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Now at 160 Days, Microsoft CEO Search Could Be Nearing Its End With Insiders on Inside Track

One thing is clear -- in a poll of employees I took over the last week, everyone expressed a need for this search to end now.

According to numerous sources close to Microsoft, the selection of a new CEO could happen within the next week.

Now, everyone has heard this tune before, as the company has upended boards across the world in its search for a new leader to replace outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer — Sorry for the circus, Ford! Excuse our big clompy feet, Ericsson!

The effort has also utterly agonized the rank-and-file, slowed a massive restructuring inside the company and exposed some serious boardroom rifts, in a search that has now dragged on for close to six months.

In tech terms, that is an eon — Google changed its strategy more times yesterday than Microsoft has in all the time this search has taken. That is why sources said that the company — after turning in a strong quarter last week and with Chairman Bill Gates refocused after a spate of international travel — was readying its pick with a goal to announce in early February.

And, at this moment, those who have watched the process think that insider Satya Nadella, who is currently leading its enterprise effort, is the likeliest internal candidate to prevail.

That’s due to a number of reasons, including his familiarity with the company, where he has spent much of his career, as well as a strong technical background and a varied work history at Microsoft.

Nadella came to Microsoft in 1992 from Sun Microsystems. And, said many, he has recently spent a lot more time over the last few months in Silicon Valley, which — to be fair — is part of his current job.

The two other insiders — strategy head Tony Bates and Nokia leader and former Microsoft exec Stephen Elop — seem further behind. But while sources said they have not been updated recently as to their status in the search, neither has as yet been told he is out, either.

Still, there are some inside and outside the company who think Microsoft might still opt for an outsider to take over.

So far, that effort has been a bust for directors as possible candidates — such as Ford’s Alan Mulally, Qualcomm’s Steve Mollenkopf and Ericsson’s Hans Vestberg — have loudly dropped out of the race, either publicly or via well-placed leaks.

In December, I had mentioned VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger as a possible candidate, which I am sticking to as he is a dynamic, technical and interesting selection.

But no new names have emerged of late, which either means the Microsoft board is really good at keeping secrets (they’re not!) or that there is no viable outside candidate ready. Maybe the directors will surprise us all with some spectacular move — buy Yahoo and let Marissa Mayer deal with an even bigger mess? — but the odds of that happening seem to be dwindling.

Whether they have completely dwundled or not, one thing is clear — in a poll of employees I took over the last week, everyone expressed a need for this search to end now.

“We aren’t doing anything but waiting,” said one high-ranking exec, in a common refrain. “No one knows what the new CEO will want, so no one knows what to do.”

Said another: “It’s stasis, all depending on who gets the nod.”

Interestingly, of the dozen or more people I spoke to, even if he was not their pick, most thought Nadella would get the job, noting that Microsoft is too complex an organization for a newbie to grok. Also important, according to everyone: He’s the least controversial.

Which does not mean that’s the way the board will go or speak to the timing, although one person close to it told me yesterday: “Soon.”

The tension is palpable — palpably painful. Until we know, here is a video interview I did in mid-2009 with Nadella when he was SVP of research and development at its Online Services division:

And, just because I am bored too, here is one I did with Elop in 2009, when he ran its business division:

And, because three’s company, here’s an interview I did onstage at the D: All Things Digital conference in 2012 with Bates, who was then running Microsoft’s Skype unit and whom I called too “charming” to run Microsoft:

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