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At Microsoft, Sinofsky seen as smart but abrasive

A few run-ins with company leaders led to Steven Sinofsky’s exit, according to current and ex-Microsoft executives
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First Published: Wed, Nov 14 2012. 03 38 PM IST
A 25 October photo of Steven Sinofsky at the launch of Microsoft Windows 8 in New York. Photo: AP
A 25 October photo of Steven Sinofsky at the launch of Microsoft Windows 8 in New York. Photo: AP
One night in late October, Steven Sinofsky stood on a platform above New York’s Times Square, smiling as a huge crowd roared at the unveiling of a Microsoft store, where Windows 8 and the company's new Surface tablet were about to go on sale.
Less than three weeks later, Sinofsky—who, as the head of Windows, was arguably the second-most important leader at Microsoft—suddenly left the company. His abrasive style was a source of discord within Microsoft, and he and Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, agreed that it was time for him to leave, according to a person briefed on the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Sinofsky was admired for his effectiveness in running one of the biggest and most important software development organizations on the planet. But his departure, which Microsoft announced late on Monday, parallels in many respects that of Scott Forstall, the headstrong former head of Apple’s mobile software development, who was fired by Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, in late October.
Both cases underscore a dilemma chief executives sometimes face: When do the costs of keeping brilliant leaders who cannot seem to get along with others outweigh the benefits?
The tipping point that led to Sinofsky's departure came after an accumulation of run-ins with Ballmer and other company leaders, rather than a single incident. It wasn't until this Monday, though, that Sinofsky and Ballmer both decided it would be best if Sinofsky left. Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, supported the move, a person briefed on the matter said. Sinofsky served as a technical assistant to Gates in the 1990s.
In an email to Microsoft employees, Sinofsky said the decision to leave “was a personal and private choice”. Many surprised Microsoft insiders noted that Sinofsky's departure was immediate, an unusual arrangement for someone with a 23-year track record at the company. A Microsoft spokesman, Frank Shaw, said Sinofsky was not available to comment.
Although Ballmer grew increasingly impatient with Sinofsky throughout the year, he held back from taking any action earlier to avoid disrupting the release of Windows 8, the most important product Microsoft has unveiled in years, a person familiar with his thinking said.
The final decision could not have come lightly. Although many people at Microsoft viewed him as a ruthless corporate schemer, Sinofsky ran the highly complex organization responsible for Windows as a disciplined army that met deadlines, and he was respected by people on his team.
He achieved hero status within Microsoft several years ago by taking over the leadership of Windows after the debacle that was Windows Vista. Sinfosky led the development of a new version of the operating system, Windows 7, which was positively reviewed and sold well.
Sinofsky's bridge to Ballmer began to weaken over time. Ballmer and other Microsoft executives were incensed by the failure of Sinofsky this year to take ownership of the company's failure to comply with an agreement with European regulators on Web browsers, which could result in a substantial fine. (Microsoft had committed to including a screen in its operating system that let new users easily install competing browsers.)
Ballmer was also frustrated by the relatively sparse selection of applications available for Windows 8. Ballmer has long been an advocate of the importance of independent developers in making Windows successful.
Sinofsky’s success with Windows led to constant speculation that he was the heir apparent to Ballmer, whose own tenure as chief executive has been marked by missteps. Sinofsky, an engineer, had the technical chops that Ballmer, with a background in sales, lacked.
But Ballmer has revealed no plans to leave Microsoft. Even if he had, Sinofsky's detractors had predicted a mutiny within the company if he was given the top job. Furthermore, people who know Sinofsky do not think he was interested.
“It didn't strike me that it was his life's ambition,” said Marco Iansiti, a professor at the Harvard Business School who wrote a management book with Sinofsky.
One concern in getting rid of forceful executives like Forstall and Sinofsky is that their employers will begin developing products by committee, rather than in the sometimes heated crucible of clashing personalities, where someone with the strongest vision can prevail.
But one Microsoft executive said Sinofsky's departure was not a choice of harmony at the expense of creative tension.
“You need both,” this person said.
©2012/The New York Times
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First Published: Wed, Nov 14 2012. 03 38 PM IST