I’d occasionally get asked what I thought of Ray Ozzie at Microsoft. I’d say this “Great guy, a worthy legend, but he’ll have little effect”. Why? They’d ask.
And I’d say: “because he’s not a VP for an actual product.”
You can’t lead in the abstract. You have to get skin in the game. Today MSFT announced he’s leaving and I’m not surprised.
In the past I’ve criticized on idea of job titles like VP of Innovation or Chief Innovation officer. Chief Software Architect, Ozzie’s title, had similiar problems. It means little to those with real power inside a company. Makers of things, like developers, give the most respect to people who ship things. What does a VP of Innovation ship? What does a Chief Software Architect ship? Nothing. Slide decks and vision plans don’t compile. You can prototype and speculate all you want, but that’s at best indirect influence on what the rest of a company is doing. You can’t be a leader from the sideline. Give advice? sure. Make demos? Absolutely. But if a real risk needs to be taken you are not the person with the power to take it.
We’d have to ask people across MSFT if Ozzie had an impact on them. As an outsider, I can’t say with any certainty if he did or he didn’t.
But I know for progress to happen you must get in the middle (or be the leader of the thing that is in the middle). I don’t know if Ozzie was offered ownership of a product or division and said no, or if that was never in the cards from Ballmer. Either way, the fate was set early on as it is whenever a high profile outsider does a tour at a company (Bill Buxton, and others at Microsoft Research, come to mind). You can earn your salary and have value, absolutely, but if you are not a key person on a key project, less can be expected of your net impact on a company as a whole.
For the industry I’m happy to see Ozzie leave – I’d have been happier to see him as CEO, or VP of a product, at MSFT, that would have been fascinating to watch – but since he’s leaving my bet is he will take full charge of some new thing and that will be the best for all concerned. I look forward to what comes next Mr. Ozzie.