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How Ex-Microsoft exec Bob Muglia triumphed over two humiliating demotions to become CEO of hot startup Snowflake (MSFT)

Julie Bort
Bob Muglia Snowflake Computing

Snowflake Computing

After a 23-year career at Microsoft and two-years at Juniper Networks, Bob Muglia has spent the last four years in his first CEO role, happily running a fast-growing cloud database startup called Snowflake.

But Muglia will forever be known as a former key executive at Microsoft. He joined Microsoft under Gates in 1988 and helped build the company's very first database (still a huge product for the company today), worked on Office, MSN, Windows and then ran one of four major business units: Server and Tools, a $15 billion unit that employed a good 10,000 people.

Muglia is also the first to admit that he will also forever be known as the guy who suffered two pretty humiliating career crashes under former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

He tells Business Insider that it was these rough moments really shaped him.

"One of my favorite stories that I've told about Microsoft a few times. I was sort of let go by Microsoft twice," he said. "Steve [Ballmer] and I had our disagreements in a major way two times at Microsoft."

Passed over for the big promotion

The first time was when Ballmer reorganized business units and Muglia thought he would be in line to run one of them. But he wasn't offered that job.

Instead he was offered the job of doing a "startup" group within the company helping create a new computer storage group, as he describes it.

"And in a period of 1 day, I went from 3,000 people working for me to 1," he said. "I was demoted publicly. I went from executive vice president to senior vice president, which was written up in the Wall Street Journal. So pretty public."

Instead of leaving the company, Muglia "called every colleague I had worked with in a material way at Microsoft and I told them the story of what was happening," he said.

That story was that he was excited to build the new team and yes, he realized it's a smaller role at the company. Nobody bought it.

bob muglia

AP

"Everybody's response to that was about the same," he remembers. "They knew what was going on. Everyone knew what was going on. They just didn't know what to say."

Muglia said he shrugged off their reaction and got to work "full steam," he said.

He did well again, and was promoted. In another big reorganization, this time Ballmer handed him his own group: Servers and Tools. He was now one of four top presidents.

He heard from the colleagues that he called who told him this time that they admired his attitude. That liked that didn't tuck his tail between his legs and hide and then leave quietly.

"That was a learning I had at Microsoft about failure and adversity. We all have situations where we are not successful but it's how we handle it," he said.

Another public dismissal

In 2011, with Server and Tools a $15 billion business. Muglia and Ballmer butted heads again, reportedly over the direction of how to take the company into cloud computing.

Microsoft Steve Ballmer

Bloomberg TV

His dismissal was once again very public, an email to troops from Ballmer published to the world.  

Satya Nadella was handed Muglia's old job. Nadella would eventually be picked to replace Ballmer as CEO.

And Muglia was in a bind.

Thanks to a "major league" non-compete clause, Muglia couldn't take another job at another major software industry company. He landed at Juniper Networks and stayed for two years.

Juniper was having its own era of public humiliations. For instance, shortly after Muglia, there was the the sudden ousting of its CEO and the interest of activist investor Elliott Management.

"Through Juniper I learned a lot, too. I found I went into a successful but highly immature company who had not put in place the processes that are necessary to scale success," he said.

That experience shaped his thinking as CEO of Snowflake, too.

"I really focus on investing in IT and business process and everything to scale the company. Where did that lesson come?" he said. "Juniper."

Leaderships lessons from Bill and Steve

He also took with him leadership lessons from both Gates and Ballmer. For instance, they taught him to always stay involved in the details, "to always challenge and ask really deep questions," he said, and "not operate at 100,000 feet."

Bill Gates

APGates would get into the nitty gritty technical details, Ballmer into the business questions. For instance, the pricing models he chose for Snowflake were inspired by Office 365 "and that came from Steve."

Gates taught him an opposite lesson, too. Gates was careful to email his questions, instructions or annoyances to only a few select top people, not to whole teams.

Muglia said he posts his thoughts on Slack for all to see. He believes it gives employees a level of transparency into his thinking. 

But ultimately there's one big takeaway on being a boss he's learned from his own peaks and valleys: "My goal is to always teach people and help people to grow in their career. That’s the most important thing."

His approach seems to be working. He was employee No. 34 when he was hired as CEO of Snowflake in the summer of 2014, he said. The company now employs 300 and has over 900 customers either using the product or testing it, he said, with "hundreds" using it to run their business.

Snowflake was also just named to Business Insider's 51 companies to bet your career on in 2018.

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