This is Bill Gates’ last official day as a Microsoft employee, though as the company’s largest shareholder, he remains the company’s chairman. To underline his exit, Gates gave an emotional goodbye speech to employees Friday morning that was Webcast across the globe.
However, his departure leaves more than one burning question.
Despite all of the years of careful planning for this day and what comes after, can the management team that’s left to run the company keep it moving forwards – and some would say, continue innovating — instead of drifting into oblivion the way so many other tech firms have failed after the founder has left?
Don’t forget that, after both companies foundered, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) had to recall their founders in order to save the companies they’d built.
That puts the focus on CEO Steve Ballmer and the team of executives he’s assembled.
It won’t be easy, but several Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) observers think both Ballmer and the company’s other key leaders are up to the job.
“Ballmer has been managing this era already … Gates stepped out of the day-to-day [running of the company] at the turn of the century,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told InternetNews.com.
Ballmer, after all, Enderle pointed out, has been CEO for the last eight years. Many of the major decisions that have impacted the company, its partners and customers since 2000 have emanated from his office.
During that time, the company’s revenues grew from $23 billion per year to an expected $60 billion in fiscal 2008, which ends Monday. The company has also grown in size until today Microsoft employs nearly 80,000 people worldwide.
Like Gates, Ballmer is 52. They met during their sophomore year at Harvard. Gates dropped out to start Microsoft, while Ballmer graduated and started on an MBA at Stanford before Gates hired him in 1980.
Since then, Ballmer has held a wide range of executive positions — including vice president of operating systems — many of them with a marketing focus, although they also required a technical understanding of the company’s products,
“Ballmer may not be a technologist, the way Gates is, but he understands the product set,” Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told InternetNews.com.
Still, largely because Gates has been so visible throughout the company’s history, many people have the impression that Gates’ vision drives Microsoft and Ballmer is merely the company’s chief salesman.
While there might be some truth to that argument – Ballmer is a consummate salesman — analysts this week repeatedly said that attitude doesn’t properly give credit where it’s due. Ballmer, during his 28 years with Microsoft, has been closely involved with the company’s technologies and the decisions around them, even if he hasn’t done code reviews the way Gates has.
Additionally, Gates has said that he will continue to work as much as a day a week for the company as special projects for Ballmer, although he hasn’t named any so far.
“I think it would be really wrong to say that Gates’ oversight will not be there,” Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, told InternetNews.com. “Bill and Steve have worked together for so long that Steve knows Bill’s thinking,” he added.
Besides that, Gates was smart enough to appoint Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes, to replace him as the company’s visionary and chief software architect.
“By hiring people like Ozzie, I think they have the technology [visionary] side covered,” King said.
Additionally, Ballmer has the benefit of long-time technology executives like Bob Muglia, who is senior vice president of the Server and Tools business, and Steve Sinofsky, who is senior vice president of Windows and Windows Live engineering, to fall back on, said Rob Helm, director of research at Directions on Microsoft.
Ultimately, however, it may be that even if Gates had opted to stay, the company would still be seemingly constantly on the brink of disaster, analysts say. Change is necessary if the company is going to survive, much less continue to prosper.
“I honestly feel the ‘old gang’ couldn’t move the company forward [because] it’s too big and it needs a big gang of people making individual decisions [within the business units],” Helm said.
Enderle echoed that sentiment, pointing out that the company’s products and technologies have become incredibly diverse – ranging from core businesses like Windows, Office, Visual Studio, and its various server offerings to online ventures such as its Live initiatives, health information repository, online search and advertising, as well as games, phone systems, and music players.
“The problem for Microsoft is that it has grown so complex that it’s almost impossible to steer,” Enderle said.
With Gates’ ride into the sunset, Ballmer and company have a lot of work to do.