New Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella has a major task ahead: Guide the software giant into a services and hardware world, re-capturing the hearts of developers and a public that has pilloried it for both lagging in innovation and changing too much, too fast with the latest version of Windows.
Local Microsoft alumni are bullish that Nadella has a good shot at pulling it off, particularly in areas where former chief executive Steve Ballmer fell short.
“Microsoft used to be so amazing for developers,” said Abby Fichtner, a former developer evangelist for Microsoft and currently hacker in residence for Harvard’s i-lab. “Over time they just lost the hearts and minds completely. There’s a huge gap there that Ballmer just didn’t fill.”
But while Ballmer’s strengths were in marketing and sales, Fichtner noted Nadella’s technical background: He was previously in charge of research and development for Microsoft’s online services and was executive vice president of Microsoft’s cloud and enterprise group.
Fichtner met him briefly when he visited the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center in Kendall Square, where Fichtner was based.
“He had come in to Boston and asked me and my colleague to set up a roundtable for startups leading in the cloud,” Fichtner said. “I was completely blown away when I met him. The people in the room were impressed as well, which is tricky for geeks in Boston.”
Fichtner said that keeping Microsoft’s research presence active and engaged will be critical to the company’s long-term fortunes.
“What happened again and again is Microsoft would come up with an amazing technology and it would be thrown out because it wouldn’t fit with Windows or Office or their big names,” she said. “And it was really crazy … They had a lot of leading edge technology here.”
Getting more of that technology out the door and into the hands of developers will be critical to winning them back over.
Craig Dillon, a 14-year Microsoft veteran now running consultancy BlueMetal Architects, was bullish on the choice.
“The challenge for a company such as Microsoft with such a diverse offering of products and services is to have a leader that truly understands the organization, the technology, the culture and the connectedness as well as dysfunction,” he noted. “Think about how massive it is in terms of products and ideas and personalities. What’s the parallel?”
That makes Nadella the right pick, Dillon said. “Some of the other choices from inside just didn’t have the intellectual horsepower.”
It also could mean that Microsoft’s NERD presence will get some of the needed attention that has been lacking since Ray Ozzie’s departure.
“I think people are going to be surprised by what he’s going to get done. He’s quiet, unassuming,” Dillon said. “He’s all about being attuned and connected to the market ... I think there’s going to be an infusion of energy [in Kendall Square].”