#3 Newsmaker of 2009: Eric Gales of Microsoft Canada

It can’t be easy to take on the role of Steve Ballmer’s opening act, but Eric Gales didn’t look nervous.

Only two months ago, as Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) gathered more than 600 customers and partners at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel in Toronto to launch Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2 and Exchange 2010, Gales – as the company’s new Canadian president – was making a very high-profile and public debut of his own.

He’s the third president to take over from longtime predecessor Frank Clegg in less than five years, becoming the local public face of the company as Canada continues to deal with the economic fallout of the global recession. He’s moving into a leadership position at a time when Microsoft is beset by increased competition from Google, still reeling from the poor reception to Vista and grappling with emerging IT delivery models such as cloud computing.

When he sat down with CDN and the rest of IT World Canada’s editorial board this summer, Gales admitted he faced a steep learning curve.

“You always think you know what the president does. I think now I’m really finding out,” he said. “There’s a set of external commitments in the business world as well as our citizenship efforts that I need to pick up. As well, frankly, there are parts of Microsoft that I haven’t been very close to . . . I guess in this startup phase it’s really understanding those things, (and) how to spend my time.”

Being Microsoft Canada’s president includes three main roles, of course. One is to be the champion of IT investment among Canadian businesses. Gales has gotten the opportunity to make the case for spending on technology in several publications, including the Financial Post, though whether he can sustain media interest as news of his appointment gets older remains to be seen.

“I think the thing is not to forget why people invest in technology in the first place,” he said, citing the need to reduce costs, improve productivity and do new things. “There are IT professionals who are looking for more help to be able to translate that value to their own company, and something Microsoft and our partners are certainly interested in doing.”

The second role is to cut the ribbons and hand over the big cheques as part of the company’s charitable activities, which are extensive in Canada.

In August, for example, Gales was on hand with Toronto Mayor David Miller as Microsoft announced the second ProTech Media Centre, which is designed to provide free access to technology to introduce youth to potential careers in new media.

The third, and perhaps most important role, is to help run a sales force that works with channel partners across the country. This is where Gales said he believes he has his greatest strength, which he put on display when he delivered a regional keynote at Microsoft’s annual Worldwide Partner Conference in July.

“I think what I’m bringing with me into this role is a broad range of experience, working with every size of customer,” he told CDN. “In the SMB domain, which has been my role at Microsoft really for the last 10 years, I’ve had exposure from the smallest customer to the largest customer. From the least sophisticated customer to the most sophisticated customer.”

Gales also notes that he has worked with nearly every kind of Microsoft channel partner, whether it’s a distributor, an ISV, a custom developer or system integrator. Although the talent required for a particular sale may depend on the nature of the business opportunity, the local rivalry or the demands of the customer, focusing on SMBs may make the most sense in a country that largely consists of them.

“Those experiences, I think, will give me a good backdrop to develop my knowledge in discreet verticals, in the public sector, and some of (Microsoft’s) largest partners,” he said.

Like his most recent predecessors – and as his British accent betrays – Gales is not a Canadian native. Unlike some previous Canadian presidents, however, he has spent the last three years here before he landed the top job. That’s a change in direction from Microsoft, which has typically been farming out U.S. talent to Mississauga before drawing them back a few years later. It means Gales has had enough time in Canada to start getting a closer feel for what our priorities are, or should be, and to articulate them more like a visionary than a local manager. He had this opportunity a little later in the day when Ballmer came to town, when he introduced him again at the nearby Can>Win summit for non-IT business leaders.

“Canada is in the middle of a global competition to grow, retain talent and attract investment,” he said. “To stay in the race, a baton must be passed from one generation to another, from one government to another. It’s time to pick up the baton, and get running.”

Everything indicates that Eric Gales has already picked up the baton, and is on the move.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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