The real reason Steve Sinofsky left Microsoft

Reports chalk up Sinofsky's abrupt departure to his mercurial personality, but thwarted ambition may be a motivator

Steven Sinofsky had been uncharacteristically quiet for the past three or four weeks, but the sudden announcement last night of his departure from Microsoft took the industry by surprise.

Like most of the high-level exoduses from Microsoft over the past two decades, Sinofsky's departure as president of the Windows (and Windows not-so-Live) Division took place quickly and with absolutely no official indication as to the reason or reasons behind the decision. If this separation proceeds like most of the others, we won't hear about the details for many years -- if at all.

Most observers attribute Sinofsky's exit to his bristly personality. Sinofsky never has played well with others, and his single-minded pursuit of technological brilliance has often left behind a trail of bruised egos, smoldering resentment, and resignation letters. His particular combination of condescension and viciousness left many people fuming, present company most certainly included.

But that's never been a problem at Microsoft. The company has thrived on confrontation and larger-than-life egos since its inception, and Sinofsky fits that mold. Those who say bruised egos led to his departure just don't understand the way Microsoft works.

Others theorize that Sinofsky left because of poor Windows 8 sales. That's absurd. There won't be any meaningful sales statistics for many months, either inside or outside Microsoft, and the long-term viability of Windows 8's approach -- Sinofsky's approach -- will be debated for years, regardless of initial sales figures.

I bet Sinofsky made up his mind weeks ago. Just compare the enthusiasm he exuded at last year's Build conference (see below) with his milquetoast performance last month at the Windows 8 product launch (starting at 11:30 in the video). Veteran Microsoft reporter Mary Jo Foley contends that Sinofsky's press interviews, scheduled to take place just before the product launch on Oct. 26, were cancelled at the last minute.

Nobody knows what happened. Sinofsky said, in his (blissfully short!) departure email, "Some might notice a bit of chatter speculating about this decision or timing. I can assure you that none could be true as this was a personal and private choice that in no way reflects any speculation or theories one might read -- about me, opportunity, the company, or its leadership."

Given the fact that nobody really knows why Sinofsky decided to leave -- or even if he was pushed -- I'd like to throw one more observation into the mix.

Sinofsky should've been expecting a large reward for his successes with Windows 8 -- the new design that bridges the gap between tablet and PC, the coding core that's been propagated from smartphones to ARM to massive server farms and everywhere in between, and the fact that he once again brought a mammoth, technically tricky, high-quality project in on time. Given Sinofsky's apparent ambitions, it's entirely possible he was expecting to expand his empire significantly -- maybe even publicly start down the road toward the CEO's office. Perhaps those expectations didn't materialize, or they weren't going to roll out as quickly as he felt they should.

I figure that's a far more likely reason for his leaving than either personal friction or stumbling sales.

With Julie Larson-Green taking over the technical reins in the Windows Division -- for both software and hardware -- and Tami Reller leading the marketing side of Windows, it's worth noting that neither has been given the title "president."

Moreover, I haven't seen any announcements about Jon DeVaan, the engineering genius who's responsible for much of what makes Windows tick. It'll be interesting to see if DeVaan goes to work for Larson-Green, or if he'll find a different niche.

Sinofsky's departure marks the end of an era. Sinofsky, Larson-Green, DeVaan, and Grant George have been building software together since the days of Office 95, and they've produced remarkable billion-dollar hits, one after another. It remains to be seen if Microsoft can pull it all together in a post-Sinfosky world.

This much I know for sure: Microsoft needs Sinofsky one helluvalot more than Sinofsky needs Microsoft.

This story, "The real reason Steve Sinofsky left Microsoft," 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 developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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