WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Julie Larson-Green, the woman who brings you Xbox and Surface tablets, could be next in line to take the reins at the world’s largest software company.
By Chris Morris
Less than a year ago, much of the world hadn’t heard of Julie Larson-Green.
Today, plenty of people are talking about her.
As the search for a new CEO at Microsoft continues, most eyes are focused outside the company. But those who are looking internally have Larson-Green on their radar. The person some insiders view as Steve Ballmer’s “heir apparent” has spent 20 years building a strong and respected presence within the company. Not bad for someone who was told “no thanks” the first time she applied at the company.
“Julie has this immediate ability to cut through things,” Jensen Harris, a Microsoft software designer who worked with Larson-Green for over 10 years, told Bloomberg earlier this year.
Larson-Green has never been someone who was unclear on what she wanted. In high school, she had her mind set on working in the computer industry — even though she had never used one before.
The person some insiders view as Steve Ballmer’s “heir apparent” at Microsoft was told “no thanks” the first time she applied at the company.
“I knew it was cool and it had to do with math,” she said in a Microsoft internal interview.
Ford’s Alan Mulally might be the most frequently mentioned name when the topic of Ballmer’s successor comes up (despite his repeated insistence he has no plans to leave the automaker). And former HP chief Mark Hurd and Nokia CEO Stephen Elop have both been discussed as well.
She possesses what many successes show — not an MBA or PhD but rather a GSD (Get Stuff Done) degree.
— Scott Steinberg, analyst and CEO at Tech Savvy Global
But Larson-Green’s name is part of the conversation too. And while she’s viewed as a diplomat on the Microsoft campus, she hasn’t shied away from wanting to continue her journey up the corporate ladder.
Earlier this year at Wired’s business conference, an audience member asked Larson-Green if she could see herself replacing Ballmer.
“I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’m not in a hurry,” she said. “Give me a year and ask me again.”
Larson-Green started down the high-tech path at Western Washington University, where she was a student employee offering technical support in the microcomputer lab. When she graduated, Microsoft was her first choice — but the company rejected her application.
She ended up taking a customer service job at Aldus, a maker of desktop publishing software PageMaker. Six years later, though, she got her foot in the door at the Redmond-based software giant — and has been on the rise ever since.
Her ascent at Microsoft has followed Moore’s Law, escalating at a phenomenal rate. She was hired to help oversee development of Microsoft’s Visual C++. From there, she went on to head the user-interface design for Office XP and Office 2003. She was also responsible for the major upgrade to Office 2007’s user interface, replacing the menu-driven interface with the “ribbon,” a controversial move that was met with some user resistance but was ultimately embraced. And she led planning on Windows 7 — something that accelerated her journey on the fast track.
Then, last November, everything changed.
Microsoft president Steven Sinofsky shocked company observers by leaving the company — and Larson-Green was thrust into the spotlight. The company named her head of all Windows software and hardware engineering.
In July of this year, she was promoted again as part of Ballmer’s reorganization push — and put in charge of the devices and studios engineering group, which oversees the company’s prized Xbox division, as well as devices like the Surface tablet.
As head of the devices and studio engineering group, Larson-Green is responsible, perhaps more so than any other Microsoft executive, for charting the course of the company.
Just as people were getting used to that managerial shift, Ballmer dropped another bomb: He was leaving Microsoft. And that’s when the handicapping started.
“Her strengths lie in persistence and resilience,” says Scott Steinberg, analyst and CEO at Tech Savvy Global. “She possesses what many successes show — not an MBA or PhD but rather a GSD (Get Stuff Done) degree: She’s smart, she’s flexible and she’s tenacious.”
Her leadership style is different than many other department heads. Whereas Sinofsky was said to be almost dictatorial, Larson-Green looks for good matches on teams, theorizing that if the people working on a project gel well, it results in a better product.
“It’s more of an art than we like to give it credit for,” she said in her internal interview. “There’s no formula for making good software … The chemistry between the people is very important.”
Should someone else get the CEO job, insiders predict that Larson-Green will not leave Microsoft. Her devotion to the company is fierce, they say.
Also, while it’s not the CEO spot, as head of the devices and studio engineering group, Larson-Green is responsible, perhaps more so than any other Microsoft executive, for charting the course of the company.
The Xbox One, says P.J. McNealy, founder of Digital World Research, is the most important product launch at Microsoft in the last 10 years — and likely will hold that spot for many more years.
I think I’m a better mom because I work…I think it makes me more engaged and more interested…
— Julie Larson-Green
Her unit will also oversee any efforts in wearable tech, an area she has said is of interest to her.
Outside of the Microsoft campus, Larson-Green lives the life of a soccer mom. Her husband, Gareth Green, is an associate professor and chairman of the economics department at WWU. Her daughter, 20, is in college and her son is in seventh grade. The balance, she notes, can be tough, but she enjoys the challenge.
“I think I’m a better mom because I work,” she says. “I think it makes me more engaged and more interested and more efficient with my time.”
And her excitement about her job has rubbed off on her kids — at least it had five years ago, when she quoted her then-14-year-old daughter who thought “working at Microsoft someday would be pretty cool.”
Wonder how cool it would be if her mom becomes CEO?
- Chris Morris, OZY Author Contact Chris Morris