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Search visionary retires from Microsoft's Bing battles

'Last day at Microsoft. I'm one of the angels again!'

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Updated One of the search brains hired by Microsoft through its $100m acquisition of Powerset to help build Bing against Google has become the latest executive to leave the company.

Barney Pell has signed off after just three years, having joined Microsoft as co-founder and chief technology of natural-language search specialist Powerset through Microsoft's 2008 acquisition. Pell tweeted that he planned to return to venture capital and working with startups.

"Yesterday was my last day at Microsoft. I'm now back to full-time angel investor and parallel entrepreneur!" Pell said.

Separately, Microsoft .NET and developer tools marketing and evangelism veteran Dave Mendlen has also left the company. Most recently a senior director for Visual Studio Mendlen had been with Microsoft after 15 years, and had worked on web services, standards and Windows XP, and had served as a speechwriter for Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and chief executive Steve Ballmer.

Mendlen started as the lead product planner on .NET and Visual Studio .NET leading the team to bring web services and .NET to millions of developers, and he leaves Microsoft on the eve of the launch of Windows 8 and Visual Studio 11.

Mendlen has been named chief marketing officer of Microsoft tools specialist and Visual Studio partner DevExpress.

Pell, meanwhile, was been feted by Microsoft senior veep for search, portal, and advertising, Satya Nadella, at the time of the Powerset deal as a "visionary and incredible evangelist".

According to his bio detailing his time at Microsoft, Pell:

"Led the development of Microsoft's Online Systems Division's long range plan for natural language, semantics and knowledge technology; led development for Bing Local/Mobile Search; and created a search quality initiative that became an institution."

Genius or not, he joins the growing managerial exodus from Microsoft. Recent losses include corporate vice president of Microsoft's directory, access and information protection Lee Nackman, who only joined Microsoft in 2009 from IBM.

Also gone is corporate vice president for the enterprise and partner group Simon Witts. Witts' exit is curious. He's not a newcomer like Nackman: he joined Redmond in 1993 and went on to lead sales to Microsoft's 10,000 largest accounts. His exit was announced suddenly at the end of August.

According to an email from Microsoft chief operating officer Kevin Turner, Witts went "through mutual agreement" and Microsoft does not have a full-time replacement for him.

People are always joining and leaving companies, but things have been picking at Microsoft since around the middle of last year with the departures of Robbie Bach, Steven Elop and Ray Ozzie. While their particular value to the company and their departures will be debated, and while some like Witts seem to have left for very specific reasons, a change does seem to be working its way through the Microsoft ranks.

Microsoft watcher Mary-Jo Foley notes an elimination of managers who would "own" areas of expertise or product as part of a creeping Sinfoskyization of the company. Steven Sinofsky is the president of the Windows and Windows Live unit who got the Windows engineering train back on track with Windows 7 after the Vista debacle.

Maybe that meant that there was no room for the likes of Pell?

Microsoft's Nadella had said back in 2008 that the newly bought Powerset would help Microsoft take search to the next level "by adding understanding of the intent and meaning behind the words in searches and webpages".

Powerset was added to Microsoft's Search Relevance team with the goal of complementing existing natural-language processing technologies from Microsoft Research.

Powerset had licensed a sophisticated natural-language parser from the creative minds at Xerox PARC to find subjects, verbs, objects, synonyms, and other elements for indexing.

Natural-language query has been one of search's biggest quests. However one former Microsoft manager who worked on Bing and had managed the Powerset team made it clear to us that this is a somewhat overrated concept.

Hugh Williams is now leading a re-write of eBay's massive search engine, and told us in a recent interview that rather than pursue natural-language query, he's trying to understand what eBay's 97 million registered users are looking for through greater analysis of the data they create while conducting their searches. ®

This article has been updated to include news of the departure of Dave Mendlen.

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