In the days leading up to the launch event for Microsoft’s Surface tablet in Los Angeles, then-Windows president Steven Sinofsky practiced lines and choreographed on-stage movements at Milk Studios, an expansive space in Hollywood known for fashion shows and photo shoots. As crew members swiveled pink and blue lights, some joking to each other that “no fruit” was allowed (a reference to the fact that higher-ups had forbidden them from having Apple products at the event), Sinofsky and other top Microsoft brass tweaked their scripts here and there–but otherwise, they seemed chiefly concerned with where to pause on the runway so the attending press could snap the most flattering pictures.
Sinofsky, 47, joined the company in 1989 but was youthfully costumed in his standard uniform of V-neck sweater and sneakers, and looked “really calm and collected,” according to one source present at Milk Studios that day. “He didn’t really need to rehearse.”
Indeed, if anyone knew how much was riding on that fast-approaching event in mid-June, it was Sinofsky, who oversaw the development of Windows 8, the most radical redesign of the company’s flagship operating system in decades. Apart from CEO Steve Ballmer, he arguably had the most to lose (or gain) from the success of the software, which would finally allow Microsoft to compete against Google and Apple in the mobile market. It would also power the Surface tablet, the first Microsoft-manufactured PC device in its 30-year history, and a sign of the deep commitment Redmond had made to Windows 8. Despite the pressure, Sinofsky “seemed to really have it together [during rehearsals],” according to the source.
That is, until the day of the event, when Ballmer finally arrived at Milk Studios for the device’s unveiling. (Prior to his arrival, Ballmer’s part had been played by a stand-in.) “Sinofsky had been there for a couple of days, and the other Steve didn’t get there until the day of the show. Ballmer began rehearsing, and decided to make some changes,” the source recalled recently. “The only thing that changed in that whole show was Ballmer’s and Sinofsky’s scripts. Sinofsky had his thing all written up–he knew what he wanted to do with his presentation–but Ballmer came at the last minute and changed a lot of things.”
Added the source, “I don’t know if there is some weird dynamic between those two guys, but they obviously don’t get along. Because they rarely spoke to each other except through intermediaries: Ballmer’s assistant would talk to [Sinofsky’s] assistant. Ballmer had an entourage of suits around him.”
Hours later, when the launch event started, the results of this apparently awkward dynamic were on display for more than a hundred reporters in the crowd who watched Sinofsky follow Ballmer’s characteristically rigid performance with his own jittery and rushed presentation. Merely 120 seconds into its worldwide debut, the Surface–the device Microsoft designed to take on the iPad–crashed, leaving Sinofsky stumbling over his words, pausing, swallowing, taking several deep breaths, for one excruciatingly long minute before he stopped narrating actions that were visibly not appearing on screen, and actually sprinted to grab a replacement device.
Like his shaky performance that day, in late October, when Microsoft released Windows 8 and the Surface tablet to the world, both products were met with similarly mixed reviews, perhaps foreshadowing the inevitable: Yesterday evening, in a surprise announcement, Microsoft said Sinofsky would be leaving effective immediately after 23 years working at the company. According to Microsoft, the decision was mutual, and in statements released to the press, Ballmer praised Sinosfky’s contributions to the company, while Sinofsky lauded the “professionalism and generosity” of employees he worked with in Redmond.
Julie Larson-Green, VP of program management for Windows, who was featured in our recent profile of the company, will now lead all Windows software and hardware engineering efforts.
What does this mean for the company? Let’s take a look.
To be clear, Steven Sinofsky is not leaving Microsoft due to one lousy performance. By all accounts, the former Windows president was seen as a polarizing figure internally, but also as a leader who could effect serious change within the organization. (Some reports indicate he was once considered a possible successor to Ballmer.) Within the days and weeks ahead, expect a slew of reports detailing juicy in-fighting; pegging the leadership change to lackluster Surface sales or decelerating Windows 8 licenses (I think it’s way too early for either to be a reason); claiming Sinofsky was fired, or perhaps indicating the decision was indeed mutual, or possibly concluding that he was just tired of waiting for Ballmer to step aside. At a company of 94,000 employees (and of probably just as many ex-employees), there will likely be any number of tales to tell, especially about an executive as controversial as many make Sinofsky out to be. (In a leaked letter to employees, Sinofsky said not to read into “any speculation or theories,” especially regarding the decision’s timing.) As one former top Microsoft manager recently told me of internal conflicts at Microsoft, “Look, when a plane crashes, there is never one reason why.”
