A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the possibility of an outsider dark-horse candidate emerging in the race to become CEO of Microsoft.
Now it might be more of a possibility than ever before, tracking on sources inside the company that have consistently said that there is a male tech executive in the running who has not been named publicly as yet.
Said one person about this candidate: He is “in tech, someone folks are excited about, but not a done deal.”
By definition, the term “dark horse” is meant to describe a come-out-of-nowhere winner, or, as Wikipedia notes, “a race horse that is not known to gamblers and thus is difficult to place betting odds on.”
And make no mistake, this CEO search has turned into a race, with the variety of candidates pulling ahead and then falling behind, with all of them jockeying for position, as the crowd of investors and insiders have also tried to put their own fix in.
At the time of my post in mid-November, Ford CEO Alan Mulally was the clear front runner of the process to replace outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer. Also in that mix: Enterprise chief Satya Nadella; COO Kevin Turner; strategy exec Tony Bates (whom I have dubbed the Silicon Valley choice); and Nokia exec Stephen Elop.
Elop was considered the top contender (by me, at least), after Microsoft bought the mobile phone division of Nokia. But — for a variety of reasons — he soon fell behind two other internal candidates, Bates and Nadella. And further back still, Turner.
Among the outsiders, Mulally — who has done a lot of deft lobbying for the job, after helping Ballmer in his efforts to restructure Microsoft — has always been in the forefront of the choice.
As I noted:
The plus for Mulally? An obvious ability to manage a complex organization, with many moving parts and masses of employees. The minus: He’s not enough of a visionary geek who can grok the massive changes moving through the digital landscape and also understand the complexity of the tech itself.
In other words: He can’t program. He doesn’t Snapchat. But he sure can give a corker of a speech.
But over the last week, Mulally’s star has fallen quickly, which sources said is due to some shift in opinion among Microsoft’s directors that perhaps a more tech-experienced exec is needed, with major chops in either the enterprise or consumer arenas.
Not helping Mulally was what appeared to be an off-the-cuff statement by Ford Chairman Edsel Ford II, who told Bloomberg News that Mulally “has told us that his plan is to stay with Ford through the end of 2014.” Although Mulally still gave a non-denial denial of his interest, Ford’s remarks sent Microsoft stock tumbling.
This perceived jockeying was not well received by many inside Microsoft, and some felt it was Mulally trying to hedge the situation on both sides a little too much. Sources inside Microsoft also note that Mulally’s candidacy has languished on other issues, including how long he would remain CEO, and also control over board dynamics.
Still, well-known analyst Rick Sherlund insisted that Mulally remained the leading candidate. In a research note last week, Sherlund wrote that the comments of Ford and Mulally were “non-answers to the question, and appear to us to be consistent with our view that he is in discussions with Microsoft’s board for the CEO slot at Microsoft.”
But, at least according to my sources, the temperature I am picking up inside Microsoft is decidedly cooler toward Mulally than ever before.
That’s why I have been focusing on sussing out this mysterious dark horse, who could be any number of telecom, Web or tech execs.
This past week, for example, rumors raced around the company that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was of great interest to the board. But, said sources, Sandberg has had no talks with Microsoft about the job, even if she might have been on a list of top choices.
Also of great interest, although previously mentioned, was former Microsoft exec and VMware CEO Paul Maritz, who did meet with Microsoft co-founder and former CEO Bill Gates to discuss the situation. But multiple sources said that Maritz has shown no interest in returning to his company.
But the idea of an exec with deep experience in the enterprise and cloud is still, I think, the most compelling solution for Microsoft, which is why I zeroed in on another VMware exec: CEO Patrick Gelsinger.
Let’s be clear: This is my choice. But it’s not so far-fetched, either.
Before joining VMware in late 2012, Gelsinger was at EMC’s Information Infrastructure Products business as president and COO, “overseeing engineering and operations for information storage, data computing, backup and recovery, RSA security and enterprise solutions as well as the office of the CTO.”
More importantly, he spent three decades in a variety of top roles at Intel, Microsoft’s longtime partner, where he began his career. And here’s the most interesting part, according to his bio: “He was also the architect of the original 80486 processor and a design engineer on the 80386 and 80286 processor design teams,” chips that powered a generation of Windows PCs.
Gelsinger is well-regarded in Silicon Valley, too. Said one top player about him: “He’d certainly be top of any candidate list inside the industry if he were gettable. Surprised he’d leave VMware this fast, but maybe I shouldn’t be.”
VMware and Microsoft had no comment about my long-shot bet.