Obi Wan Ballmer Reacts to Donald Farmer Departure

“It’s as if millions of Microsoft employees all cried out at once and then suddenly were silent.”

-Obi Wan Kesoftie

“Double Yoo Tee Eff?…  Oh yeah, that’s actually pretty cool!”

Huge news today:  Donald Farmer, who has literally been the public face and personality of Microsoft Business Intelligence for many years now, [link removed due to 404] is leaving Microsoft and going to what some people think is PowerPivot’s biggest competition:  Qliktech, aka Qlikview.

Twitter was all…  atwitter.  My inbox turned over with messages.  My phone rang.  I got texts.  The sun blacked out.  Oh wait, that wasn’t today.  But you get the idea.

People were curious what I thought about it.  So was I, actually, so I thought I’d get my thoughts on paper.  I mean, hey, we don’t often get events like this in the boring world of numbers.  This isn’t pro wrestling where the personalities change teams all the time.  No, for us this is Excellent Gossip Material!  A chance for random thoughts and wild speculation!

Let’s dig in!  Quick, before I actually talk to Donald and have a chance for facts to get in the way!

Oh, and fair warning:  I’m also going to use this topic as an excuse to explore some topics, primarily the dynamics of working at Microsoft, that I’ve been noodling on for a long time.  So this may end up being insanely interesting to five people and boring to everyone else.  Hard to say, but it won’t just be about Donald or PowerPivot.

If all you want to know is what impact I think this will have on PowerPivot, scroll to the end.

But first things first:  A Public Thank You

In my last couple years at MS, I had the pleasure of working very closely with Donald – sitting in the office next to his, and even reporting to him for awhile.

Donald, on the other hand, had the misfortune of working closely with me during one of the worst periods of my life 🙂  I was going through a protracted divorce, including a custody battle that eventually displaced me from Redmond and landed me in Cleveland.  My grandfather fought and lost a nasty battle with cancer.  On top of it all, I was reaching the crescendo of my long-building frustration with being a cog in the Microsoft machine (a topic on which I could write many posts).

Let’s just say I wasn’t at my best.  And Donald was just so immensely kind, patient, and supportive through it all.  There were plenty of occasions where others would have lost their patience with me.  But Donald went out of his way to help me, repeatedly.  I flew home to see my grandfather, and Donald gave me one of his airline upgrades.  If I had to be out of the office, Donald made sure I didn’t worry about the work impact of it.

And I can’t even begin to describe how helpful he was in the darkest days of “OK, how am I going to make a living in Cleveland???”

Everyone who is familiar with his public persona knows that he is incredibly sharp and witty, and that he seems very personable.  Those that know him more closely can tell you that you don’t know the half of it.  Thanks Donald.

So with that in mind, I can tell you that my first thought (once I got over the initial shock) was the realization of just how GOOD this could be for Donald.  I’ll explain.  And yes, I will speculate, because that’s more fun than just rehashing the facts now isn’t it?

Side Note #1 –  What to do about PowerPivot Yoda?

PowerPivot Yoda

I know this is gonna surprise you, but PowerPivot Yoda is actually a fiction.  Yeah, that may be too many shocks for one day, but the truth is important at any price.

Yes, PowerPivot Yoda’s likeness is a morphed combination of the Jedi Master and the man himself.

Should we keep him?  Do we…  gasp…  rename him as QlikView Yoda?  Come up with a new likeness?

See, these are the important implications.  If you have an opinion on what to do about PowerPivot Yoda, please leave a comment or drop me an email.

Why I Think This Will Be Very Good for Donald

Above, I made reference to my own struggle with being a “cog in the machine.”  I don’t remember Donald ever complaining about similar thoughts, but if anything, his situation was even more extreme.

In my farewell mail to the PowerPivot team, I likened them to a collection of Olympic athletes.  Literally, it’s an international team of all-stars, as if some magnetic force was drawing all of these Will Hunting types out of their homelands, concentrating them on one team in Redmond.

There are huge benefits to that of course.  Absolutely magical things can happen with that kind of cast.  The everyday personal interaction is nothing short of extraordinary.  And for such exceptional individuals, the combined force of such a team naturally provides a sense of safety and job security.

The flipside, however, is that there’s only so much opportunity to go around.  Someone like Donald is capable of a lot more than what Microsoft can ask him to do.  There are quite literally too many (celebrity) chefs.  Continuing the metaphor, you’ve got chefs on staff that could design and prepare entire menus, open and operate their own restaurants…  and you have them making the soup.

