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What Did Ray Ozzie Actually Do At Microsoft?

Darryl K. Taft covers IBM, big data and a number of other topics for TechWeekEurope and eWeek

As former Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie leaves the company, what has he done for Microsoft and where is the company headed?

Ray Ozzie has announced his plans to leave Microsoft and it is not the end of the world as we know it. In fact, in the scheme of things in the day-to-day activities of the company, Ozzie’s departure means very little.

Why? Because, despite all that he has done behind the scenes to bring muster to Microsoft’s overall cloud strategy and to build teams that could promote the company’s services push, that work was largely done. And observers say Ozzie was pretty much non-existent in the role of what one might consider to be a Chief Software Architect.

Ozzie never wanted to run Microsoft

Some people are saying this move might be a death knell for Microsoft, or at least for CEO Steve Ballmer. That could not be farther from the truth. Ballmer is going nowhere. He credits Ozzie for doing his part, citing Ozzie’s seminal Internet Services Disruption memo as having a key impact in changing direction at Microsoft. However, folks who believed that Ozzie was the heir apparent to Bill Gates and that he would take the reins of the company someday were misinformed, or at most wishful.

When Gates and Ballmer announced Ozzie’s role in the company five years ago, they never indicated he would become CEO. And Ozzie never showed an interest in it. Instead, Ozzie quickly indicated that was not his goal. He is most comfortable putting together small, strategic teams that can pull off amazing feats of engineering, like the so-called “Red Dog” team that delivered Windows Azure.

Ozzie didn’t want to run Microsoft, and had that been part of the deal when he was hired, my sense is he would have refused the job.

But what did he do there? He brought his understanding of services and delivering software as a service. Ozzie, from way back, knew the value of enabling developers and users to collaborate to create and better use applications. He was collaboration when collaboration wasn’t cool. Enter Notes, his baby, and later Groove – ideas viewed as before their time. This formed the foundation of Ozzie’s sync ideas and thus the Live Mesh and cloud efforts.

Yet, given that Ozzie had enormous shoes to fill, the job came with an enormous burden. However, as he was handpicked by Microsoft’s former chief software architect, Bill Gates, Ozzie assumed the role. Now, five years after accepting a position at the world’s largest software company, Ozzie is stepping down.

Respected cloud leader

John Rymer, an analyst with Forrester, said of Ozzie, “He was the point man at that meeting on cloud, and he did a great job outlining the challenges and opportunities for Microsoft. Compared to Bill Gates, Ozzie maintained a low profile. People in Microsoft told me Ozzie was a respected leader, and I think he deserves credit for helping Microsoft transition to cloud – a transition that is still incomplete. But talk about a tough act to follow! Gates was not only company founder, but a genius and *the* technical leader at Microsoft. I don’t think Ozzie ever had Gates’ stature, but then again, who could?

Nobody could. But he didn’t have to. He wasn’t expected to. And he shouldn’t have.

Yet, a lot of what he was expected to do, Ozzie just didn’t deliver on. One was being able to convey his ideas in a way that the common everyday developer and end user could digest them. Instead, Ozzie talk in highfalutin terms and analogies that required coddling and interpretation. And then often he simply did not talk. At the most recent Microsoft Financial Analyst Meeting (FAM) at the company’s Redmond, Washington, campus, Ozzie was not a scheduled speaker, but instead lurked around the facility and allowed analysts to approach him with questions.

To this point, in a 19 October blog post, Andrew Brust, chief of new technology at Twentysix New York and a Microsoft regional director, said:

“Ozzie’s vision for Microsoft, that it embrace services and make a big bet on the cloud, was good, as far as it went.  But when the ‘We’re All In’ speech took place in March at the University of Washington, it was Steve Ballmer, not Ray Ozzie, who delivered the address. Ozzie sat in the front row, looking on as someone else articulated his own vision.  Microsoft needs a technical visionary who aspires to more than working behind the scenes.  Ozzie’s stepping down may enable such a visionary to step up.

“I would have thought such a visionary would assume the Chief Software Architect post, but Ballmer has stated explicitly that he will not be hiring anyone new into that title.  I find this odd.  Someone needs to step into the role of technical thought leader at Microsoft, and take full ownership of the role and its responsibilities.  That role, clearly, will not be called Chief Software Architect.”