Revenge of the Nerds -- Can engineers at the top save Microsoft?

Multiple reports say that there's a management shakeup in the works at Microsoft, with CEO Steve Ballmer looking to find top engineering talent to spearhead its attempt to make up ground against Google and Apple in smartphones and tablets. But will it be too little too late -- and are more engineers even the right solution?

Bloomberg reports that Ballmer "plans to extend a management reshuffling aimed at adding senior product executives with an engineering background," and that the changes may be made public later this month. The report goes on to say:

The move would expand on an effort to promote managers who have engineering chops and experience executing product plans -- a bid to help Microsoft catch up with rivals such as Apple Inc. and Google Inc. in Web services, smartphones and tablet computers. The overhaul also may quell criticism from the board and investors that Microsoft is falling behind in some markets..

Mary Jo Foley notes that since Bill Gates left Microsoft and Ballmer took over, technically focused managers have been pushed aside, while "more management/sales-focused cadre of 'Steve’s guys' have risen to prominence."

The idea seems to be that engineers are more visionary and future-oriented that bottom-line-oriented management folks. Wes Miller, an analyst at the research firm Directions on Microsoft told Bloomberg:

"You see the engineering team ascending because Steve is realizing that there is a need to execute on a vision and in order to do that you have to actually understand how software is built. It’s a whole other thing to be able to say, 'I've been at Microsoft, I understand software, and what you are saying will or will not work."

It's a very pretty story, but I don't buy it. First off, Bob Muglia, president of the Server & Tools Division, has a technical background, and he was just fired by Ballmer. Muglia holds a B.A. in Computer Science from the University of Michigan.

So if technical expertise was the magic bullet for Microsoft, the company wouldn't have fired him.

Secondly, when Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie left the company, Ballmer didn't replace him. When Ozzie was there, he was largely pushed to the sidelines, and he's one of the computer industry's foremost engineers and visionaries.

Ballmer himself doesn’t have an engineering background. Instead, he has a BA from Harvard in Math and Economics, and worked several years at Proctor and Gamble before dropping out of the Stanford MBA program and taking a job at Microsoft.

The issue is less engineering know-how than vision at the top. You didn't have to be an engineer back in 2007 to see that Microsoft had to act fast or it would lose out in the smartphone market. You don't need an engineering degree to see that unless Microsoft moves fast in the tablet market, it faces even bigger problems.

Ballmer can have the world's greatest engineers working for him, but it's his vision for the future that drives the company, and hiring the world's best engineers won't save him if he can't see far enough into the future. Windows Phone 7 needs to be revamped as quickly as possible to compete with the iPhone and Android. Tablets need to be designed to run on a lightweight, nimble operating system, not Windows, to compete against the iPad and the onslaught of Android tablets. Engineers can work wonders ... but they can't work miracles.

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