Steve Ballmer: The Stalin of Microsoft’s revolution

Steve Ballmer © Microsoft
Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer proved a divisive figure

Confronted with murmurings about his lacklustre leadership of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer defiantly proclaimed he would stay until 2018. That was wishful thinking, says Still, he got “one heckuva retirement gift”: shares jumped nearly 9% on news of his pending departure, pushing up his wealth by $1bn. His fate now is to endure an interminable debate about whether he was responsible for Microsoft’s “lost decade” (see below).

It’s said that if Bill Gates was Microsoft’s Lenin (and co-founder Paul Allen its wayward Trotsky), then Ballmer played Stalin: the ruthless lieutenant who stopped at nothing to advance the empire and his own power. Certainly, this was an idea that Allen – who claims to have been shafted by Ballmer – liked to put about, says Vanity Fair. In his 2011 book, Idea Man, he recalls meeting Ballmer in 1980 and thinking he looked like a Soviet secret policeman. “He had piercing blue eyes and a genuine toughness.”

That was exactly what the fledgling outfit needed. A boisterous tank of a man and Gates’s poker buddy at Harvard, Ballmer arrived as Microsoft got its big break writing the software for the first IBM PC. He had the savvy to ram home that advantage. Microsoft went public in 1986, making multimillionaires of its staff, and began doubling and tripling in size every year.

In 1995, it hit its “pinnacle of cool” when it released Windows 95, to the strains of ‘Start Me Up’ by the Rolling Stones. By 1997, MS software was running on 86% of American PCs, and the anti-trust authorities were circling. With competitors littering the sidelines, the legend of “the evil Empire” was born.

Ballmer gained notoriety for his manic performances, says The Guardian. At a presentation in 2000, after succeeding Gates as CEO, he danced round the stage whooping, “I love this company”. It humiliatingly went viral but highlighted his loyalty. The “all-American” son of a Ford manager from Detroit, Ballmer still drives Ford. The same mentality saw him ban his own three boys from using any product that competed with Microsoft.

“If Ballmer were your friend, he’d be the best friend you ever had,” says his biographer. He could be “a warm and gracious host”, says Bloomberg, regaling you with anecdotes about his first job as a brownie mix manager at Procter & Gamble. But his modus operandi was intimidation. He was “a take-no prisoners salesman”, renowned “for bringing a baseball bat into meetings”. A colleague, jumping ship to Google in 2005, alleged in court that Ballmer threw a chair across the room and screamed expletives about Eric Schmidt.

What’s next for Ballmer? He’s only 57, says The New Yorker. “But I think he’ll be quiet: doing good deeds, giving away his fortune, and popping up his head from time to time.” However, the more important question is: what comes next for Microsoft?

Just what did he achieve at the helm?

Let’s not be too hard on Steve Ballmer, said Harry McCracken on Sure, the shares have “largely flatlined” during his tenure, but Microsoft has more than tripled revenues and doubled profits – and could have “fared considerably worse” under someone else – even Bill Gates.

Its problem was Windows: the “golden goose” that became “an albatross”, stymying innovation and spawning a hubristic kind of tunnel vision. Promising products, such as an early e-book and a pre-iPod music player, were ditched simply because they didn’t fit the theology. But if Windows was God, Gates was its chief acolyte – and he, not Ballmer, was responsible for technical strategy.

Had Ballmer quit in 2010, I’d have been the first to dish the dirt, says Alex Wilhelm on TechCrunch. But “his concluding years have been his best”. Big changes were needed – and he’s taken them: pushing through a “re-org” of the firm and its business model that leaves Microsoft “as prepped for the future as possible”.

Spare us the “counter-intuitive” claptrap, says Mic Wright on Ballmer was “hopelessly myopic”, missing every trend from smartphones to social networking. “Time and again” he squandered great ideas and ploughed on with bad ones. A relentless pursuer of the immediate bottom line, his role was that of a Trojan slave-ship drummer, “banging out a rhythm to make the crew keep rowing in the same direction”. He famously dismissed the iPhone as “not a very good email machine”.

Microsoft’s “lost decade” was a direct result of the culture Ballmer created, says Kurt Eichenwald in Vanity Fair. Managers “pumped up the volume on the viciousness” to meet sales targets. Internal turf-wars were exacerbated by a “destructive” management system called “stack-racking” (or employee ranking), killing innovation. Before his death, Steve Jobs said: “I don’t think anything will change at Microsoft as long as Ballmer is running it.” He was right.

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