Naming Nadella would close a search that’s taken more than five months so far and caused a considerable amount of turmoil on company boards throughout the country.
He has been a fixture on lists of top internal candidates for the company since the initial announcement. Given his background as the head of the company’s cloud and enterprise division, he’s clearly got the experience to continue Microsoft’s pushes to take its software, such as Office, to the Web. His position has made him the leader on one of Microsoft’s biggest battles — keeping its enterprise clients in the face of challenges from other tech heavyweights such as Google and Amazon (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post). During his tenure, the Cloud and Enterprise group has become one of the company’s most profitable — last year, it had $20.3 billion in revenue with an operating income of $8.2 billion.
As a 22-year veteran of the firm, Bloomberg reported, he is well-regarded as an energetic, forward-thinking upper-level executive. He also has an advantage as an insider in that he fully understands Microsoft’s complex culture and layout — and therefore likely knows its weak points as well.
In all those ways, Nadella is a strong choice, but he’s also a safe one. And that might not sit well with those who think Microsoft needs a dramatic shift.
In a note to investors, Daniel Ives of FBR Capital said that while Nadella would excel as CEO, “we believe filling this position with a core Microsoft insider will disappoint those hoping for a fresh strategic approach . . . an outside executive could have brought to the table.”
After current CEO Steve Ballmer announced his intention to step down within a year, there was a flood of “leaks” from within the company raising an all-star list of names to take his place, including Ford CEO Allan Mulally, former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop and Qualcomm’s chief operating officer, Steve Mollenkopf. Having an outsider, it seemed, would allow Microsoft to make a clean break from its reputation as a innovation laggard, albeit a financially successful one.
That may explain the discussion, then, of removing Gates as chairman as a nod to those who want a bigger break with the past. It would be a bold move and a risky one. Although Gates has publicly said that his full-time job is as a philanthropist with the Gates Foundation, he is an important figure for Microsoft’s legacy customer base.
If Nadella is poised to take the top spot, he’ll have to show a willingness to move quickly while working not to upset the company’s legacy users — a difficult challenge for anyone.