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Behaving badly at Apple and Microsoft

Former Apple Senior V.P. of iPhone Software Scott Forstall demonstrates the new map application featured on iOS 6 during the keynote address during the 2012 Apple WWDC keynote address at the Moscone Center on June 11, 2012 in San Francisco, Calif.

If you haven’t heard, there’s been big management shake-ups at Apple and Microsoft. The buzz is they let go of the executives because they were difficult to work with. But here’s what I want to know: When did being “difficult” become a handicap in tech? 

Microsoft parted ways with Steven Sinofsky, he was the president of the Windows division, the company’s main money maker. And Apple ousted their lead software engineer Scott Forstall. Both men, were once thought to be in line to take over their respective companies and widely acknowledged as brilliant.

It's ironic that the companies in question are Apple and Microsoft. Steve Jobs was legendary for being difficult. And Bill Gates? Under his leadership, Microsoft wasn’t exactly known for playing well with others.

“Steve Jobs and Bill Gates would pound the table and swear to bend the will of thousands of people to their vision,” says David Patterson is a professor of computer science at U.C. Berkeley.

And from all accounts, Forstall and Sinofsky followed this model of management, says Jay Green, a senior writer at CNET. He profiled Sinofsky for the website.

“His style is, what might say is very rigid, he follows a very specific process,” Green said. “That comes close to guaranteeing that the product can ship on time and it comes out with decent quality.”

That process allowed Sinosfsky to restore Microsoft’s shine after its Windows Vista debacle, the software was years late and widely panned. But that “my-way-or-the-highway” approach  is becoming a competitive disadvantage in tech.  

Today, consumers want products that work across platforms: desktops, laptops, tablets, the smartphone and in Microsoft’s case, even its gaming console, Xbox. And that takes collaboration, says Green, a management trait that Sinofsky wasn’t known for.

“If you are another group and you want to have your products work well with Windows, Sinofsky, if he doesn’t want your product in his, can make your life difficult,” Green said. He says this is one reason Microsoft has struggled in the smartphone market.

The asshole manager cost companies in lots of ways, says Bob Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at the Stanford Engineering School. Sutton wrote the book “The No Asshole Rule.”

“Google actually has quite good data that insensitive bosses drive out the best talent,” Sutton says.

And hiring and retaining engineers is already really difficult in tech. But Sutton says that the jerk-style can work for a long time, until it doesn’t.

“As long as they’re winning for better-or-worse in American culture, we seem to put up with them,” Sutton said.

But when they start losing? Their enemies -- and there are usually a lot of them -- pounce. In Sinofsky’s case, while Windows 8 got kudos for being bold, it hasn’t been a home run. And Apple’s Forstall presided over the Apple Maps fiasco.

David Patterson, the computer science professor at Berkeley, says we’re at a teachable moment. Every year, Patterson shows his students a slide of the superhero programmer dressed in a cape. And then he puts a red X across him. And this year, he’ll add this line:

“Even vice presidents of engineering are getting fired for being difficult to work with as an argument that they need to learn to live in teams,” Patterson said.

So we might just be entering the era of Boss 3.0.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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