Why is Steven Sinofsky really leaving Microsoft?

His legacy is brilliance, accomplishment, abrasiveness, opportunism.

It’s hard to imagine why someone would walk away from one of the most powerful jobs within Microsoft just weeks after launching two products that its CEO says together rank among the top three events in the company’s storied history.

But that is just what Steven Sinofsky has done, stepping down as president of the Windows and Windows Live division where Windows 8 and Microsoft Surface tablets were spawned.

BACKGROUND: Steven Sinofsky out at Microsoft 

FAQ: Sinofsky's departure from Microsoft

"After more than 23 years working on a wide range of Microsoft products, I have decided to leave the company to seek new opportunities that build on these experiences," he says in a letter to Microsoft employees that was obtained by Paul Therrott’s SuperSite for Windows.

That sounds like the standard polite boilerplate accompanying the departure of executives who quit in a snit or are asked to leave and to go politely. Or perhaps he just wants to leave at the top of his game and do just what he says he’s doing – looking for another realm to conquer.

Along with his reputation for focused, high-energy devotion to developing high-quality products and delivering them on schedule, he is also known for alienating colleagues, pitting his divisions against others within Microsoft and perhaps being a bit too ambitious.

Two years ago, an internal turf battle with legendary Lotus Notes developer Ray Ozzie may have led to Ozzie’s abrupt departure from Microsoft, where he had been wooed as the software architect to replace Microsoft founder Bill Gates himself, according to an excellent profile of Sinofsky posted last month by CNET’s Jay Greene.

Both men headed teams working on cloud synchronization services, Ozzie’s called Live Mesh and Sinofsky’s called SkyDrive. Sinofsky won the battle; Ozzie left the company.

For his profile of Sinofsky Greene says he interviewed more than 15 executives who worked with Sinofsky either at Microsoft or at partner companies, and they paint a picture of someone who created a workplace so difficult that it scared off potential talent.

Sinofsky’s not without his lighter side. At the recent Microsoft Surface launch, he brought out a skateboard fashioned from a Surface tablet and rode it, balancing on his hands. In his departure letter, he poked fun at his long-winded writing style. "I have always promised myself when the right time came for me to change course, I would be brief, unlike one of my infamous short blog posts," a reference no doubt to his notoriously long and thorough Building Windows 8 blog.

As a speaker he is fluid and dynamic, clearly passionate about his work and the products he talks about. He always dresses casually for these events, pacing the stage in an exhibit of the energy he brings to his work

Perhaps he aimed too high, seeking Ballmer’s job or a guarantee that it would be his when the time comes for Ballmer to step down. Perhaps it was his polarizing effect within Microsoft that the company cannot longer afford.

The latter may be alluded to in Ballmer’s written statement introducing the women who will replace Sinofsky. The CEO mentions first that the job calls for "great communication skills, a proven ability to work across product groups" ahead of "strong design, deep technical expertise." Maybe it was the people skills he lacked.

Or, as Sinofsky says, maybe it’s just time for a new challenge. In his departure letter, he goes beyond the seeking-new-opportunities cliché to deny rumors that his motivation is something else.

"Some might notice a bit of chatter speculating about this decision or timing," he writes.  "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.

"As I’ve always believed in making space for new leaders as quickly as possible, this announcement is effective immediately and I will assist however needed with the transition."

He will leave behind a void that will be hard for Microsoft to fill. He has a long history with the company, having raised some of its most mature products from their infancy and helping to chart the bold new course for Microsoft to steer away from purely software to embrace services and hardware.

The two subordinates who replace him are accomplished in their own rights, but lack proven victories as the leader in such a dizzying arena. Sinofsky has left them a high bar.

(Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Tim_Greene.)

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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