What We Can Learn from the Flight of Microsoft Execs to Amazon, AOL, GM, Nokia, Yahoo…and Micro VC

Sometimes all you need to do is look at where former Microsoft executives are going, to piece together some interesting trends in the tech industry.

In recent months, a number of high-profile leaders from very different divisions of the Redmond, WA-based software firm (NASDAQ: MSFT) have departed. This might be true in any given year at a company with roughly 90,000 employees, of course, but what’s interesting here is where these execs are going—and what their moves say about their respective industries. (Also noticeably absent are any publicized moves to hated competitors like Apple, Google, or Oracle.)

I posit that the following six personnel moves say more about the near-term future of industries like mobile, gaming, online services, and automotive than about Microsoft itself, although there might be some intriguing partnerships with Redmond in the works:

—Stephen Elop to Nokia (CEO)

The former president of Microsoft’s business division (and member of Steve Ballmer’s senior leadership team) officially starts as chief executive of Finland-based Nokia (NYSE: NOK) next week. Look for Elop to bring more focus to the U.S. smartphone market, where Nokia has seriously lagged, and for Microsoft and Nokia to work together more closely (and perhaps even merge) to take on Google and Apple in mobile.

—Andre Vrignaud to Amazon (gaming exec)

Microsoft’s former director of game platform strategy, who helped build Xbox Live, is taking on a new, unspecified role at Seattle-based Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN). Presumably it will be to help lead the online retail giant’s emerging efforts in video games and entertainment. In the past few years, Amazon acquired casual game distributor Reflexive Entertainment, and the firm and its CEO Jeff Bezos invested in startups such as Atomic Moguls and Social Gaming Network. Look for Amazon to develop a unique strategy in social gaming as the casual games sector continues to evolve and become more deeply embedded with social media.

—John Matheny to Yahoo (senior VP, communication products and communities)

The former general manager of Windows Phone App Studio (he worked on the ill-fated Kin) has moved on to become senior vice president of Yahoo’s communications products and communities unit. Matheny is the latest in a string of former Microsofties who have joined Silicon Valley-based Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO), including senior product execs Blake Irving and Bill Shaughnessy. What this means for Yahoo (whose search partnership with Bing seems to be doing fine), I have no idea. Does anyone know what Yahoo’s strategy is these days?

—Alex Gounares to AOL (chief technology officer)

This might be the most interesting move of all. Whatever happened to AOL (NYSE: AOL)? The Internet company that Steve Case built (and Marc Andreessen and Jason Calacanis used to work for) has been in decline for most of the past decade. If anyone can help turn around its technology and business, it’s “AlexGo,” the former Microsoft vice president and technology advisor to Bill Gates who switched companies this summer. Look for New York-based AOL to start innovating again in online services, right the ship, and possibly even get acquired by Microsoft.

—Chris Liddell to General Motors (chief financial officer)

Microsoft’s former chief financial officer has been at his new post since the beginning of 2010. So far, so good. Last month, Detroit-based GM (NYSE: GM) reported its second straight quarterly profit. As the auto industry tries to rebound, and as automotive software systems become increasingly sophisticated, look for car companies to start being run a bit more like software companies—and to form more technology partnerships like Ford has done with Microsoft in areas like energy efficiency. Liddell, who reportedly drove a Ferrari to work in Redmond, could help spearhead the effort to streamline automotive business processes.

—Reed Sturtevant to Project 11 Ventures (co-founder with Katie Rae)

Closer to my home in Cambridge, MA, tech startup veteran Sturtevant, the former head of Microsoft Startup Labs (and previously with Eons and Idealab), has moved on since last year. Just last week, he announced his first investment with Project 11, a new Boston-area “accelerator program” and Web startup fund (currently being raised). Project 11 isn’t being billed as “micro VC” per se, but it’s part of that emerging sector of small, early-stage investment funds that blur the line between angel investing and venture capital. As for Sturtevant, this seems to be a case of once a startup guy, always a startup guy—big companies aren’t a good fit. But it’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, he brings to this new sector from his Microsoft experience.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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2 responses to “What We Can Learn from the Flight of Microsoft Execs to Amazon, AOL, GM, Nokia, Yahoo…and Micro VC”

  1. I neglected to mention Bill Veghte, the senior vice president who left Microsoft after 20 years and became HP’s executive VP of software and solutions in the firm’s enterprise business, earlier this year.