How Steven Sinofsky changed Microsoft, for better and for worse

How Steven Sinofsky changed Microsoft, for better and for worse

Summary: When Steven Sinofsky moved to the Windows division in 2006, it was fundamentally broken. He leaves behind an engineering process that runs smoothly. But he also leaves a legacy of cutthroat politics and feuding between divisions.

TOPICS: Microsoft, Windows

Today’s tech news will be filled with speculation about why Steven Sinofsky left Microsoft and why the decision was so seemingly sudden.

Why now? I’ve heard this decision has been in the works for weeks, if not months. Ex-Microsoftie Hal Berenson agrees:

[A] friend had told me months ago that Steven would be gone soon after Windows 8 launched.  The claim was that he had alienated most of Microsoft’s senior leadership, if not the bulk of the executive staff.

Longtime Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley agrees, citing the reasons behind the move as politics, not products:

Sinofsky is known inside and outside the company as a guy who got things done and done his way. Rumors regularly reappeared about Sinofsky angling to take over more business units. And until recently, it seemed like Microsoft's own senior leadership team, as well as Ballmer himself, had capitulated….

But more recently, something seemingly changed, including the rhetoric. Ballmer's note to the troops about Sinofsky's departure emphasized the ability of his successor Larson-Green's "proven ability to effectively collaborate and drive a cross company agenda." I smell a reorg....

There is no question that Sinofsky is a polarizing figure. I know key Microsoft engineers who moved out of the Windows division specifically because they couldn’t abide his management style. I know others who left the company rather than remain in what they perceived as a frustrating environment.

But there are plenty of people inside and outside the company who are fans of Sinofsky’s style and, more importantly, the substance of what he accomplished.

Sinofsky moved to the Windows division in 2006 as Windows Vista was about to crash into the market. At the time, the Windows engineering process was, to put it bluntly, broken. The fact that Windows 7 shipped on time and addressed every substantive complaint about Vista is a remarkable testament to Sinofsky's ability to fix things.

Those epic blog posts from Sinofsky and his team members during the development of Windows 7 and Windows 8 were an indication of just how much Microsoft’s culture had changed. The amount of detail that the development team shared was staggering, even if only a handful of people (me, for one) actually read every word.

Count Microsoft’s Dare Obasanjo as a member of Team Steven:

The way things get done in Steven’s organizations is so straightforward it hurts. You spend some time thinking about what you want to build, you write it down so the entire team has a shared vision of what they’re going to build and then you build it. The part where things become contentious is that getting things done (aka shipping) requires discipline. This means not changing your mind unless you have a good reason to after you’ve decided on what to build and knowing when to cut loses if things are coming in late or over budget.

It’s a good read. Dare also links to this 2008 post from Larry Osterman on the Building Windows 7 blog. (Osterman has been at Microsoft longer than just about anyone I know, except Steve Ballmer.)

The process of building 7 has also been dramatically more transparent – even sitting at the bottom of the stack, I feel that I’ve got a good idea about how decisions are being made. And that increased transparency in turn means that as an individual contributor I’m able to make better decisions about scheduling. This transparency is actually a direct fallout of management’s decision to let the various feature teams make their own decisions – by letting the feature teams deeper inside the planning process, the teams naturally make better decisions.

As a Microsoft customer (and as a member of the press who talks to those customers about Microsoft products like Windows and Office), I think that the organization Sinofsky has left behind is strong. In fact, had he stayed around, as my ZDNet colleague Mary Jo Foley notes, he probably would have been an impediment to the collaboration and “cross-company agenda” that the new Microsoft is pushing for.

Hal Berenson tallies the pluses and minuses of the move:

Microsoft has lost one of its few executives with a proven ability to ship major products and ship them on time.   On the other hand, it is also losing an executive who was tearing the company apart from the inside.  I have no doubt that a key reason Steven was unable to gain control of Windows Phone and the Developer Division is that most of the top 2-3 levels of leadership in those organizations would have quit.   So would senior leaders in other organizations….  It was becoming Steven against the rest of the company leadership, and no company can survive that situation for long.

So although the public release of the news might have been surprising in its suddenness, the timing certainly shouldn’t be. Windows 8 and the Surface have shipped. Planning for the next release of Windows (and maybe future Surface devices) is still in the early stages. It is the right time to make a management change.

Julie Larson-Green now runs Windows software and hardware engineering. Her big challenge is to keep that organizational discipline in the Windows team and restore that group’s ability to play well with others. That’s a tall order in a very large company where the company culture is defined by cutthroat politics and feuding between divisions.

I suspect this is only the first of several big moves over the next few weeks and months.

Update 14-Nov: In a comment at Hal Berenson's blog, Steven Sinofsky denies the assertion that he was trying to expand the scope of his organization:

I never initiated any discussions to bring together the organizations/products you describe and no one ever approached me to manage them as part of Windows 7 or 8.  Basic organization theory as described by @teyc would support the current state as a practical working model.

