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Farewell to Microsoft's Sun Tzu: Thanks for all the cheese, Kevin Turner

Last of Steve Ballmer's old guard heads for the exit

Kevin Turner

Kevin Turner’s departure as Microsoft’s chief salesman after 11 years marks the final passing of the Redmond old guard.

Chief operating officer Turner - KT, as he was known - was a chief of the old-school corporate kind; sales, marketing and Microsoft’s stores all reported into Turner.

His departure is part of a massive sales shake up that is doing away with the COO’s role.

Judson Althoff, who was president of North America sales is now executive vice president of worldwide commercial sales, and the former head of sales and marketing outside the US and Canada Jean-Philippe Courtois is now executive vice president of global sales.

As expected, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella was generous to Turner, complimenting his running of a 51,000-strong workforce. Turner is, however, the last vestige of Nadella’s predecessor Steve Ballmer’s leadership team.

A hard talking, zero-sum competitive game-playing, alpha animal, Turner was part General Patton part American football coach; he’d shout you down by way of firing you up. Very last century.

People who were supposed to really matter to Microsoft - partners and employees - were supposed to love him, or respect him in return. Or, at least, get out there and score the big wins.

Below is a sample of Turner's Sun Tzu philosophizing:

"I have truly deduced the winners and losers in this environment will be determined by the market share won or lost. Now it boils down to growing market share.

"We gotta have the fighting spirit to compete to win in the marketplace," Turner said.

Nowhere was Turner on form better than at Microsoft’s annual Worldwide Partner Conference (WWPC): prowling the stage, berating the competition, barking out motivation and giving the troops a damn good talking to.

His suck-it-up, combative style couldn’t be more out of step with today’s Microsoft boss Satya Nadella.

Turner was brought into a vacant role by Nadella’s predecessor, Steve Ballmer. He hailed from Wal-Mart, a stalwart of American corporate culture where he’d been for 20 years. Unfortunately for Microsoft and Ballmer, Turner arrived at precisely the period the tectonic plates in computing were slowly starting to shift under Microsoft’s feet.

Open source and Linux were already becoming forces to be reckoned, imune to Microsoft’s pre-Turner campaign of FUD. In the near future were the rise of devices and cloud.

At the time of Turner's appointment, however, Microsoft had become overly pre-occupied with the internet, as defined by competition with Google and on browser market share. With the delayed Windows Vista on its way, Microsoft was still thoroughly wedded to Bill Gates' notion that the PC was – and would remain – peoples' primary device for accessing the internet, for work and home computing.

Turner had ignored off-premises and cloud and continued to talk about the classic upgrade cycle.

"Windows XP, Office 2003, and IE6 deserve a standing ovation. God bless them. They've worked for the last twelve, thirteen years. We love those products. We absolutely love those products. They've been so good to so many people, including the people in this room," he said. "But you know what? They're dead. They're dead. End of life is 2014. We have to get behind this refresh."

But he conceded Microsoft faced some challenges on devices: "We have to do some very strategic things to get our mobile phone volume up," said Turner.

Turner’s world was exhorting sales and channel partners trade customers to rip and replace IBM’s Notes for Exchange, to push Windows Next over Windows old, to tear out Google.

"Enterprise search is our business, it's our house and Google is not going to take that business," Turner told 7,000 delegates attending Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in 2014. "Those people are not going to be allowed to take food off our plate, because that is what they are intending to do."

Search from the desktop to the enterprise to the internet is a business of great importance and a market of great importance to us.

The idea of a off-premises software world was something Microsoft politically could not countenance. Something it equally couldn't countenance was the idea enterprise IT wasn't something it owned by right.

According to Turner copying didn't mean changing, it meant evolving to become a better sales person.

He said Microsoft was "zeroing in on the art of selling... You haven't heard that before at a Microsoft annual meeting. We are becoming experts at the art of selling," Turner said.

But the sales model had changed; it was becoming less about shipping more boxes at fat margins and more about persuading people they should download your service, buy on a subscription, pay for what you use.

The world of Nadella and the current reality of Microsoft couldn’t be more removed from the world of Turner. Today it’s a more complicated sell: on-premises remains the core of Microsoft’s income - desktop and server - but Microsoft is desperately trying to grow its cloud and data businesses. Neither involves destroying the competition; rather, it’s a more nuanced sale, a sale you don’t win by simply trashing the rivals.

Neither is this the world of big-product bets, staking everything and moving the industry with a big-new relase of Windows or Office.

In July 2007, on Windows Vista and Office 2007, Turner said:

"Those were huge, huge big dog releases... multi billion dollar products. That's only part of the story... I see money, I can see monetization. I can smell it, I can hear it, I can see it. This is the year we are going to monetize innovation we have talked about."

It took years for people to adjust to the new Office 2007 UI, hurting sales. Windows Vista? That was Windows 8, before Windows 8 was Windows 8.

Today Microsoft's MO is paying millions to buy companies that potentially realize new markets, not investing millions in big product bets where it’s all or nothing.

Turner did change, belatedly. He became very pro-device in 2014 but it was too late, the market had already moved.

We are beyond the ‘attach and license’ world, where we had a 90 per cent penetration of PCs… the world has shifted and evolved and we now have to measure ourselves in the total device space. We have a much bigger chance to grow business, but also a new reality in which to grow.

In a world of 14 per cent device share, we have a new mindset: you have to have a challenger mindset. Everyone has to have a challenger mindset.

And on Windows 8:

So, when you think about the next release of Windows running across x86, ARM, system-on-a-chip, the opportunity to put Windows with an OS that is scalable across those platforms exists in a new and profound way. And where we go in the future of unifying these ecosystems is certainly going to be an exciting ride, but a big, big step forward is about to get made with Windows 8, and this is really important for you to understand.

And so it went.

I will miss Kevin Turner. For an observer, he made WWPC. But I wasn’t an employee or a partner getting ordered over the top and being told to fight on force of will alone.

The Microsoft of Nadella is different: the kids are feeding up through the ranks. The firm wants to be liked. It's trying to find new ways of making money rather than simply hawking the old kit and using the old model that failed at least twice - Windows Vista and Windows 8.

The future is more boring and more worthy but that’s probably a good thing – for Microsoft, anyway. ®

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