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Anand Iyer, former Microsoft developer evangelistMicrosoft has a sprawling campus in tech’s heartland, right by the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif. It has thousands of employees in the Bay Area. But the departure of a high-profile evangelist once called the software giant’s “ambassador to Silicon Valley” raises questions about whether its strategy can work.

Anand Iyer, whose formal title is senior product manager and who led Microsoft initiatives to woo startups and mobile developers, wrote on his blog today that he was leaving the company because his managers had made it clear he had to move to the Seattle area, where Microsoft is based. His response: “I would have to give up my home, my family, my friends and move from one of the best cities in the world to, well, Redmond.” Ayer joined Microsoft in 2005.

Microsoft has 89,000 employees worldwide. But unique voices like Iyer, a ubiquitous presence at tech conferences and on the startup scene, connected those armies of implementers with the Valley’s innovators.

Reached on the phone, Iyer said of the opportunities Microsoft gave him, “In hindsight, I can only be grateful.” But he added that it was a “very valid question” whether Microsoft could succeed in the Valley if employees based in the area couldn’t see a way to progress in their jobs. “It’s hard to build a career at Microsoft outside the mothership,” he said.

“It doesn’t help when the company, at its core, doesn’t think it needs to be open and accessible,” said Iyer, who noted that he wasn’t speaking universally and that some product teams were more open than others. “You really need to get product guys out there talking to the world about what you built — especially to developers, who love to hear from the guys who built it. The insular culture makes that hard to do.”

Iyer was involved in a key current initiative, the launch of Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 platform, and charged with convincing developers to write apps for Microsoft-powered phones instead of Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Android devices. (A Microsoft spokesperson said the company did not comment on personnel matters.)

Recruiting developer-friendly influencers like Iyer could prove more challenging, if, like Iyer, they find they have to move out of the Bay Area and its deeply interconnected tech ecosystem. I’d argue that Microsoft needs to be less insular, not more — so cloistering its brightest minds in its monastic headquarters seems wrongheaded. (Remember, Microsoft lost another startup-friendly evangelist back in November when it laid off Boston-based Don Dodge.)

Microsoft’s loss is likely some startup’s gain. Iyer said in his blog post that he’s deeply interested in mobile gaming, adding, “There is still an issue around discoverability of apps and games.” (Funny you should say that, Anand.)

All is not lost for Microsoft. The company does, after all, have a deep bench. Microsoft’s Bay Area presence is led by Dan’l Lewin, a Silicon Valley veteran who was also dubbed the company’s ambassador to the area when he was hired in 2001.

And a recent check-in on Foursquare, the popular location-based service, suggests that at least one contender, a certain former VentureBeat business manager, may be making a play for Iyer’s abandoned diplomatic role to the land of startups.

“A sign of the times,” said Iyer.

Jacob Mullins ousts Anand Iyer

[Photo: Brian Solis/Bub.blicio.us]

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