Preston Gralla: Microsoft has derailed for lack of an engineer in chief

People give plenty of reasons for Microsoft's fall from the top of the tech heap. Two of the more common explanations are internal turf wars and the inevitable decline of a near monopoly that got fat and happy.

But I think there's something much simpler at work: It's been years since Microsoft has been run by an engineer. Bill Gates stopped working full time for Microsoft in 2006, and since then the company has been run by non-engineer Steve Ballmer. Before joining Microsoft, Ballmer worked as an assistant product manager for consumer products giant Procter & Gamble and spent a year in the MBA program at Stanford. That's not the set of job skills and background the CEO of a tech company needs today.

Take a look at the tech companies that have surged since Ballmer took over from Gates. Google is headed by engineers. True, people thought that founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page needed some adult supervision. But who stepped in to run the place? Eric Schmidt, a former director of software engineering at Sun.

Facebook is run by an engineer. Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were engineers, and though Jobs couldn't rival Wozniak's prowess, he could code and build hardware, and he lived for overseeing product design. Tim Cook, the current CEO, has a degree in industrial engineering.

Why does all that matter?

Because in tech, the product rules. Products trump marketing, strategy and even smart management. What drives technology isn't dividing up an existing market. It's creating entirely new markets by developing products that people crave.

Google succeeded for a very simple reason: At launch, it was by far the best search engine on the planet. Facebook became a success because it was far more useful and "sticky" than any other social media service. As for Apple, its history suggests that, while engineers can't always save a struggling tech company, a marketer has almost no chance. When Jobs was forced out in the mid-1980s, the CEO was John Sculley, an MBA who had been, among other things, a vice president of marketing at Pepsi. Sculley's ouster was preceded by a misstep on the tech side -- moving the Mac to the PowerPC chip. Although he was followed by two tech-oriented CEOs, it wasn't until Jobs returned that Apple took off again. The spate of new products Jobs developed was remarkable and spurred Apple's meteoric rise.

Engineers succeed as tech leaders because they live and breathe products and care about them in visceral ways that managers -- even very good managers -- don't. For people like Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Brin and Page, building products is a calling, not a job.

Not so for Steve Ballmer. Listen to him talk about products. He's robotic, his enthusiasm is artificial, and his message never strays from whatever marketing campaign has been designed for him. During the launch and early days of Windows Phone 7, he incessantly repeated that the new phone operating system would "delight" users. It was by far one of the most inauthentic, marketing-driven performances I have ever seen.

Jobs, Brin, Page and Zuckerberg never needed to gin up their enthusiasm for what they created. If Microsoft wants to get its mojo back, it should be looking for a leader who's similar to those four: an engineer who loves tech products, not someone who just sells them.

Preston Gralla is a Computerworld.com contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

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