After successful launches of Office 2003, Office 2007, and Windows 7 Steven Sinofsky is on the verge of stardom

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) is facing some very real questions about its long-term succession plans.  While current chief executive Steve Ballmer is "healthy as a horse", he's also 55 and contemplating retirement to spend more time with his wife and children.  Past statements indicated that Mr. Ballmer would retire in 2018, at age 61. 

I. Steve 2.0: Groomed by Bill Gates, Destined for Greatness

The question facing Microsoft is who will succeed the iconic Steve in a little over half a decade.  

For a time Ray Ozzie, former chief technical officer, was thought to be a leading candidate.  But Mr. Ozzie left the company in 2010 to found a startup firm.  Some say the move was in part due to frustration after Microsoft sunk the Courier tablet concept, which was poised in 2010 to become the earliest competitor to Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iPad.

Ironically, the man perhaps the most responsible for the death of Courier, is now shepherd Microsoft into a new era of rich tablet interfaces.  That man is Windows President Steven Sinofsky, and he is considered by many to be an emerging front runner to become the next chief executive -- Steve 2.0, if you will -- at Microsoft.

Steven Sinofksy
Windows President Steven Sinofsky is a strong candidate to succeed Steve Ballmer in 2018 as CEO. [Image Source: ExtremeTech]

While no one could truly replace the boisterous Ballmer, Mr. Sinofsky is known to be a strong, uncompromising leader who could propel Microsoft to continued success.  He was hand picked as a technical assistant to Bill Gates in 1989 after he graduated from Cornell University's graduate school and secured a position at Microsoft.

Mr. Sinofsky was a visionary force, pressuring Gates to recognize that the internet was becoming as "ubiquitous and expected as regular phone service."  Mr. Gates praises Mr. Sinofsky and credits him, in part, for waking him up to the coming internet revolution.

II. A Strong Track Record

Made Vice President in charge of the Microsoft Office team, Mr. Sinofsky orchestrated the successful release of Office 2003 and Office 2007.  The successes prompted Microsoft to name him Windows Vice President in 2006, just before the launch of Vista.

Like Mr. Ballmer, Mr. Sinofsky has endured his fair share of criticism.  While it was largely not his design, he nonetheless shared in the loads of flak for the unpolished, poorly-marketed Vista. He drew yet more criticism for killing Courier due to his refusal to compromise on a tablet that lacked support for key products like Exchange Server/Outlook and Microsoft Office.

Despite that criticism, Mr. Sinofsky has been universally praised for his Magnum opus, Windows 7.  Seen by many as a rebirth of Windows, the new operating system was allowed by Mr. Sinofsky's unique style of management.  Some call his method of cutting through the typical layers of bureaucracy as "Sinofskyization".

The success of Windows 7 earned Mr. Sinofsky a new rank -- Windows President.

Windows 7 success
Windows 7 was a stellar vindication of Steven Sinofsky's unique management style.
[Image Source: AP]

At the 2012 Mobile World Congress tomorrow (Feb. 29), Mr. Sinofsky, age 46, is expected to face his stiffest test yet -- announcing the public beta candidate release of Windows 8.

Windows 8 is set to launch later this year.  It will mark Microsoft richest OS user interface yet, and adds dedicated tablet-minded user interfaces.  In other words, Mr. Sinofsky -- once accused of being a tablet murderer -- has put forth a product that may prove Microsoft's salvation in this increasingly lucrative market.

A strong performance could solidify the Windows President's position as Microsoft heir-apparent.  Frank Artale, managing director at Seattle-based venture capital firm Ignition, told Reuters in an interview that Mr. Sinofsky has both the "the tech chops" and "panache and showmanship" needed to give a strong performance.

III. Scrapping Traditional Management and Fiefdoms

Mr. Sinofsky would bring a different brand of leadership to Microsoft.  While he can reportedly be viciously critical when necessary, he doesn't swear at employees in meetings as Bill Gates was famous for doing, or scream at them like Steve Ballmer was known to do (Mr. Sinofsky also does not throw chairs in meetings).

The friendly, but tough executive has described his leadership approach in the Windows Team Blog (a creation of Mr. Sinofsky's embodying his more open style of development) and other blogs as "bottom-up", which he views as a departure from the traditional "top-down" form of management.  The process is inherently democratic in the planning stage, but then transforms into a traditional hierarchy during the execution phase.

Describes a former executive to Reuters, "It's a bottom-up plan that is built and locked in a systematic way.  Everyone gets input on the plan, but once the plan is set, it's set."

That said, Mr. Sinofsky has been careful to make Microsoft very receptive to customer feedback -- something Microsoft traditionally had been less than stellar at.

The Windows chief also reduced the number of managers between him and the lowest-ranking Windows team employees from 7 to 3 or 4.  Sources say the approach eliminated the Windows team's increasing bloat and self-destructive tendency towards fiefdoms.

Fiefdom syndrome
Mr. Sinofsky has battled to eliminate anti-productive management fiefdoms within in the Windows team. [Image Source: Amazon]

"The techs know they can't sandbag him," says another source, speaking to one of Mr. Sinofsky's strengths -- strong fundamental coding knowledge.

Mr. Sinofsky is much more humble about his own coding prowess, stating, "My code was always nice and orderly, but I probably couldn't write enough code fast enough to really be the very best at programming."

IV. Critics are Going to Criticize

Some have their doubts about Mr. Sinofsky.  Yet another Reuters ex-Microsoft executive source scathingly summarizes, "Bill Gates had the most amazing mind I've ever encountered. You could show him a PowerPoint slide and he would ask why it was different from the one you showed him three years ago.  Steve Ballmer is the most intuitively mathematical person I've ever worked with. Steve (Sinofsky) is neither of those things."

And some see him as too stiff and rigid, in contrast Mr. Artale's praise.  Mini-Microsoft, a blog operated by an anonymous Microsoft insider that offers creative criticism of the firm, calls Mr. Sinofsky "Spock-meets-Spartan".

And Ryan Lowdermilk, an influential Windows app developer known for his podcasts, offers mixed sentiments to Reuters stating, "I don't think people care for his presentation style. He's one of those super-intelligent types that come off as a little dry.  But developers respect people who ship product. That's what people like about him the most."

But ultimately Mr. Sinofsky's leadership style reminds one of a little bit of another iconic figure in the tech community -- Steven P. Jobs.  Albeit a bit more rational than Mr. Jobs, Mr. Sinofsky bears more of a closer resemblance to the late Apple chief -- trim, unassuming, yet quietly commanding -- than he does to the tall, hulking Mr. Ballmer.  And his relentless approach to product delivery and his knack for seeing the big picture both offer his strongest passing resemblance to Mr. Jobs.

Mr. Sinofsky may not be Mr. Jobs.  And he's definitely no Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer.  But the products he's design from start to finish read like a compilation of Microsoft's greatest modern success -- early builds of Internet Explorer, Office 2003, Office 2007, Windows 7, and now Windows 8.

Steven Sinofsky
Windows 8 is Steven Sinofsky's time to shine. [Image Source: Reuters]

Clearly he's doing something right.  And if he can keep it up and have a strong showing at MWC, he may earn the nod from influential investors like David Einhorn, who are all too ready to see the hyperactive Mr. Ballmer take his final bow.

Source: Reuters

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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