If we had worked together you would know that historically, very few things moved into teams I managed as (you’ve no doubt seen in internal blogs) and when they did I usually pushed back hard looking for a cross-group way to achieve the goal (in other words, decide open issues rather than force an org change to subsequently decide something).  it is far better to collaborate with the org in place and avoid the disruption unless it is on a product cycle boundary and far better to plan and execute together than just organize together.

Topics: Microsoft, Windows

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  • So, you're saying...

    This isn't a result of Windows 8 "failing"? ;)

    It'll be interesting to see where JL-G takes Windows. Hopefully, she won't destroy what Steven built. Last thing Microsoft needs, is another Vista like disaster.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • Just Temporary

      I do not see Ms. Green keeping her title as head of the Windows division for too long. She has the design chops for the job, seeing that she's designed UI for many MS products, but she doesn't have any type of technical know-how from where I sit. Hopefully now that Sinofsky is out, they can bring in someone who has deep technical knowledge, while at the same time also has Steve's ability to pull troops in line. I, as a Windows 7 user and as one who's had to dabble in Vista, and heard the horror stories about Windows Me, does not want another brouhaha surrounding Windows like the Vista failure
      • Where do you sit?

        I mean really, do you know her? Work with her? What reason would you suspect that she doesn't have the experience having worked her way up from Visual C++ and developer products?
        • The question would be

          What do you know that computer guy doesn't?
          • I know one thing...

            She is no "Mini-Me" like Sinofsky was... Mr Bigglesworth is going to miss Mini-Me...
      • the elephant in the room is foss

        without foss devs, M$ dies!
        The Linux Geek
        • ???

          And FOSS has Apple on the ropes, too!

          Wait a minute....
        • Wow - back to school child

          play time is over.
      • Well,

        I hear Scott Forstall will be looking for a job come early next year.
        Shameer Mulji
      • A designer in charge is probably a good thing

        Software design is as much of a technical discipline as programming and it's the design that drives the development. Designers also tend to talk with end users about the software a lot more often than programmers do. I trust that she has been doing this long enough for her designs to be realistic.

        On the whole Windows does better when development is driven more by users' wants and needs than by MS' institutional wants and needs; so I see this appointment as auspicious.
        John L. Ries
  • Scott Forstall Steve Sinofsky

    Such similar stories. I guess times change and if you are not willing to move with it, then you are at the end of your road, no matter how powerful you may think you are. Would be interesting if Scott and Steve partnered up and started a company. ForSky (for sky's the limit).
    • Do you actually think....

      ...that any established company, let alone a startup, can survive two "my way or the highway" top execs?
  • Talent follows talent

    A general rule seems to be that talented people want to work with other talented people. One of the most talented people at Microsoft just went out the door. I guess the question is whether the senior leaders that would have left had Sinofsky stayed are the "talent" that others will want to follow.
  • How Steven Sinofsky changed Microsoft, for better and for worse

    Steven Sinofsky has proven what he can do so there are no worries about his next venture. Julie Larson seems like she has the right stuff to fill that position and if she doesn't then Microsoft will correct it. If it really was based on politics and the way Sinofsky ran the show then the board will not allow another person like that. He just made his mark then went on to do other things, could possibly be not even technology related.
    Loverock Davidson-
  • Like I said before

    Some heads need rolling after win8 came out. Here is the first one, we will see more.
    • You have no clue!

      Windows 8 is awesome and unlike Mountain Lion it actually runs fairly well on older hardware!
  • That explains why Julie was co-leading the windows8 release event.

    Big shoes to fill, but Windows is in much better shape than when Sinofsky took over.
  • Why do talented leaders get the ax?

    When I read accounts similar to the Sinofsky and Forstall events, I am always reminded of an automotive account of the last Ford meeting between Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca.

    After The Duece had just terminated Iacococca's employment, Lee asked for and was granted a meeting with Ford. In that meeting, the "Father of the Ford Mustang" asked one simply question, why was he fired?

    The one sentence answer is forever etched into automotive history. Henry Ford II is reportedly to have said, "I just don't like you."

    Sometimes it is just as simple as that.
  • Sad to see him go

    I once watched an interview with Sir Alex Ferguson who coaches Manchester United. The discussion was about working with highly talented people. The interviewer was enquiring about how difficult it must be to work with such large egos and highly opinionated people. Sir Alex didn't shy from it at all and expected robust and sometimes terse exchanges. Instead of being offended, he saw it as a mark of their passion for the game.

    Steve jobs fits this pattern. It sounded like some Sinofsky fitted it to. Every high performing organisation must keep a balance between keeping the peace and taking Dr. Phil-style reality therapy. It's sad that MS couldn't keep him. But then we do not know the full story yet.

    His rescue mission that resulted in Windows 7 will be remembered for many years to come.
  • LUCZO is the NEXT CEO

    Microsoft will also take a deeper dive into the Cloud and Hardware by buying a very profitable and well run SEAGATE TECHNOLOGIES.

    Luczo is the profile CEO that MS has been waiting for, he currently sits on their board and knows well industry players and the board that will elect him.