Microsoft CEO Ballmer: Separating the man from myth

Microsoft CEO Ballmer: Separating the man from myth

Summary: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer & Co. talk about his legacy and lessons learned. Get ready for a series of posts, starting with this one.


Evaluating the legacy of any CEO, especially one as storied and controversial as Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, is a challenge.


That's why I'm glad I had a chance to take it on. In late November 2013, I went to Redmond and interviewed Ballmer and a number of other current and former Microsoft leaders about Ballmer's last 13 years as CEO.

In August this year, I had the chance to do a 15-minute phone interview with Ballmer to talk about his early retirement announcement. That was the first time I'd been allowed to talk to him in the past 20 years. For the Ballmer story I wrote for Fortune -- "For Steve Ballmer, a lasting touch on Microsoft," -- I had 45 minutes with Ballmer in his office in Building 34, in what's expected to be his final press interview as CEO.

(And before anyone asks, I don't know who the next Microsoft CEO will be or when she or he will be named.)

Going into my "legacy" interview with Ballmer and, I wasn't expecting to learn a whole lot new. I've read lots about Ballmer and covered tens of his keynotes over the past couple decades. I knew he was a math whiz, scoring 800 on his math SATs. I knew he drove Fords because his dad used to work for Ford (and not because rumored CEO takeover candidate and Ballmer advisor Allan Mulally heads up that company). I knew he had his own private dining room in a steak house in Bellevue (and is partial to wedge salads). 

Yet I was surprised by a few things I learned during my latest round of interviews, including:

  • The key role Ballmer played in helping Microsoft put its antitrust issues behind it

  • The effect of his decision to green-light and then champion the Xbox in Microsoft's goal to dominate the living room

  • His insistence on pushing the once-consumer-focused Microsoft to bet on the enterprise

  • The extent to which he took responsibility for the Longhorn debacle and the lessons he learned from it

  • And yes, that is bullet-proof glass behind us in the picture embedded above. Ballmer said Gates had it installed when he previously occupied the same office.

There have been highs, lows and a naggingly flat stock price since Ballmer took over the CEO job from the company's founder and only other CEO, Bill Gates. It was on Ballmer's watch that Microsoft cut 5,000-plus employees back in 2009. He admittedly made some bad investments and only narrowly escaped a potentially disastrous $45 billion one.

During Ballmer's tenure, Microsoft has changed in countless ways. When he took the helm in January 2000, Microsoft was a software company with about 39,000 people. Once Microsoft ends up digesting Nokia's devices and services business, by early next year, Microsoft will be a roughly 130,000-employee hardware, software and services business.

Ballmer, the CEO, has changed a lot, too. He's still the guy who will mime stomping some poor chump's iPhone during a company meeting for effect. But he's also one who is pragmatic enough to green-light Microsoft supporting the Linux operating system on Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud instead of bellowing about Linux being a "cancer" (as he did back in 2001).

"Most companies in an industry do a trick and they're finished, and then they sort of fade out," Ballmer told me. "We've built what I would call at least three tricks. Windows and Office was kind of a trick and our enterprise business is kind of a trick, and Xbox. A trick is sort of a success. Most companies in our industry sort of do one. We've done three. They've gone through wild rides. And we haven't just faded away. We've gone through the wild ride and come through it."

You can read here the article on Ballmer's legacy I wrote for Fortune. And watch my ZDNet "All About Microsoft" site this week and beyond for lots more posts on Ballmer's legacy.

Topics: Steve Ballmer: The Exit Interview, Legal, Microsoft, Leadership


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Separating the man from myth

    To best separate this man from his myth I'd try a centrifuge...though you might need a big one for Steve. Fascinating how the marketing part of his company seems determined to keep you and Paul on the peripheries of this company and it's products, where the exiting CEO wants to chat...One Microsoft; the oxymoron to rule them all.
    • An interesting spin

      For a full analysis of his characteristics you should start by grinding him up and resolving him in acid. Then the centrifuge.
      Henry 3 Dogg
  • Steve, great.

