Microsoft rank and file unsettled but optimistic about change

Microsoft rank and file unsettled but optimistic about change

REDMOND, Wash. - A mood of cautious optimism tempered with a dash of anxiety has spread on Microsoft Corp's leafy campus in the Seattle suburbs, as the world's biggest software maker embarks on one of the most tumultuous periods in its 38-year history.

Since mid-July, three interlocking events - all of them considered highly unlikely six months ago - have unfolded in quick succession, unsettling Microsoft managers and employees and roiling its share price.

First, CEO Steve Ballmer rejiggered top management as part of an ambitious plan to remodel the company around devices and services rather than software. Six weeks later, he announced his retirement within a year, sending shares soaring. Ten days after that, he unveiled a US$7.2 billion (S$9.15 billion) purchase of Nokia's phone business, a move that ate up the stock's recent gains.

Within the company's Redmond, Washington, headquarters at least, the casually dressed workers seem much more worried about the far-reaching reorganisation announced by Ballmer than the multibillion-dollar Nokia acquisition, which has incensed many investors who view it as a waste of money.

"The funniest thing I read on LinkedIn was, 'Two black holes converge,'" said one Microsoft employee, who asked not to be named, soon after the Nokia acquisition was announced. "But I think there's some real potential here."

The topic of Ballmer's retirement elicited a more complex reaction from some Microsoft employees interviewed this week.

"Like Wall Street, there was initial euphoria with the announcement for employees," said one 15-year veteran who has worked in a number of units at the company, in response to Ballmer's retirement and a change at the helm of a company that no longer sets the pace for technological innovation.

"But he is as much a symptom as the actual problem. This whole crazy re-org will still happen. And nothing will really change." he said. "Among many of my fellow employees - both new hires and long-timers - there is a recognition that Microsoft has lost its way."

Microsoft declined comment on the mood of its employees.

One of the ways the company aims to regain its stride is the addition of Nokia's phone business, but that will likely complicate an already complex reorganisation that is just getting under way.

"The re-org is more unsettling for some people than Ballmer's departure. Exactly how that shakes out is more interesting," said another employee who asked not to be identified.

"There is always a small percentage of people who do lose their job, or get put into an awkward new role. For those people, morale is very bad, of course. But whoever you talk to, they all noticed that the stock went up on the Ballmer (retirement) news. If sustained, that will make morale improve broadly."

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