Ray Ozzie, Microsoft and change

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.

17 Responses to “Ray Ozzie, Microsoft and change”

  1. Vivek Aseeja

    I don’t think I completely agree here. I think he has had a positive effect in leading Microsoft’s direction from being a PC centric company to a web focused enterprise. Maybe we can’t see the results right away; but it would be evident in sometime. The ‘Live services’, ‘Live Mesh’, ‘Azure Platform’ were born under his direction. Perhaps he was not directly managing them, but his vision behind it was quite clear. So is his vision behind Office Live.

    How about if we ask the opposite question: “Where would Microsoft be, had Ray Ozzie been not around for the past few years?”

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      Vivek: Fair enough. Not working at the company it’s hard to judge.

      My core point was I think he’d have had more impact if he were the primary leader of any one of these projects, rather than a Chief Software Architect who likely has/had surprisingly little specific authority to make change happen.

      Reply
  2. Sriram Krishnan

    Sorry Scott – you’re way off here.

    Ray ran multiple orgs. For example, my current team (Windows Azure) was incubated under Ray and grew to a large org and reported to him until a few months ago. I know of other projects which do so now and large projects which did so in the past (Mesh for example). For Azure (since I work on it for my day job), I know that Ray was super involved with the design and execution from before it even had an official code name.

    I’m a long time fan of yours but I’m a bit bummed that you didn’t research this a bit more. Ray’s involvement with all these projects is very well documented. For example, when Azure launched, Wired did a cover story on him and Azure.

    I think you’re extrapolating what his job at MSFT was from his job title . Which is a bit like reviewing a movie based on its name but without seeing it.

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      Entirely possible I’m half-wrong (or more). I think the point stands in general about high profile people with certain kinds of titles. Not being an employee I can’t argue against your claims regarding the specific example of Ozzie.

      Reply
  3. Lenny

    “Slide decks and vision plans don’t compile.” I love it!

    Reply
  4. Carlo

    Ray Ozzie created Groove which was a fantastic product then. Ever since Microsoft acquired it (along with Ray himself), it has never improved. I can’t say the same for Ray Ozzie. The man’s a legend (With a cool surname I must admit).

    Reply
  5. Matt

    Didn’t the Azure team start and grow under him to about 300 folks?

    Reply
  6. Matt

    Sorry for the comment saying what someone already said, because the comment form is at the top I didn’t realize there were any responses already.

    Reply

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  1. […] Ray Ozzie, Microsoft and change « Scott Berkun Quote: "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." (categories: culture engineering title ) […]

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