13-year slow-mo train wreck

Pictured: Ballmer's Legacy

The aftermath of Ballmer’s decision to finally set sail from Microsoft is a bittersweet chapter for a storied company. The organization he took charge of in January 2000 was a significant and growing force in personal computing. Windows, after all, had truly brought computing to the masses. While others had devised graphical operating systems long before Windows (anyone remember GEOS?), Gates & Co. stumbled upon the secret recipe.

Innovation and technological vision, however, are antithetical to a profit-centric culture. Having walked into many similar situations, I know how frustrating this can be for the guys stuck in the boiler-room – the same guys that would otherwise be driving innovation and endearing the community beyond a stiff and embarrassing ‘Developers!’ chant.

While I’ve never worked at Microsoft, I’m fairly positive that senior management is comprised of business school grads and back-slapping guy-smiley sales types. Individually, they get a lighthearted chuckle from their general lack of technical expertise and, as such, find the irony of running such a large technology company amusing.

On the rare occasions that ‘technical stuff’ must factor into decision-making, they call one of the ‘smart guys’ (a perjorative in my book) into a conference room to field a few select questions. Those seated at the table quickly realize that they’re in over their heads and, with only half-baked answers in hand, dismiss the summoned egghead with a patronizing and stealthily condescending, “thank god you geeks understand all this stuff!” Afterwards, since no one with a strong technical background is ever allowed to remain in the conference-room (technically proficient individuals can’t possibly comprehend business, after all), everyone shrugs off the ‘confusing technical-jargon’ and the numbers-driven decisions resume unabated. Then, golf.

Meanwhile, the guys back in the boiler-room, many of whom have been working day and night on some great new product or feature, will soon learn that management doesn’t ‘get’ the value of their recent efforts. Innovative projects are scrapped and those who long to do something new and responsive to the market are reassigned as “team-leaders ” to some stale group that maintains a rickety 20-year-old product. Of course, they’re told, “This is not a step down. You’re being given charge of one of the company’s core assets….and a promotion to team-lead to boot!” Ahh yes, the Bermuda-Triangle-like netherworld of full responsibility and zero authority known to the corporate masses as ‘team lead’.

And another one bites the dust.

Although I’ve never been in this situation myself (one of the reasons I stick with small businesses), I’ve seen it in my consulting work time and time again. This sort of culture is nearly impossible to shake out. It’s an us vs. them mindset and as long as money keeps flowing through the door, investors believe that their technologically inept golf-buddies have everything under control. Had it been a team effort with different perspectives well-represented, Microsoft might have remained inexorably dominant in the technology industry. Their profits, while likely more modest, might have also remained sustainable over the long run.

As the world watches Microsoft bail water at lightning speed, I can only hope that this particular lesson sinks in (pun intended) elsewhere. I doubt it but I can hope.