    The humans have bad memory, in the antitrust case one about ballot the navigators, Ballmer doesn't control the matter and the fine of europ. Union was millionaire. Their characteristic doubtful style of address made him arrive late at the market of the "mobility" although it also served so that about Yahoo, didn't buy (success). It will be remembered more for what didn't made that for that he made. In spite of everything Steve is a great directive.
    luis river
  • Am I missing something?

    I don't see an actual interview anywhere, despite all the front page brouhaha.
    • Interview is in the Fortune link (last paragraph)

      I also wondered at first.
  • I think Southpark got it right . . .

    . . . Gates finally "terminated" Ballmer for not thinking the X Box through. Priceless!
  • Ballmer's legacy...

    It's interesting to me the amount of bile and venom spat at Steve Ballmer as he prepares to retire.

    Are any of the comments that appeared for this column written by people who actually own Microsoft stock? Are the writers daily users of Microsoft products? Former or present employees?

    If the answer to these questions is "No," why the rancor? Why the hate? Ballmer is a human being - like the writers, and everyone else likely to read this piece - and as such, likely to make good calls and bad ones. His calls may be hugely influential in the direction the company takes, but that's his job.

    Even if the answer to the questions is "Yes," there's no reason for the vituperation. If you're a stockholder and you don't like the value of the stock, sell and buy something that shows greater growth. If you're a user of Microsoft software or services, then find something that more perfectly meets your needs and use it. If you're a present employee of the company, start looking for a better job. If you're a past employee, aren't you glad you're not there now?

    This tech stuff, and all the people associated with it, IS NOT WORTH the passion and religious zeal that some people attach to it.
    • and as such, likely to make good calls and bad ones

      Surely, the whole reason Mr Ballmer was given stock options that made him a billionaire many times over is that he had or was thought to have had exceptional judgement and ability. If he was an "ordinary Joe" he would have earned a similar salary to "Joe"

      Of course, however able, nobody is perfect and everybody can make big mistakes and omissions. A very small number of people make a long series of good calls and they can be very valuable in the right role. This article doesn't tell us enough to make that judgement about Mr Ballmer.
      • People do get different opportunities in life

        And people are sometimes promoted to their level of incompetence (or partial incompetence in Ballmer's case). My sense is that Ballmer is essentially a salesman and might have made a good marketer or customer service executive, but he should never have been CEO. His personality is not well suited for it, he doesn't seem to be a good organizer or administrator, his political skills are weak, he has difficulty processing dissenting opinions, and by many accounts, he's a bit of a bully. But clearly Bill Gates (who appointed him and maintained him in office) thought differently and he's a lot closer to the situation than any of us.

        But going back to the title, human society isn't a meritocracy and probably never will be without divine intervention, which would happen on God's timetable, not ours.
        John L. Ries
    • Short term stock return good, long term market leader poor.

      The best way to judge him is against his peer, Steve Jobs.

      Jobs created the mobile revolution, Ballmar missed it completely.

      Jobs made the Pad work after Ballmer/Gates failed to for 20 years of trying.

      Jobs created the on line Market for software, MS is just now copying many years later.

      Ballard had two OSs that massively failed Vista and Win8. Did not learn from his mistakes.

      Jobs left the company as the top performer in the world.

      Ballar left MS in decline after missing the last two major paradigm shifts in the industry.

      Apple brought massive talent while Ballar was the cause of the Brain drain at MS, he removed the technical people as department heads and installed business people. You see the results.

      Now I know MS is still doing very well but and did make money but is not set to compete in this new market, think how it could have been doing if Ballar had not dropped the ball.
    • I could not agree more with Den2010

      I'll never understand the software religions/tech religions out there. It's adolescent at best and downright disturbing more often than not. If you don't like the product, use something else. If you don;t like the guy at the helm (but like the products) then ignore "the man behind the curtain" Does it really matter all that much? Get a life please
      • I could not agree more with Den2010

        They're demonstrating they are naive & narrow minded, i.e. sheep, followers.
      • We're citizens...

