Microsoft's aha: UI engineer Julie Larson-Green should engineer UIs

Microsoft announced a new role for its current hardware honcho yesterday. Here's the bigger view of Larson-Green's moves

The tech blog echo chamber reverbrates this morning with news of the departure of Julie Larson-Green, who's leaving her post as head of all of Windows hardware -- Surface and Xbox and mice and the decidedly non-hardware-related Microsoft Studio -- to become the Chief Experience Officer of the My Life & Work team, in Qi Lu's Application and Services Group. What, you've never heard of a Chief Experience Officer or the My Life & Work team? Most likely that's because, until yesterday, they didn't exist.

Reports would have you believe that Larson-Green has been demoted as part of the emerging Nadella putsch, to make way for Stephen Elop, who's returning from Nokia to sit on the right hand of Satya. From my point of view, that's hogwash.

Whatever you may think of her management abilities, Julie Larson-Green is a gifted interface designer who followed former Windows development head Steve Sinofsky through thick and thin. She joined Sinofsky's Office team in 1997 and took charge of interface designs for Office XP, 2003, and 2007. Working with Jensen Harris, who joined the group in 2001, she created and deployed Office 2007's Ribbon, which was (and is) a landmark in user interface design, whether you like it or not. In 2006 -- after Office 2007 went gold -- she left the Office team to join Sinofsky on the Windows team, which pulled Vista out of the fire and delivered Windows 7. Your opinion may vary, but as far as I'm concerned, Win7 has the best UI of any Microsoft product before or since.

She and Harris were largely responsible for the Jekyll-and-Hyde user interface (er, "user experience") in Windows 8, a fact that admittedly won't endear her to many.

When Sinofsky left Microsoft abruptly in November 2012, Larson-Green was put in charge of both Windows hardware and software. As best I can tell, that was always intended to be a temporary assignment, as Ballmer's "One Microsoft" plans were afoot at the time. Sure enough, seven months later, "One Microsoft" became a reality, and Larson-Green inherited Microsoft's newly vaunted "devices" part of the devices and services vision.

At the time, her purview included "all hardware development and supply chain from the smallest to the largest devices we build ... studios experiences including all games, music, video, and other entertainment" and many of us wondered why Larson-Green -- a quintessential interface designer -- would be put in charge of so many areas outside her expertise.

The press loved it. One otherwise sober commentator described her as Ballmer's most likely successor, "the Heir Apparent at Microsoft," a stretch that left many of us wondering about mercury levels in the Wired water cooler.

Larson-Green's tenure as hardware honcho has always been tenuous. Last September, Ballmer sent a memo to all hands announcing Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia. Here's what he said about the re-absorption of Stephen Elop, former head of the Office effort, into the hardware borg:

1. Stephen Elop will be coming back to Microsoft, and he will lead an expanded Devices team, which includes all of our current Devices and Studios work and most of the teams coming over from Nokia, reporting to me.

2. Julie Larson-Green will continue to run the Devices and Studios team, and will be focused on the big launches this fall including Xbox One and our Surface enhancements. Julie will be joining Stephen's team once the acquisition closes, and will work with him to shape the new organization.

I've rarely seen such a crowning example of management double-talk. In the end, Larson-Green kept this job for seven months, as well.

Julie Larson-Green is an engineer -- an excellent UI engineer -- and this move puts her back in a UI engineering position. It will be very interesting to see if Jensen Harris joins her.

And I have to wonder out loud how long both will continue at Microsoft.

For that matter, I'd be very surprised if Elop stayed much beyond his vesting period, and if Kevin Turner and Tony Bates now see much of a career path ahead of them in Redmond.

This article, "Microsoft's aha: UI engineer Julie Larson-Green should engineer UIs," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.