Steven Sinofsky Talks Microsoft, and Reasons for Leaving It

 
 
By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2013-05-31 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

At the All Things D event, Steven Sinofsky discussed the paradigm shift computing is undergoing and his need to step away from Microsoft.

Steven Sinofsky left Microsoft in November 2012, after 23 years with the company and just weeks after ushering the company through the development of its first hardware computing product and delivering to market Windows 8, an operating system overhaul meant to refresh the company and its image.

(For some users, the overhaul was too dramatic, and on May 30 Microsoft updated the OS to version 8.1, bringing back the Start Button.)

Sinofsky's quick and unexpected departure left the industry to speculate that the man expected to take over for CEO Steve Ballmer was frustrated by how slowly that seat was being vacated, that he had asked for something big that Ballmer had declined, or that he was frustrated with decisions or colleagues at the company.

At the D: All Things D event May 30, Sinofsky told interviewers Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg that he simply needed to be out from under the Microsoft umbrella in order to grow and learn and think. He's currently teaching at Harvard, blogging and trying to chat with folks around the industry.

Twice during his career, he said, he took sabbaticals. His departure last year from Microsoft was just a more exaggerated version.

"What I found was that learning and experiencing things from a different perspective was the most energizing and the most rewarding part of sort of growing, just as a product person," Sinofsky said. "Then you reach a point where you really want a truly different perspective. So I felt like I needed to separate and not be the company guy."

He continued, "I've actually done tons of blog posts internally for people about when's the right time to change jobs ... and it's tricky, because products overlap ... and you want a clean break. So you kind of have to just pick a time, and I picked a time."

When Swisher and Mossberg suggested that his final efforts, Surface and Windows 8, hadn't gone quite according to plan—that sales weren't quite there, and Windows 8 isn't the success story that Vista was—Sinofsky said 100 million was a number he was personally impressed with, and that enterprises not refreshing their desktops in droves is part of a "broader dynamic."

"The industry is undergoing a tremendous amount of change, and I think that's exciting, and it means that there's an opportunity. And the thing that happens, when there's a big change going on, and it really is a true Thomas Khune paradigm shift that's going on"—Kuhn was the scientist who introduced "paradigm shift" as a change to a set of basic assumptions—"and all of a sudden it seems like it's happening fast, but it's been evolving, and it doesn't change overnight," said Sinofsky.

"It's going to take a long time for it to play out. ... And while it's going on, you have to resist the urge to pick winners and losers ... because it will play out over many years. ... The nature of the computer is undergoing a transformation, and the form factor is a way of expressing that."

Swisher suggested that the paradigm shift is one that's been happening for some time, likening it to a train Microsoft could see from three miles away, and asked why Microsoft couldn't react more successfully.

Here, Sinofsky seemed to perhaps put some blame on Ballmer.

"If any organization can shift itself, [it's Microsoft]," he said. "It's really just a classic management challenge ... you want to get a very, very large number of incredibly brilliant, creative people all sort of heading in one direction, making a joint and shared bet, and it's essentially just a management challenge. It's very rarely a shortage of ideas."

When asked who's doing things right these days, Sinsofsky had compliments for Android—he's using an HTC One—and for Apple, saying it particularly got things right with iMessage, though the company still needs to innovate it more to keep up with newcomers.

As for where he's headed next, Sinofsky wouldn't say, declining to answer whether he'd been offered a job by Google or Apple or would work at either organization if asked.

"Right now, I'm really in learning mode," he said. "I'm really thinking of this as another sabbatical."

Steven Sinofsky left Microsoft in November 2012, after 23 years with the company and just weeks after ushering the company through the development of its first hardware computing product and delivering to market Windows 8, an operating system overhaul meant to refresh the company and its image.

(For some users, the overhaul was too dramatic, and on May 30 Microsoft updated the OS to version 8.1, bringing back the Start Button.)

Sinofsky's quick and unexpected departure left the industry to speculate that the man expected to take over for CEO Steve Ballmer was frustrated by how slowly that seat was being vacated, that he had asked for something big that Ballmer had declined, or that he was frustrated with decisions or colleagues at the company.

At the D: All Things D event May 30, Sinofsky told interviewers Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg that he simply needed to be out from under the Microsoft umbrella in order to grow and learn and think. He's currently teaching at Harvard, blogging, and trying to chat with folks around the industry.

Twice during his career, he said, he took sabbaticals. His departure last year from Microsoft was just a more exaggerated version.

"What I found was that learning and experiencing things from a different perspective was the most energizing and the most rewarding part of sort of growing, just as a product person," Sinofsky said. "Then you reach a point where you really want a truly different perspective. So I felt like I needed to separate and not be the company guy."

He continued, "I've actually done tons of blog posts internally for people about when's the right time to change jobs ... and it's tricky, because products overlap ... and you want a clean break. So you kind of have to just pick a time, and I picked a time."

When Swisher and Mossberg suggested that his final efforts, Surface and Windows 8, hadn't gone quite according to plan—that sales weren't quite there, and Windows 8 isn't the success story that Vista was—Sinofsky said 100 million was a number he was personally impressed with, and that enterprises not refreshing their desktops in droves is part of a "broader dynamic."

"The industry is undergoing a tremendous amount of change, and I think that's exciting, and it means that there's an opportunity. And the thing that happens, when there's a big change going on, and it really is a true Thomas Khune paradigm shift that's going on"— Khune was the scientist who introduced "paradigm shift" as a change to set of basic assumptions—and all of a sudden it seems like it's happening fast, but it's been evolving, and it doesn't change overnight," said Sinofsky.

"It's going to take a long time for it to play out. ... And while it's going on, you have to resist the urge to pick winners and losers ... because it will play out over many years. ... The nature of the computer is undergoing a transformation, and the form factor is a way of expressing that."

Swisher suggested that the paradigm shift is one that's been happening for some time, likening it to a train Microsoft could see from three miles away, and asked why Microsoft couldn't react more successfully.

Here, Sinofsky seemed to perhaps put some blame on Ballmer.

"If any organization can shift itself, [it's Microsoft]," he said. "It's really just a classic management challenge ... you want to get a very, very large number of incredibly brilliant, creative people all sort of heading in one direction, making a joint and shared bet, and it's essentially just a management challenge. It's very rarely a shortage of ideas."

When asked who's doing things right these days, Sinsofsky had compliments for Android—he's using an HTC One—and for Apple, saying it particularly got things right with iMessage, though the company still needs to innovate it more to keep up with newcomers.

As for where he's headed next, Sinofsky wouldn't say, declining to answer whether he'd been offered a job by Google or Apple or would work at either organization if asked.

"Right now, I'm really in learning mode," he said. "I'm really thinking of this as another sabbatical."


Editor Note: This article was changed to correct the spelling of Thomas Kuhn's name.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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