Skating Towards the Goal

First things first: I do not subscribe to the idea that a Bill Gates return would be a good outcome for Microsoft. Indeed, much of what troubles Microsoft today is directly attributable to Gates, particularly the Vista disaster/distraction and the Windows obsession.

Still, though, there is something to be said for the power and inspiration that can only be provided by a founder, and two fascinating pieces about Gates really give a great perspective on the challenges today’s Microsoft faces.

The first article is from Harvard Magazine, called Bill Gates, Inside the Gates, and is an excerpt from a book Walter Isaacson is writing. It concerns the creation of the Altair BASIC interpreter, Microsoft’s first product:

It may have been the most momentous purchase of a magazine in the history of the Out of Town Newsstand in Harvard Square. Paul Allen, a college dropout from Seattle, wandered into the cluttered kiosk one snowy day in December 1974 and saw that the new issue of Popular Electronics featured a home computer for hobbyists, called the Altair, that was just coming on the market. He was both exhilarated and dismayed. Although thrilled that the era of the “personal” computer seemed to have arrived, he was afraid that he was going to miss the party.

Slapping down 75 cents, he grabbed the issue and trotted through the slush to the Currier House room of Bill Gates, a Harvard sophomore and fellow computer fanatic from Lakeside High School in Seattle, who had convinced Allen to drop out of college and move to Cambridge. “Hey, this thing is happening without us,” Allen declared. Gates began to rock back and forth, as he often did during moments of intensity. When he finished the article, he realized that Allen was right. For the next eight weeks, the two of them embarked on a frenzy of code writing that would change the nature of the computer business.

The second was a great interview by Richard Waters in the Financial Times:1

It takes more than money to rid the world of a scourge such as polio – though having buckets of cash certainly helps. Also needed are ambitious thinking, organisational know­how and the ability to bring new ideas to bear on old problems…

When the Gates Foundation made polio eradication a priority five years ago, the global anti-polio effort was running into the sand. More than 10 years of progress had given way, at around the turn of the millennium, to a stalemate as vaccination efforts in the countries still harbouring the disease failed to reach the coverage levels needed to push it into extinction. The organisations behind the existing drive – such as Rotary International, the business group that had long led the effort – “had sort of naively assumed it was on track, but it wasn’t”, Gates says. “The idea that business as usual was going to get us there – it had to be broken out of that, because it wasn’t going to succeed. It probably would have been better to just give up than do business as usual. But that would have been horrific.”

Gates seems to relish nothing more than challenging business as usual, often by applying a dose of more ambitious thinking. It was the same impetus that led him to rethink familiar approaches to philanthropy, throwing his money into the urgent pursuit of solutions to big problems rather than attempting a drip-feed of donations that would amount to little more than a Band-Aid.

What is so striking about these two totally different excerpts is how they bely the exact same approach: the identification of a goal, and the application of total effort to achieve it, no matter the obstacles.

It’s the exact same sort of feeling evoked by one of the greatest corporate mission statements of all time: A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software.

This is Gates’ – and by extension, Microsoft’s – modus operandi. Massive ambition, identified opportunity, clear goals, and the relentless determination to achieve them.

I’ve written previously, in the context of Apple, that “while a company can reinvent itself around new products and new categories, and continue to thrive, I believe culture is the sort of pie that can only be baked once.” And there’s no reason to think Microsoft should be any different.

And that, right there, is what is wrong with Microsoft. It’s not they don’t have talent – they do. It’s not that they don’t have great technology – they do. In fact, it’s not even that they lack a CEO. Rather, it’s that they achieved their goal. There IS a computer on every desk and in very home, and nearly all of them run Microsoft software. So now what?

Steve Jobs famously used the Wayne Gretzky quote: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been” to wrap up the iPhone introduction.

Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone at MacWorld in 2007
Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone at MacWorld in 2007

Since then, a popular criticism of Microsoft is directly ripped off from this: that they are continually skating to where the puck has been. And while that’s arguably true in a narrow sense, it misses the bigger picture: Apple may very well be Wayne Gretzky, performing ballet on skates and seeing what others don’t see. But the second greatest goal scorer in NHL history is Gordie Howe, known not for his grace but for his strength, durability, and willingness to mix it up.2 There is virtue in the single-minded pursuit of a goal, and the absolute refusal to be deterred.

But again, what is the new goal? What is Microsoft’s reason for being? What ends are achieved by a massive conglomerate spanning CRM systems to database software to gaming consoles? Microsoft, perhaps more than any other company, needs focus,3 vision, and a problem worth solving. To be sure, that falls on the next CEO, but the bigger question that must be asked is if such a problem – one suitable for the unwieldy behemoth that is Microsoft – even exists.

Maybe4 in the end, just like at the beginning, Paul Allen is right:

Microsoft’s next chief executive should consider spinning off consumer businesses including search advertising and the Xbox games console, according to the private investment vehicle of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Mr Allen, who started the company with Bill Gates in 1975 and still holds a $2bn stake, is “intrigued and interested” by forthcoming changes, said Paul Ghaffari, who manages the tech investor’s $15bn fortune.

Mr Ghaffari, chief investment officer of Mr Allen’s family investment office Vulcan Capital, said the successor to Steve Ballmer ought to perform radical surgery on Microsoft.

The goal of a breakup is usually to “unlock value.” In the case of Microsoft, though, what needs to be unlocked is that old Gates culture of massive ambition, identified opportunity, clear goals, and the relentless determination to achieve them by focused, distinct product groups companies no longer burdened by the need of Microsoft to simply exist.

  1. Yes, you have to register. I think this article is worth it 

  2. You may have heard of the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” – a game with a goal, an assist, and a fight 

  3. The current mission statement is the opposite of focus: “At Microsoft, our mission and values are to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.” I could write an entire article on what’s wrong with this 

  4. The “maybe” is deliberate. I can see both sides of this argument and look forward to people’s responses