Sooner or later, it’s time to try a broader scope.

I hope that QlikTech gets this.  I’m sure they know that he will be great for PR.  They need to let him do more than that.  I’m pretty sure that Donald gets this, and wouldn’t be making the move unless a broader role was part of the deal.

How Much is the Former Face of MS BI Worth?

Another interesting aspect, and yes, I’m going to go there.  It’s just basic economics really, even though it’s counterintuitive in many ways.

Donald was literally as close as you could get to being “the brand” for MS BI.  That’s a pretty phenomenal thing – MS product lines don’t often have such a singular personification.  But from Microsoft’s standpoint, it’s hard to put the right value on such a thing.  His departure doesn’t…  hurt as much as you might think.  The folks designing, building, and testing the software are all still there, and MS software tends to either sell itself, or not sell at all (at least, relative to other brands).

So, the fair market value of someone like Donald is not something that gets fully realized at MS.  But on the open market it’s another story isn’t it? 🙂

Again, I have NOT talked to Donald.  I’m just doing the educated guess thing.  And hoping the answer is “A LOT” 🙂

Side Note #2 – Next Time I Tease Donald…

…will it be construed as a competitive jab rather than just a humorous sign of respect?  I sure hope not.  I mean…  I can’t retire the Tommy Chong comparison.  I just can’t.

(For the full original photo gallery, click here.)

What Does this do to PowerPivot vs. Qliktech?

Short version:  I think it helps Qliktech a lot.  I don’t think it hurts Microsoft all that much.

Does that seem strange?  It all comes back to the points above.  Donald is likely leaving, at least in part, because he doesn’t have room to influence as much as he wants at MS.  He is the face of the product line, but he is not the product line.

Thing is though…  he could be the product line, at least in terms of strategic direction, detailed product reviews like BillG used to conduct, as well as the face of the product line.

So he’s just more valuable at Qliktech then he is at Microsoft.  Not to mention…  Qliktech is hot, fast-growing, etc… but it’s still a very small company relative to MS.  A luminary like Donald will provide them a lot of broad exposure and credibility that they would otherwise lack.  This is a very smart move for Qliktech.

Five Years From Now, Will it Have Made a Difference?

Personally, I think if you view PowerPivot and Qliktech as being locked in a duel to the death, then the answer is no…  there will be no difference five years from now.  If this truly is a head to head battle, Microsoft will win, and win convincingly.

I don’t think it should be viewed as a zero sum game like that, but for those who insist, I will tell you why MS would win such a contest.  First of all, no disrespect intended to the Qlikview crew, but Microsoft is just a monster.  The scale of what they can do – QV doesn’t just have to compete against PowerPivot, but also Reporting Services, Integration Services, SharePoint, Excel, Access Services…  the entire stack.

One of those products, by the way, should have been listed in bold:  EXCEL.  Let’s be 100% clear:  I’m not a PowerPivot advocate because I worked for MS, or even because I helped build it.  I’m not MS-patriotic in that way at all.  I worked on Bing for awhile, for instance, but I went back to Google as soon as I left the Bing team.  It will be a long time before I consider a Windows phone – my iPhone and I are good friends.

No, I am a PowerPivot advocate, and my new company is an aggressive adopter of PowerPivot, because it extends the power of Excel into a whole new realm…  and I already knew Excel.  In that sense, I am just like 100M people worldwide – I am a programmer of the most widely-adopted BI language and platform in the world.  When I train and consult with others about PowerPivot, I am teaching them how to extend their Excel skills in brand-new productive directions, but I am not teaching them something that’s completely new.

Full platform stack, critical mass of international Will Huntings, and the broad adoption of Excel – no one can overcome that.  If you are in the way of that beast, it’s just a matter of time.  I have a pet theory that the Qliktech IPO early this year was no coincidence.  PowerPivot, out of the blue, presented a massive threat to their identity as “the” self-service BI tool.  If you were one of the big equityholders at Qliktech in that situation, wouldn’t you want to “lock in” your big money?  I sure would.

I like to think that now that the IPO is in the rearview mirror, Qliktech is coming out of that initial reaction.  The BI market is far from a zero-sum game.  Quality, sharp teams can find an endless number of ways to innovate.  I’m excited to see if they go in some brand new directions.  We may even use them at Pivotstream some day alongside PowerPivot and BISM.

I bet Donald already has some ideas 🙂

Good luck to you Donald.  I wish you the very best, and hope to still run into you at events.