Posted by: kurtsh | June 16, 2006

COMMENTARY: Thoughts on Billg’s “upcoming” departure in 2 years

Here’s a couple "givens" that I know personally:
 
1) Billg’s still got plenty of passion & interest in computer software. 
If you ever got to meet the man, you’d know that when you’re one-on-one with him, he and his direct staff really believe that we’ve only just touched the surface of what software can do and will provide to consumers, businesses, and humanity.  Their confidence has always been the reason I’ve laughed at people like Larry Ellison who’ve made comments about how "software wasn’t where the most exciting work was being done".
 
2) Billg’s VERY competitive.
All thoughout our history, very few people – SteveB included – have been more competitive and more keenly focused on our competition than Billg, and that competitiveness has not waned one bit.  He still speaks very strongly when we talk about ‘certain’ competitors today in the same way that he spoke about WordPerfect, Lotus 123, Sun/Java, Novell/Directory Services, Netscape, etc.  Trust me… he hasn’t lost his edge one bit.
 
3) Microsoft still needs butt-kicking leadership.
Don’t get me wrong:  We’ve got some really truly amazing leadership in this company.  I worked for both Visa International (Credit & Debit) and Hewlett Packard Company and let me just state for the record that I’ve never felt that a company was better led than Microsoft.  In fact, our leadership is held to a standard that’s far and above higher than most other companies.  I mean, we’re judged at the same level as Intel, GE, Disney, Boeing, and other major companies.  Think about how well you think these other company’s execs have done then compare that to Microsoft’s execs.  But we still need as many "equalizers" and we can get because our company’s culture is one in which strong valid opinions clash, and the "equalizers" act as tiebreakers that are final and unquestioned.
 
4) Billg will be focused on his philanthropic foundation.
Billg stated that he would be spending his time on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  He didn’t say anything more than that but his recent actions can tell you a few things about his intent moving forward. 
– Melinda Gates, a person who’s usually quite out of the spotlight, gave her first TV interview to Oprah along side with Billg.
– Bono (of U2 fame) is working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to solve many world problems including hunger, disease, education, and transportation.
 
 
So here’s the big question:  Why would Billg leave now?
 
I have a theory about that. 
 
SCHOOLS IN CRISIS 
I think if you take a look at this episode of the Oprah Winfrey show, Bill reveals in his first "non-business" interview involving his foundation, a serious concern he has about the country’s education system:
 
If I recall correctly, he describes the American education system as being one of the single biggest threats to the US’s long term prosperity and competitiveness within the world economy.
 
He’s so concerned about it that he and Oprah Winfrey describes our national education system as being a "complete failure" and in a "state of crisis".  They don’t really go into it but in previous discussions, they’ve described our challenge with education as essentially a championless cause because no one seems to solve the fundamental problem of "why our schools aren’t teaching our kids".  Some politicians want to throw money at it.  Others want to enact laws that regulate curriculum and standardize education using national testing.  Yet others want referrendums around teaching credentials and an invigoration of the drive for more accredited teachers.
 
He’s concerned about this because America’s nowhere near the sophistication of other countries when it comes to educating the next generation.  With it’s 50’s style education techniques, America’s gone downhill relative to the rest of the world.  Our school system is ranked something around 24th worldwide, when compared with other country’s educational systems.  In other words, there are 23 other countries with better schools than we do – including Canada, Germany, France, Korea, Poland, Hungary, Slovak Republic, etc.  It is predicted that America’s workforce will be completely non-competitive with our 3rd world counterparts and ultimately we’ll lose our status as a world power.
 
Our undereducated workforce will render the country irrelevant.
 
 
A LACK OF TECHNICALLY CAPABLE WORKERS 
The most telling indicator that our educational system is a horrifically underperforming, is the fact that we – Microsoft – aren’t finding the same pool of technical candidates coming out of college any more.  Bill states in his interview that not just Microsoft, but all technology companies are having to reach out to foreign countries for technically competent recruits:  America’s not providing the workforce necessary to sustain it’s high tech economy, and consequently, companies like Oracle, Cisco, IBM, and of course, Microsoft, are establishing offices and research centers in various parts of the world in the hopes of recruiting the best technical minds elsewhere.
 
I think ultimately the problem is so bad that Billg decided to go try and solve it himself with his philanthropy, his connections with people, and with others interested in moving the country’s education system forward like Kevin Johnson (formerly of the Phoenix Suns) and Oprah Winfrey.  He’s seen that Microsoft is challenged in getting good technically educated talent from the US at the rate we need and it’s so bad that we’re growing our foreign staff recruitment at a far faster rate than our American recruitment.
 
So while his foundation provides much needed resources to save lives in impoverished countries by providing programs for vaccinations, medicines, and nourishment, I think Billg will actually be working on the US’s issues.  I think he’s going to turn the educational system on its head in an attempt to reinvigorate America’s education system before it’s too late. 
 
 
SUMMARY
We need kids that are well-educated and interested in math & sciences to remain competitive.  And this issue has to be addressed as soon as possible… I repeat:  AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.  It’s not something that we can wait for politicians to figure out.  The country’s competitive edge and overall relevance in the world is at stake and in an even larger possibly somewhat arrogant view, the world can’t afford to not have America, the largest free democracy, not be successful along side emerging countries with "less developed" government infrastructures and "non-democratic" regimes.
 
Of course this isn’t entirely altruistic.  Microsoft itself, Billg’s powerbase, suffers competitively because of the lack of math & sciences talent in America relative to China, India, and other emerging superpowers.  We’ve established research centers in these countries to take their intellectual talent.  (See http://research.microsoft.com)    And more and more, we’re depending upon these 3rd world research centers for new IP.  And that’s a scary thing because foreign workers strongly tend to work for companies based in their countries of origin – not American companies like ours.  This means that our strengths – our smart people – are diminishing, and those of our foreign competitors are growing.
 
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, with the success of America goes the success of Microsoft.

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