Regardless of why Sinofsky is actually leaving the company, there’s no doubt the news comes at a terrible time for Microsoft. And regardless of the accuracy of these inevitable reports, they will soon likely become part of the public’s perception of Microsoft–and reasonably so. In the past year, Microsoft has been aggressively marketing its internal evolution: the company’s newfound design DNA; its “reimagining” of Windows; its push to unite its products across Xbox, Phone, Office, and Bing. And for much of that time, the face of this aggressive push for new software and hardware has been Steven Sinofsky, at least at many of the company’s events for developers and media.
So it certainly doesn’t help that less than three weeks after the Windows 8 launch event, the executive overseeing the operation is exiting the company. As Box CEO Aaron Levie, who always has a choice word or two for Microsoft, tweeted not long after the announcement, “New best practice: Tell the world an operating system is the best thing you’ve ever done, [and] then let go of its leader.”
To further underscore that issue, only weeks ago, Apple announced its own series of leadership changes. Most notably, Scott Forstall, the SVP of Apple’s mobile software and as comparably controversial of a figure as Sinofsky, was given the boot. The announcement came not long after Fast Company reported mounting tensions at Apple between Forstall and lead industrial designer Jony Ive. The comparison is likely to appear in the press in the coming days, a comparison for the supposed squabbles and tensions rising at Microsoft, too.
Worse yet are the perceptions around Microsoft’s sales figures. The tech press has been eager to learn how Windows 8 and the Surface tablet are faring in the market. Just this week, Steve Ballmer was seemingly misquoted as saying Surface sales were “modest,” a word that was widely picked up by the media. The news of Sinofsky’s exit will only do more to reinforce such perceptions of weak sales–in other words, there had to be a reason for Sinofsky’s departure.
Potentially, this could become Sinofsky’s legacy. Despite overseeing one of the most dramatic changes in Microsoft’s history, he could become the scapegoat for Windows 8 or the Surface, if neither achieves success–a figure comparable to Jon Rubinstein, formerly of HP, who oversaw the company’s failed efforts to develop its WebOS software and TouchPad tablet.
At the Surface event in June, Sinofsky is said to have set up a camera himself behind the audience to snap stills throughout the course of his presentation. If this is indeed the case, then it’s likely Sinofsky has his own photo album of some of the most painful moments of that event–pictures taken in paparazzi-style succession that were meant to capture what was supposed to be his moment of triumph. Instead, they likely captured not only when the world first met Surface, but when the Surface first flopped in the public’s eye.
Talk to designers at Microsoft about Sinofsky, and at some point, you’ll hear his analogy to pizza. Designing products like Windows or Office, which have a billion customers, he would say, is like ordering pizza for a billion people: How do you choose the right ingredients and toppings to please everyone?
“The way that he used that analogy was: If you try to make everyone happy, you’ll make no one happy,” one top Microsoft designer told me recently. Added another, “You can’t design for a billion people–you can only design for one person, in a sense. You can really really mess up when you try to design for a billion people because then you just throw every single topping on.”
Sinofsky’s thinking was right here–that it’s important for designers to have a point of view–but I think his analogy spoke to larger issues the leadership at Microsoft faced. The pizza metaphor actually fits quite well with Microsoft’s business model for Windows: a company marketing a low-cost product designed to be sold at high volumes.
