Microsoft: Don't Trust Anyone Over 40

Dana Blankenhorn - The Street  NOV 14, 2012 2:00 PM

Under its aging leadership, Microsoft has become disconnected from its own inventiveness.

 


Technology has always been a young person's game. When I started covering technology, in 1982, so was leadership at Microsoft (NYSE:MSFT).

It was in that year, as a Microsoft corporate timeline at Thocp.net notes, that Jon Shirley was brought in from RadioShack (NYSE:RSH) -- Radio Shack! -- because Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer needed "adult supervision."

The entrepreneurs who created the dot-boom in the 1990s were also young men and women. So was Larry Page, throughout the last decade, while he and classmate Sergey Brin were building Google (NASDAQ:GOOG).

Technology happens on campuses, and campuses are ruled by the young. The very best scientists make their great discoveries before they're 40, and it's a cliché that they then spend the rest of their careers teaching, coaching, and managing their successors. It's mostly true.

Over the last few weeks, I've written about how much pressure Microsoft is under with the launch of Windows 8, and how we should worry more about their aging leadership than about, say, Google.

Shareholders lost a reported $10 billion in equity Tuesday with the sudden resignation of Windows head Steven Sinofsky,as reported by Mashable.com.

The knives have since come out for him. He was supposedly after his boss's job,writes Business Insider. He's supposedly abrasive and off-putting,says The Verge.

The whole thing is adolescent, but getting closer to adolescence is what Microsoft needs most.

Sinofsky's replacements are two executives in their forties, neither of whom started their careers at the company. Julie Larson-Green told Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet that she applied to Microsoft after college,but was turned down and worked at Aldus until 1994. Tami Reller came to Microsoft with Great Plains Software and only moved to Redmond in 2006, according to a 2006 profile at Microsoft's Channel 9 site.

Despite everything, Microsoft remains inventive. Microsoft recently demonstrated real-time, spoken-language translation, a two-step process of first, turning speech into text, and then translating the text. Microsoft often comes up with cool things like this. What it lacks -- what it has lacked since Windows 95 -- is a strategist who can turn what comes out of the lab into products people will demand.

A good example is the company's Kinect interface. It's not just a way to play games with gestures. It's a transformative technology, as The Verge writes, something that gives robots a way to interface with the world, and something that could, as Technology Review notes, launch a host of start-ups.

So where is Alex Kipman, the Brazilian who incubated the technology? Microsoft handed him a nice award when he was in his thirties. Why isn't Kipman's technological vision being trumpeted now?

This is the kind of person who should be getting the keys to the Microsoft kingdom. Someone in touch with the future, not the past.

I believe Microsoft's problems are deeper than the present technology, and more important than even the fate of Windows 8. Microsoft's executive pipeline needs repair.

Microsoft needs to trust a new generation of leaders with new visions, who have demonstrated technical and marketing creativity.

Microsoft shouldn't trust anyone over 40 with its future.

At the time of publication, the author was long GOOG and MSFT.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.