Kara Swisher

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While Mulally/Nadella Remain the Favorites, Bates Is Silicon Valley’s Choice for Microsoft CEO

Tony Bates

Tony Bates

About 10 days ago, AllThingsD reported once again that Ford CEO Alan Mulally was in the lead position to take over as CEO of Microsoft, with one internal exec as the No. 2 choice.

As I noted in a post on Nov. 19: “Ford CEO Alan Mulally remains in the pole position for the job, with the idea that he will be more a ‘caretaker’ type CEO, whose deep experience and inspirational charisma will get the company on the right path, while also training up a number of internal candidates to eventually take over from him. The top pick among the possible heirs inside for that princeling role: Enterprise chief Satya Nadella.”

Bloomberg reported similarly that Mulally and Nadella were the two top candidates yesterday. In the story, it noted that the Microsoft talent search documents are calling for someone with an “extensive track record in managing complex, global organizations within a fast-paced and highly competitive market sector; track record of delivering top and bottom line results. Proven ability to lead a multi-billion dollar organization and large employee base.”

Let’s be clear — none of this is new. AllThingsD and others reported in September that Mulally was the leading name in the race to run the software giant.

The Mulally/Nadella scenario is intriguing, and also makes basic sense, along with another, newer scenario, in which a board member — like Seagate’s CEO Stephen J. Luczo — becomes the CEO (inside the company, this is being jokingly called “pulling a Dick Cheney”).

But more than a dozen tech leaders in Silicon Valley, as well as several top Microsoft execs I have talked to over the last week, have a single choice to lead the company: Tony Bates.

After decades of hostility, having the love of Silicon Valley, of course, is perhaps a little dicey for anyone from Microsoft, despite years of bridge-building done by many company execs, including the British-born Bates.

But those I spoke to said Bates had all the right assets, making him “the best candidate across all of the various criteria,” said one source.

“Tony is a bold choice that would say a lot to the rest of the tech world that Microsoft is ready to engage,” said another source close to the company. “Mulally makes sense only if the board wants a transitional figure, which means it basically doesn’t know what to do yet.”

Among Bates’s pluses, according to these sources:

  • Scale management experience from his time as an exec at Cisco, where he managed about 12,000 global workers, and was responsible for more than $20 billion in revenue.
  • Technical ability, although Bates does not have a technical degree (he dropped out of mechanical engineering program in Britain). At Cisco, he was in change of development of a complex networking product, and he also holds many patents related to the area. Bates also did backbone-engineering strategy for Internet MCI. And, from his bio: “He taught himself to code by reading programming manuals on the way to work and began his career as a network operator at the University of London.”
  • Understands mobile and communications, from his time running Skype, both before and after Microsoft bought it. This is not a small thing for Microsoft, which has been slow to grok the vast changes in the area.
  • Is seen as both and insider and outsider at Microsoft, having come there after the Skype acquisition and, miraculously, not having left after the Skype acquisition. This is no small thing for an exec who enters the Redmond nexus, which has crushed many newbie execs from elsewhere.

But, among the dings on Bates — who is also very affable (I told him in a 2012 interview that he was much too charming to be Microsoft CEO):

  • He has not been the CEO of a big public company (neither has Nadella or any of the other internal candidates).
  • The perception that he is too friendly to the digerati, and a wee bit too interesting, too — Bates is an active presence in Silicon Valley social and charitable circles, and had served as a member of the board of YouTube and LoveFilm.
  • That he has not put himself out there on any major initiative at Microsoft since he arrived in 2011 after the Skype acquisition, or vastly contributed to major growth (Nadella certainly has). Then again, Bates has not presided over any messes such as Surface, either.
  • And, perhaps most of all, he does not have a longtime personal relationship with co-founder and chairman Bill Gates, who is a key player in the selection.

After the recent reorg by outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer, Bates has been moved to become EVP of Microsoft’s Business Development and Evangelism group, which is described as “responsible for the company’s relationships with key OEMs, strategic innovation partners, independent software vendors and developers. He also leads Microsoft’s corporate strategy team.”

In other words, the strategery guy. (But don’t hold that against him!)

No matter who is picked, as I noted before, the board has its work cut out for it over the next weeks to decide on its selection, after meeting in mid-November. Since then, it has been culling the list of candidates to a smaller group with the goal, as this site and many others have previously reported, to name a new CEO before the end of the year.

Or not, as Bloomberg also reported: The selection process might take into the new year.

(Make it stop.)

In any case, if you want to get to know Bates, here is the video of my interview with him at the 10th D: All Things Digital conference in 2012:


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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle