Gates stepping down at Microsoft

It is almost unthinkable that any one human could pick up where Bill Gates leaves off when he ends his full-time tenure today as Microsoft's leader.

But as Gates bones up on epidemiology at his charitable foundation, the software company he built with a mix of visionary manifestos and extreme hands-on management must still wake up Monday to face hard problems even he could not solve. Among them: beating Google Inc. on the Web while fending off its attacks on desktop computing.

When Microsoft Corp. announced in 2006 that Gates planned to go part-time as board chairman, so he could spend more time on his global health charity, it named two senior executives to guide the company's overall technical direction.

Gates' recent remarks, however, indicate Microsoft is looking to a much larger group of employees for big-picture guidance and long-term planning. But it's not yet clear whether the company can replicate his thinking with more traditional corporate processes – or whether it should even be trying.

From Microsoft's start in 1975, Gates has been the company's genius programmer, its technology guru, its primary decision maker and its ruthless and competitive leader.

He would famously disappear into the solitude of a country cabin to digest employee-written papers and ponder the future of the industry, then emerge with manifestos, including the 1995 “Internet Tidal Wave” memo, that could shift the focus of the entire company.

He is credited by analysts and academics for the emergence of software as a moneymaking industry; previously it had been a pastime for hobbyists or a subset of the hardware sector. He is revered by many engineers, despite his propensity to fling expletives at underlings whose ideas he scorned.

And he has built Microsoft into a hugely successful monopoly that has only grown stronger despite major losses in antitrust trials in the U.S. and Europe.

At a May gathering of chief executive officers at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters, Gates outlined how he hoped to translate the work once done within the singular confines of his brain into the sort of group projects that could be managed with the company's own collaboration software.

“We've created a thing we called quests, where we divided our types of customers down, and we got the best thinkers on these things, both the very practical people who are with the customers, the engineers who write the code, and the researchers who may be more unbound in terms of their timeframe and imagination, and put them together,” Gates said.

The actual substance of the quests – which sound more Knights-of-the-Round-Table than bleeding-edge-technology – is blurry. Microsoft refused to answer questions about the subject or make Gates available for an interview. Even an analyst who was briefed under a nondisclosure agreement walked away confused.

But some details can be gleaned from Gates' comments to the CEOs and offhand references to the quests in other recent speeches. In May, Gates said the company started the quests in the last few years, to help it separate its five- or 10-year plans from the regular product development cycle.

Quests are broken into five categories, based on different clumps of customers.

Gates did not give examples of specific quests, but he described the process to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in February 2007 like this: “Online, we publish what we call ‘quests' … and let anybody in the company who sees that, who thinks it's stupid or they think they can contribute to it, come online, and we have the equivalent of a blog-type environment where people put up their ideas.”