Okta, the hot San Francisco cloud-computing startup, inaugurated its expanded engineering office in Microsoft’s backyard with a familiar face for followers of the Redmond giant: former Windows boss Steven Sinofsky.
“I happen to have spent a bunch of time in Seattle previously,” Sinofsky said in introducing himself at an event Thursday evening.
The understatement drew laughter from the crowd of a few dozen Okta employees and government and technology workers at the company’s new office space on 110th Avenue Northeast in downtown Bellevue.
Sinofsky was once one of Microsoft’s most high-profile executives, leading the engineering of both Windows and Office at times during his 23 years with the company.
That career ended abruptly in November 2012, when Sinofsky resigned from his post heading the Windows division. The departure, complete with a lengthy severance agreement filed with regulators, came a few months after the release of Windows 8, a radically redesigned, but poorly received, version of the operating system.
Sinofsky subsequently moved to the Bay Area, joining investment firm Andreessen Horowitz, an early investor in Okta. He keeps an apartment in Seattle’s Pioneer Square but is rarely in the Seattle area, he said in an interview.
The Seattle region, Sinofsky joked on the sidelines of last week’s event, hasn’t changed much. “The only thing that’s strange is the (new) 520 bridge. I’m not used to it yet.”
Sinofsky’s visit, and Okta’s growing presence in the region, highlight the sometimes blurry line between partner and competitor in the technology business.
Okta’s main product, a tool for companies to manage their employees’ access to Web-based services, competes head on with a product sold by Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing group.
On the other hand, one of the biggest uses for Okta’s software is managing logins to Office 365, the web-based variant of Microsoft’s productivity suite.
Frederic Kerrest, Okta’s co-founder, says about two-thirds of the company’s 35 Bellevue employees occupy product-development roles, primarily related to integrations with Office 365.
Okta’s expanded local footprint comes as other Bay Area companies, including Google, Facebook and Salesforce.com, grow in the Puget Sound region to tap its technology talent.
Conflict between the old and the new isn’t new to Sinofsky, who learned programming on mainframe computers before helping Microsoft dominate the PC revolution.
As an executive, he built a reputation for getting sprawling engineering teams to complete projects on time, and was known as a practitioner of the company’s sometimes sharp-elbowed culture.
The current shift in business technology, toward cloud-computing, requires new thinking, he said, not repurposing old products for the new platform.
“You have to be all-in to do it effectively,” Sinofsky said of the transition to the cloud. “The next wave of applications, Okta being one, are just built differently when you start on the cloud.”
Few companies have navigated the path from “on premises” software development to the cloud successfully, he said.
Microsoft, his old employer, is trying, putting its massive engineering and sales teams on cloud-based variants of its productivity and business-management tools.
How’s that effort going?
“I don’t know,” Sinofsky said in an interview. “That’s not my judgment to make.”
Later, in comments to the crowd in Bellevue, Sinofsky contrasted his view of Microsoft’s approach to the cloud with Amazon.com’s booming Amazon Web Services (AWS) unit, widely seen as the leader in the business of providing computing infrastructure over the internet.
“The two leaders are here, but they sort of grew up in completely different ways,” Sinofsky said. “AWS is a brand-new product,” he said, while Microsoft is “sort of just trying to muscle their way into the new world by using the assets they’d previously built.”
Speaking of those assets, what does Sinofsky make of Windows 10, the first version of the operating system released since he left Microsoft?
Sinofsky, who these days sends many of the messages on his prolific Twitter account from an iPad or iPhone, declined to comment.