Revenge of the Marketing Nerds

Recently, Microsoft went through a major reorganization that really changes the primary leadership of this company. Three primary groups were created to divide the business into broader areas of focus. While many are speculating on why Microsoft did this, I am actually very interested in looking at who they did it with and the ramifications. As someone pointed out to me, all three new presidents (Jim Allchin will be stepping down in a year, so I am not counting him) are essentially marketing guys. Jeff Raikes was Microsoft's first-ever product manager and spent a great deal of time running the sales organization. Kevin Johnson has an undergrad degree in business administration and was the most recent head of sales & marketing. And Robbie Bach is a Stanford MBA that has marketed products throughout Microsoft. All three will report to Steve Ballmer, a near-Stanford MBA who also led the sales & marketing organization at one point. For a company that prides itself on its technical prowess, that's a whole lot of marketing prowess at the top. 

The funny part is there are times when I feel like my b-school background was almost a liability at Microsoft. Don't get me wrong--it was definitely a useful education and I draw on it frequently. However, I think I didn't really get the respect until I was able to speak intelligently to the technology. That's the kind of culture Microsoft is--it's all about the technology. So the fact that arguably the four highest-ranking officials at Microsoft (not counting Bill Gates) are marketing guys is fascinating, especially on the heels of Intel naming their first-ever CEO without an engineering backgroun in Paul Otellini. Don't forget MBA and ex-management consultant Kevin Rollins taking over for Michael Dell. The next generation of the dominant PC companies is being turned over the (gasp!) marketing guys.

So what does that say about the tech industry? To paraphrase the best answer I've heard about turning Microsoft over to the marketers, it's less about technical knowledge and more about leadership. The fact is: Bill Gates didn't write a line of code in the 90s, but he is hugely responsible for the success of Microsoft due to his business savvy. While his ability to grasp technical details is incredibly important, it's his ability to translate that into a cohesive set of marching orders to enabled Microsoft to navigate through the highs and lows that were the 80s and 90s. Strong companies need strong leadership, regardless of who brings it. Bill Gates brought it and I think Steve Ballmer brings it.

Still, the question is "why marketing guys"? After all, aren't there technical leaders? Probably, but I think this is a sign of understanding that these companies have less of a technical responsibility and more of a customer responsibility. When we focus on the technology, we do a disservice to the customer. The technical guy goes "wow, this is really cool". The marketing guy goes "wow, soccer moms are gonna love this and therefore spend a lot of $$ on this". Take Steve Jobs--most hail him as a technical visionary, but he is the world's greatest marketing guy (no, that's not an insult). Wozniak was the technical force behind the early days of Apple--Jobs just put it in the perfect context. By the time Jobs returned, he helped bring the iMac to the market (bubble gum computers are hardly technical innovations) and eventually products like the iPod (plenty of MP3 players, but the iPod hit the mark). These are products that triggered a reaction from regular people. I admit that I envy that thinking and hope Microsoft does more of that. Cool doesn't make $$--changing people's lives does. I see signs, but the next 12 months will be the best indication. Good luck to Bach, Raikes, and Johnson. The world is watching...

{Coldplay - X&Y}