Bill Gates is coming back to Microsoft part-time as a technology advisor to new CEO Satya Nadella.
As pointed out by many a media source (most notably BusinessWeek), Gates assuming a more active role in Microsoft’s day-to-day product development has a whole lot of precedent: whether Steve Jobs at Apple in the late 1990s, or Howard Schultz at Starbucks a few years ago, more than one industry titan has returned to help the company they founded in its hour of supposed need.
But there the comparisons end. Gates isn’t returning as CEO, just an advisor to Nadella—so it’s unclear how much control he’ll actually have, despite his mountainous reputation within the halls of Redmond. Second, his devotion to his nonprofit Foundation could prevent him from devoting nearly the same time and attention to Microsoft’s issues as, say, the workaholic Jobs did to Apple’s problems.
Third, Nadella will likely want to leave his own unique mark on Microsoft, despite allegations from at least one former executive that he’s nothing more than a “sheep, a follower.” He’ll push back against any attempt by Gates to assume a more public degree of control.
And it’s not as if Gates has spent the fourteen years since his CEO days in some sort of exile—he’d continued to serve as chairman of Microsoft’s board until Nadella’s appointment this week, and advise on projects (particularly in his role as chief software architect). If he’d had brilliant ideas about re-energizing Microsoft in the consumer sphere, where it’s steadily lost ground to Apple and Google, he’d have offered them by now; it seems unlikely that, in his new role, he could do more than he’s been doing already from a product standpoint.
In the meantime, it’s clear that Nadella intends to steer Microsoft in more of a “cloud and mobile first” direction, which could run contrary to former CEO Steve Ballmer’s attempt to remake the company into more of a “devices and services” concern. In his twenty-plus years at Microsoft, Nadella eventually rose to head up Microsoft’s cloud and enterprise operations; arguably his biggest project at that helm was the creation of “Cloud OS,” the platform that powers Microsoft’s large-scale cloud services such as Azure and Office 365. But how he’ll government the whole, massive corporation remains a big question at the moment.