Perhaps the analogy also indicates how Sinofsky saw the Windows product itself: as something to be manufactured to increase margins at the traditionally engineering-centric company. While certainly an engineer at heart, Sinofsky did lead a group that took a more design-centric approach in recent years, as we outlined in our October feature about design at Microsoft. However, he also represented the unique style of leadership inside Microsoft that, according to my reporting on the subject, supported design only because good design had become good business. “Sinofsky has a personal perspective on what the value of design is. When they brought him to Windows, there became a greater awareness of what a great experience looks like at a higher rank in the company than historically had ever existed before–he did change a lot,” one former topflight designer at Microsoft told me. “That people are choosing to support design only because it will help the bottom line is not necessarily a bad thing. Does it represent the new breed of Microsoft leadership?”
Of course, perhaps more important than Sinofsky’s legacy is his replacement’s future. Julie Larson-Green, who will assume Sinofsky’s role at the company, has a similar approach to design, according to some of her colleagues. As the former topflight designer said, “She is supported by Sinofsky. The two of them are supporters of design because they know they should be. Which is different than saying that they are supporters of great design because they believe it to the core. That is, having design as an innate part of your DNA versus being told design is great from a business perspective.”
A former senior-level Microsoft source, who advised Steve Ballmer, told me of Larson-Green, “I don’t think that Microsoft has changed genetically that much because the type of people in leadership positions haven’t changed all that much. It’s the same people. Julie has been around for two decades. I honestly think it’s a natural, healthy, and more competitive dynamic that’s forcing Microsoft to be design-oriented. Windows hasn’t changed that much until now because it didn’t need to–it’s Darwinian needs.”
I got some sense of the shared values–or at least loyalty–between Sinofsky and Larson-Green at the Surface launch event in Los Angeles. Backstage, I was briefly able to flag down Sinofsky, who was offering only curt replies to nagging, unanswered questions regarding competition, pricing, and release dates. Catching his attention for a moment, I asked him what accounted for this huge shift in product design at Microsoft. Essentially, how was this design DNA emanating across Microsoft? Sinofsky stared back at me, immediately gestured toward Larson-Green, and responded firmly but with a smile, “She is the emanator.” And then he hurried away.
Regardless of her engineering background, it’s clear from a range of sources I’ve spoken with that she values design, regardless of whether her motives are financial or not. (Inevitably one’s motives in business are always financial, right?) Multiple senior-level sources I spoke with in recent months described her as both committed and autonomous. She’s already faced backlash and controversy in the past; for example, she helped to implement the controversial “ribbon” redesign of Microsoft Office–a design that Microsoft stuck with despite initial user complaints. “When we moved from menus and toolbars to the ‘ribbon,’ there were a lot of people crying out for a ‘classic’ mode or the option to go back,” recalled Office VP PJ Hough recently. Lauding the spine of leaders like Larson-Green, he added, “The question is, when they start knocking on the door, and asking for the old way back, how much do you believe that you’ve done the right thing?” (The same could be asked of Windows 8 and Microsoft’s hardware pursuits, of course.)
And for the development of Windows 8, while Sinofsky is said to have framed the challenges to the team for the new release, it was Larson-Green who apparently drafted the planning memo itself. In fact, Ballmer met with Larson-Green, who refers to him as “Steve B,” only twice during the development process (which may say more about Ballmer’s leadership than anything else).
When I spoke with Larson-Green in Los Angles over the summer, she did tell me one thing that gave me hope that Microsoft will continue to push toward becoming a more design-centric company, despite its continued engineering-leaning leadership. “We really try to infuse design thinking with our engineers,” she told me, with a bit of initial boilerplate. But then she added, more candidly, “They [engineers] make changes in design not realizing the impact they can have on the product. We want to make design a part of engineering.”
Given her role in Windows 8–and her involvement and resilience in past product overhauls–perhaps she’ll be a good fit for her new role, though I’ll admit to secretly hoping Microsoft would have promoted one of its lead designers to the position. But Larson-Green seems willing to take chances in her new role overseeing the Windows division–an attitude Microsoft desperately needs to maintain. As she told me once of Windows 8, with perhaps a slight subconscious nod to Apple, “It’s a risk to do something new, but it’s also a risk to sit where we are. There’s always an opportunity to think different.”
[Image: Flickr user BUILDWindows]