Bill Gates' new advisory role at Microsoft worth watching for CIOs

Karen Goulart, Senior Features Writer

There is no shortage of opinions on what new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella ought to do first -- dump Xbox, focus more on personal devices, essentially disown the legacy of his famous forbearers? Take your pick.

It will be interesting to see what the Redmond journeyman exec brings to bear from his perch at the top. The low-profile engineer by education who most recently served as Microsoft's executive vice president for the cloud and enterprise group has held a half dozen executive titles since joining the company in 1992. Institutional memory and insider knowledge certainly won't be issues.

Karen GoulartKaren Goulart

But there's another guy worth watching in this time of transition. Nerdy haircut, glasses, a penchant for button downs and V-neck sweaters? Bill Gates may be out as chairman, but he's back as a product and technology adviser to the new CEO. If that sounds like a minor role, listen closer.

It has been questioned how effective Gates can be after being out of the immediate technology loop for six years. In this week's lead Searchlight item, New York Times technology writer Nick Wingfield suggested that absence may actually be beneficial to the business. During his previous tenure, Wingfield noted, Gates expended a lot of energy protecting Windows and "squelching" competitive products -- perhaps at the expense of opportunities in search engines and smartphones. Absence makes the tech sense grow smarter? If (a lot of) time (far) away from the office has cleared some of that tunnel vision, Nadella and Gates could make a formidable pairing.

We know from Wingfield's piece that even as Gates stepped as far as one possibly could outside the state of Washington to focus on eradicating hunger and disease, he still managed to keep one foot in the business. In addition to regular briefings, there were the "demo days" extended briefings (lasting several hours) featuring products from Microsoft and its competitors four to six times a year in his private office. So Gates never stopped thinking about technology, both in the context of Microsoft and on a global scale. The effects of six years' worth of trying to solve some of humanity's biggest problems on a mind as brilliant as Gates' might have some interesting ramifications for the Microsoft roadmap.

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But there are plenty of skeptics. One blogger scoffed at Gates' potential to affect change or bring any real vision unless the company's goals included "$100 computers, $20 phones and clean drinking water." It's an ignorant jab at Gates' charitable work in health and education (not to mention, a jab ignorant of emerging markets). More than that, comments like this fail to consider how new, different, big-world experiences can contribute to innovation.

No one is suggesting that you, CIOs, should abandon your data centers and set out to save the world. But remember that few innovative ideas evolve from behind a desk, and sometimes you have to step outside the puzzle to realize how the dots connect.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, senior features writer.

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