Microsoft's new headman, Ray Ozzie

Wired has a fascinating feature on the way that Microsoft is changing gears as Bill Gates steps away from daily operations, leaving Lotus Notes inventor Ray Ozzie in his place. Ray is a friend of mine, and is nothing like the other Microsoft execs I've met — he's a grassroots, P2P, social software kind of guy, not a shouter or a swaggerer. In 18 months at the company, he's managed to make some profound shifts in the way it plans for the future, though it's hard to be optimistic about the future if the Microsoft version of fighting iPods is shipping turds like the Zune.

Just listen to Ozzie describe his management style. "When I find a hairy bug," he wrote in a 2003 blog posting, "I love having the developer come in and debug it face-to-face. It gives me a chance not only to understand more about the product's internals, but also, you have no idea what I learn chitchatting while waiting for debug files to copy, etc. Design and implementation issues, stuff that people have been building off to the side, things about the organization, rumors, etc." He continued: "I suppose this is just classic 'walking the halls,' but I feel as though without this kind of direct nonhierarchical contact I would lose touch with my organization, and people throughout would know I was disconnected and would lose respect for me."

It's hard to imagine how a guy this self-effacing could survive inside Microsoft's insular, hierarchical, hypercompetitive culture. Redmond is notorious for bringing outsiders into the executive ranks and promptly shredding them. But since joining the company 18 months ago, Ozzie's star has only gotten brighter. He was brought on as one of three chief technical officers, and less than two months into his tenure, he was leading a secret strategy session on how to fight competitors like Google. By November, he was the architect of a new software development strategy for the entire company. And in June of this year, he reached the mountaintop: Gates announced that he was essentially retiring and named Ozzie as the company's technology überboss.

I know tons of really excellent 'Softies, solid nerds who do great work that they believe in. What's weird to me is how the collective output of all that great work by great people produces such lousy outcomes — DRM-crippled OSes like Vista, stupid products like the Zune, grotendously complex apps like Office, and promising research projects that go nowhere, security holes that you can drive a truck through, and a browser that is more broken business-strategy than utility software…

Not to mention the naked jockeying to turn open standards into proprietary products, the blind worship of software patents (even as they're being shredded by them), the convulsive distaste for open source (years after David Stutz's blazing resignation letter in which he told the company exactly how to respond to open source) — it's this kind of weird alchemy that turns great people doing great work into a kind of fumbling evil.

I sure hope Ray can do something for them — if only for the sake of my friends in Redmond. It can't possibly be good for your soul to work hard and have nothing good come of it.