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."


Under Ballmer's 'One Microsoft' vision - which will take until the end of the year, at least, to complete - Microsoft's five operating units, including the massive Windows and Office businesses, are being realigned under four new functional engineering groups, broadly covering operating systems, devices, applications and the cloud.

In practice, that means tearing up some existing units and shifting thousands of staff around campus. The old Windows business will largely go into the new operating systems unit, but the Surface tablet unit will go into the new devices organisation, to be joined by Nokia's phones next year. Office will be split between the applications and cloud units.

Most advertising and marketing staff are being taken out of their traditional business units and grouped together under a unified team. The software parts of Xbox will go to operating systems while the hardware will go to the devices unit, but not until after the Nov. 22 launch of the Xbox One console.

Given the complexity, the full effects of the reorganisation may not be felt for several more months.

"I guess the re-org hasn't yet settled down in a big way,"said Raman Shrama, 34, who works at Microsoft as a programme manager in the developer division, which helps outside firms make apps to run on Microsoft's Windows 8.

"I am personally not very impacted, because the division that I am working in is largely unchanged," said Shrama at the Overlake Transit Center used by thousands of Microsoft commuters.

Generally, he said, the mood at the company was good. "CEOs don't change every day. It's a big event, for sure. But I haven't noticed a drop in morale, or anything like that."

Microsoft's Redmond campus has maintained its laid-back air for the last few weeks. Crowds occasionally gather for morale-building events on one of the artificial-turf football fields. And in The Commons - the campus social hub - a few hundred employees congregate upstairs for the rowdy 'Trivia Tuesday' quiz.

One 31-year-old contractor who works on the Office user interface team said he was "very optimistic" about the changes.

"We are so far behind on the mobile end of things. This is the only hope we have for connecting to the younger generation,"he said. "The PC market is declining so much. This might give us a chance to find a new approach and a new corporate identity to get behind. I don't think Ballmer was really that inspirational, someone people believed in."

Another 25-year-old software engineer in the Bing search engine unit said she was "excited" about what was to come.

"I don't expect a big change after his (Ballmer's) retirement. Microsoft is a big company. A new CEO won't change much," she said. "In the last company meeting, Steve talked about the 'One Microsoft' spirit. People liked that idea. Probably, the new CEO will continue that."