        ...and as such bear some responsibility for the well being of the countries, communities, and world in which we live. That responsibility extends to our personal behavior (even if we break no laws), our economic behavior, and how we exercise such small influence as we may possess. So if we see behavior with appears to be harmful to the public interest, I would submit to you that people have the right and duty to speak out, to support public policies that seem likely to discourage such behavior without doing more harm than good, and generally encourage people to be net assets to society instead of net liabilities.

        Citizenship is about a lot more than voting and political activism; it's a way of life.
        John L. Ries
        • For the benefit of Conservative talkbackers

          Personal responsibility, self reliance, and industry are also in the public interest; but so are strong nations and communities, general prosperity, and an educated citizenry that has time to do more than just earn a living (like properly raise a family and contribute to the well being of the broader community). A highly stratified society in which only a small elite prosper and all others are living hand to mouth (if that) really isn't in anyone's interest; not even that of the prosperous elite. History has proven that over and over again.
          John L. Ries
    • Vituperation

      Because he is a loud-mouth blowhard and a
      Total buffoon. His accomplishments have been zero.
      Black Barack
    • There are a myriad of reasons for....

      the rancor and vituperation. Chief of these is that Ballmer is the one who taught Gates how to be a more effective bully - and millions of humans are suffering more because of those slimy values. One could hope a successor will see customers in a different light, but then.... the BOD will choose whom they will, and customers will never be served, except on the manner that bulls serve cows.
      • Bully...

        By all accounts Steve Jobs could be an absolute tyrant to work for. And yet, and yet, he is more or less idolized by his fans. I suppose many if not most of those people never worked for him. So, there must be some reason for the adulation...

        Is it because Apple products are "cool" and Microsoft's are not?

        I repeat - there is no RATIONAL reason for the levels of emotion expended on tech heroes and villains, and I'd venture to say that those who express such hyperbolic opinions are displaying some level of immaturity. Maybe it's a grand opera world, and I just don't hear the arias...
  • Monopoly

    Microsoft built perhaps the most effective locked in monopoly in history with Windows. Riddled with security problems hungry for resources and forcing expensive upgrades on customers. 80% margins on billions of turnover. That is really the unique aspect of the company. Office became effectively a Windows add on off the back of it. So the really interesting thing now is whether MS really can compete in an environment where increasingly lock-in to Windows is becoming less and less relevant, where office productivity is more collaborative on the web and open data formats are increasingly the norm. Look what has happened to IE when W3C standards together with innovation from competitors made it impossible to simply rely on the fact it was another Windows add on. Its going to be a very tall order for Microsoft to avoid a long and slow decline. It might do it but it's by no means obvious that they know how.
    • Monopolies aren't free

      ...and they are highly addictive, like all high profit situations, which has been a large part of MS' problem. In the short term, they're highly profitable, but they're hard to maintain in the long term without artificial barriers to entry. The reason why monopolistic behavior is and should be illegal isn't because it's sustainable, but because it damages the market in the short term, leaving a vacuum when the decline inevitably comes; that and it damages the egalitarian society that capitalism needs to thrive (I understand the contradiction; the Hamiltonian society pro-business types prefer leads to an anti-business political environment).

      The thing to do when you have a gold mine is to properly invest the high profits so you still have a sustainable business when the gold mine runs out or someone strikes gold next door. But this is rarely done and appears to be difficult when you're a publicly traded corporation with stockholders to appease.
      John L. Ries
      • I forgot the biggest reason monopolistic behavior should be illegal

        It undermines economic freedom, remembering that the freedoms of consumers and workers are at least as important as the freedoms of business owners and managers. My preference and that of a lot of other people is to decide what I want to buy and from whom I will buy it instead of having that choice made for me because a particular vendor is the "only game in town" or a group of vendors are conspiring against their fellow citizens.

        A free enterprise system in which commercial enterprises are free to do as they please, while consumers, workers, and the general public are only free to take it or leave it is not a free market; rather, a free market is one in which all participants have maximum freedom to make the decisions they think are most beneficial for themselves, their families, and society as a while.
        John L. Ries