these days. I hate to say it like this but Bill Gates is no Steve Jobs. Bill knows that. Gates is a very intelligent person who changed the way we work and will always be remembered for doing that and creating Microsoft. But he's the guy you want on your team but not running the team.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks...

    ...for joining us again. I'd like to congratulate Robin and Ken for a job well done. Next up are the final arguments which will be posted on Wednesday, and my choice for the winner will be revealed on Thursday. Take this time to check out the talkback section and add your comments. Let everyone know who you would like to see take over from Steve Ballmer. And don't forget to vote.

    Posted by Larry Dignan

Talkback

23 comments
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  • Although I have voted "No", I don't really know the answer to this

    Large companies are tough to manage, and an insider's knowledge is valuable. But Microsoft has developed an unwelcome stubborn streak in the last year or two that has not served them well.

    Their determination to underserve desktop computing customers with a relatively poor mouse and keyboard experience; their stubbornness with respect to the XBox One's features and behaviour (only pulled back from once the damage was done.)

    They need fresh eyes that are more committed to the customer, and less stubborn about carrying out big visionary things that may not be all that visionary anyway (let's face it, if customers don't accept the way you want it to be, you can't call it a vision when the viewpoint does not catch on.)

    Can a less stubborn leader be found inside the company? I hope so.

    Microsoft has a lot of assets and a pretty strong leadership team. But they'd find an infusion of outside talent a big life-giving boost, I think. But boy, they would need to be a quick study.
    Mac_PC_FenceSitter
    Reply 19 Votes I'm for No
    • There are reasons Microsoft needs a clean slate (so to speak)

      Microsoft behaved badly under both Gates and Ballmer.

      This was part of the reason why Microsoft lost the trust of many consumers. Microsoft needs to be seen to be a changed company.

      Microsoft needs a new business model (selling software licences is yesteryear). It needs to embrace open-source, which in itself needs a new culture. Microsoft's mobile competitors all used open-source software in their browsers and OS kernels to become quicker to market.
      Vbitrate
      Reply 12 Votes I'm Undecided
      • Wrong

        Microsoft has adopted the right courses, it mained its P.C. dominance and it was on Mobile long before the rest, the internal fiefdoms were against the development of Windows Mobile, Zune and KIN which made them slower to adapt to the swiftly changing enviroments, Microsoft did it better than any other company, Windows Vista was way ahead of its time, in reality Windows 7 IS Windows Vista, only under a different name (yep, it's the Mojave experiment all over again), the differences between 8 and 8.1 (Blue) are bigger.

        Microsoft's main problems, their lack of unity was solved under Ballmer, in order to be more successful Microsoft needs a C.E.O. who'll be loyal in keeping their products, not selling-/spinning-off Bing, Xbox, M.S.N. and other divisions for short-term profits, Microsoft needs someone who believes in the seamless interconnectivity of EVERYTHING in and under the Cloud.

        A Redmond (wo)man is best fit for this job, not an outsider.
        Taizong Yuan
        Reply 10 Votes I'm Undecided
  • Only with the right insider

    Microsoft has grown to the point that there are insiders who really have not seen any other culture than Redmond's. In my opinion Sinofsky was one of these and was part of the problem. I have to vote yes, because the problems are deep and need someone who understands the situation. I want to vote no since many of those near the top are the cause of much of the problems. That is why I want the right insider, since it is way to likely that some of the boot lickers near the top will become the next golden boy (like Sinofsky) for an outsider.
    oldsysprog
    Reply 7 Votes I'm for Yes
    • Yep

      As long as it's not Elop, 'cause,
      ELOP = FLOP.
      Taizong Yuan
      Reply 2 Votes I'm Undecided
  • I like Microsoft's Vision

    and I would hate for that vision to change with somebody who is only looking out for the bottom line. Someone from the outside might not get it. Microsoft has had a few failed products but they are an extremely profitable company and if they stay the course they will stay profitable. I have a Windows Phone 8 and a convertible touch screen laptop and 3 desktops and one android tablet (Nexus 7) The only reason I don't have a Surface RT is the Nexus. It is that good. Windows 8 is a great product misunderstood :-(
    bvonr@...
    Reply 11 Votes I'm for No
    • ...

      I completely agree with you, I've been trying to explain this to others for a long time.
      Taizong Yuan
      Reply 5 Votes I'm Undecided
  • Not is it the question...

    Be of inside or not, not is it the question, should the new MSFT CEO syntonize with the company and to its employees, should somebody to be that he knows the world of the soft. and of the hard. and be ahead to the technological changes that are to come. Will Be Pat Gensilger of VMware?
    luis river
    Reply 12 Votes I'm Undecided
  • MSFT should hire an ex-insider outsider

    Elop fits in that mold, but I'd be open to hear about other strong candidates.
    erichon99
    Reply 19 Votes I'm Undecided
  • It'll be some cost-cutting "turnaround expert"

    Look, Harris, anybody currently at Microsoft is part of the problem. And Hess, without Steve Jobs zombie powder, where are they going to find somebody with enough vision and charisma to turn the company around? You think somebody like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos would touch Microsoft with a 10 foot radiation hazard suit?
    Vesicant
    Reply 13 Votes I'm Undecided