Microsoft is at a crossroads.
Not only is the corporation in search of a new CEO, but given that the next chief executive will not be drawn from its early management team, as Steve Ballmer was, Microsoft is headed for an entirely new, as yet unscripted, phase in its development.
On October 1, Reuters reported that three of Microsoft's top 20 investors are calling on Bill Gates' ouster as chairman. While Wall Street's current disenchantment with the company is not news, this is arguably one of the most important reports about Microsoft for this year so far. Their point: the influence that Gates has on the company needs to be set aside for its future success.
Beyond that, you have to wonder whether this would have happened just five years ago. They are, after all, talking about Bill Gates.
There are some very strong signals from within Microsoft that a major overhaul is necessary. The Wall Street Journal last month published an interview with lead independent director John Thompson, who is one of the few prominent African American tech executives.
Disputing the belief that investor pressure lead to Steve Ballmer's retirement, Thompson said that he realized that an overhaul could take up to five to seven years, longer than he planned to remain CEO.
"I give Steve an enormous amount of credit for saying, 'look, while it may not be the best time to do this from the vantage point of all of that's going on, it is, in fact, the best time to do this for the long-term health of Microsoft,'" Thompson said in the article.
One of the things the Microsoft and its new CEO will no doubt have to address is the fallout in its own community from its recently-announced decisions to discontinue both TechNet and its top-tier Certification Masters program.
This summer's announced cancellation of TechNet generated considerable anger among IT professionals, who had inexpensive access to Microsoft's enterprise software for over a decade.
On August 30—ahead of a long Labor Day weekend—Microsoft sent an email stating that it would retire its Masters level certification exams, effective October 1, 2013. This caught many off-guard, and not surprisingly produced a sustained chorus of protest.
“The community as a whole,” writes Paul Robichaux in an email, “seems to be experiencing perfectly normal feelings of skepticism towards Microsoft's motives, anger at the clumsy way the announcement was handled, distrust of Microsoft's claims of transparency, uncertainty at what should happen next, and a generalized sense of betrayal.”
Himself an MCM (Microsoft Certification Masters) instructor since the first rotation in 2007, Paul explains that Microsoft left candidates without an upgrade path: “In other words, if you are MCM for Exchange 2010, you now have no way to get to MCM for Exchange 2013.” He adds that these “are people who in some cases have invested upwards of $30K of their own money,” and who now are seeing the value of the certification go “down to zero,” since “Microsoft has very visibly shown that they do not value MCM as a credential.”
Alejandro Leguizamo, a Microsoft MVP for eight years, writes in an email that even though the company “seemed to try to improve their education offering,” with the MCM announcement one month ago, the “reality is that Microsoft has not had a clear strategic view with consistent education over a long time on their Certification story.”
Regarding TechNet, Leguizamo asserts that Microsoft is “on the fire line” for taking away “a perfectly legal, valid option for those individual Microsoft enthusiasts that cannot afford MSDN, particularly in economies in Asia, Africa or Latin America.”
Robichaux notes that “the product group folks I've talked to in Lync and Exchange were just as surprised by the (MCM) announcement as the rest of us,” adding that “I think there's a recognition that MSL (Microsoft Software Library) was solely responsible for this decision.”
Seeing the need for damage control, Robichaux says that “Microsoft is taking some tentative steps to try to keep the various product-specific MCM communities together, but I expect that community bonding to be driven more by the community than elements of Microsoft.”
Alessio Giombini, a solutions architect for unified communications environments based on Microsoft Lync, writes in an email that “there’s a massive disaffection about quality and reliability of training and certification programs from IT pros. Microsoft will have to work hard on a new program and it’s going to take time before trust is re-established.”
On a more positive note, Giombini says that MCM holders “still retain a top level certification,” and that “this might potentially make them a closed elite group to which no others can access now.”
Could this do lasting harm to Microsoft's standing in its own community? Leguizamo thinks so. “Microsoft as a key participant in the industry cannot afford the luxury of making these mistakes.” Don't overlook the community, he says: “It is important that Microsoft realizes that it doesn't have strong relationships at the executive level,” and that “it is the IT people that play the advocate roles within Microsoft's target business in the enterprise.”
His advice to IT pros regarding a future MCM program is succinct: “Wait for Microsoft to have a clear plan.” Don't invest time and money in a program “that is headed to nowhere.”
To regain both its credibility and former standing among the community, Microsoft along with its future CEO will not only have to fully acknowledge their mishandling and miscommunication of the MCM and TechNet announcements. The corporation will have to put forth a serious and authentic plan for a replacement of its top-level certification, and with that, address the vacuum created by terminating TechNet.
Given the feelings and views expressed in the Microsoft community, that might be a tough sell.