The three phases of Steve Ballmer's tenure at Microsoft

The three phases of Steve Ballmer's tenure at Microsoft

Summary: There's more than one way to look at the way Microsoft's CEO has ruled the roost over the past few years.


It's almost time for those of us in the U.S. to disappear for a holiday and indulge in some tofu pups. Or other Fourth of Julyish foods of one's choosing.


In that spirit, I'm going to do you a favor. Don't waste a lot of time on the "Microsoft Downfall" story in the August issue of Vanity Fair. (I just spent time reading the full multi-page story myself this morning.) I'm not warning you off because I want you to have more quality beach time. Nor is it because I am critical of negative Microsoft stories. I've written a few of those myself over the years, months, and weeks.

But if you follow Microsoft, you've read this tale already. More than a few times. The Cliff Notes version: Microsoft employees hate Microsoft's stack ranking performance-management system that's been tweaked and retweaked (slightly) for more than five years. (And who can blame them?) Some employees left because of it. Others left because they lost key internal battles that happen in companies of all sizes. Again, I'm not saying I blame them for quitting over this. It's just corporate politics as usual, sadly.

Instead, if you want some vegetarian or carniverous fodder worth chewing, I'd suggest a new blog post from Hal Berenson, a former Microsoft Distinguished Engineer. Berenson's last paragraph -- which I've chopped into three for readability's sake -- cuts to the chase, in my view, when it comes to analyzing CEOs Steve Ballmer's tenure at Microsoft.

Berenson succintly explains:

"To me there are three phases in Steve’s leadership of Microsoft.  In the first phase, while he was President and the first few years as CEO, he mostly focused on keeping the ship from sinking in the face of anti-trust and economic concerns.  Efforts started during this time were heavily influenced by that environment, often with positively ugly results (e.g., Vista).  

"Next came a couple of years of panic where it seemed Microsoft had fallen behind on all fronts and a frantic set of efforts were launched to catch up. The aQuantive acquisition was part of this. It was an era where Steve and Bill (Gates) still shared leadership of the company, and where business units had lots of freedom to prioritize their individual strategy and tactics over an overall corporate strategy.  Some things succeeded, like Windows 7.  But others….  

"Now we are in the third phase where Steve has fully taken the reins and the Microsoft we are seeing is his Microsoft.  It’s not all positive (particularly for employees), but for customers the 2012 product wave is probably the best in the company’s history. Microsoft is finally back. So for me the aQuantive write-down is the last major step in Steve putting the panic phase behind him. History is going to measure Steve ‘s tenure as Microsoft CEO on what happens in 2012 (FY 2013 for those into financial measures) and beyond, not what happened in the 2000s."

I'm not as unbridedly bullish as some bloggers, claiming Microsoft being the most exciting tech company on the planet. I think the reception of Windows 8 and the Surface are still very much unknown variables. But I will say I'm happy that after a few years of folks asking me why I still was bothering to make Microsoft watching my full-time gig "now that Microsoft is irrelevant," that question doesn't come up much any more.

Topics: Microsoft, Tech Industry, Windows


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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  • 3 phase is an electrical term

    But one must say, "He has not been the brightest bulb in the room"
    • Brightest Bulb

      I've never had the impression that Balmer had an an IQ issue. He's an MIT grad and a billionaire to boot.

      We should all be so lucky to do as well.
      • When did he go to MIT?

        He was attending Harvard, studying to be a Math teacher then wentb onto Stanford, before dropping out to join Microsoft....
        Jumpin Jack Flash
        • Balmer

          To clarify, he is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard with a degree in mathematics and economics. He did graduate work at Stanford and dropped out to join Microsoft back around 80 or 81. He's not a dim blub by any stretch.

          What he isn't is a technological visionary and that has sometimes hampered his decisions. It took a few years for him to put together a team of thought leaders to replace Bill Gates but I would suggest that should have been expected. Apple will be searching for a few years to rebuild what was lost in Steve Jobs for example. Visionaries are difficult to replace and teams take time to meld.
          • Another dumb JJF comment...

            Who cares if he left Stanford. Bill Gates left Harvard the first year to build MS and guess what?

            They gave him a free PhD.
  • Ballmer

    I like Ballmer, don't know why some people are so upset by the guy. Yes it is going to be an exciting year fro Microsoft in 2012/13 ~
  • The three phases of Steve Ballmer's tenure at Microsoft

    I wouldn't trust any tech article written by Vanity Fair. I think Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has done pretty well for what he was given. Microsoft is a corporate giant and world leader in software development, its not easy to be in first all the time. A lot of people will look at his failures, but I look at what he has accomplished. Many of the products released over the last few years have been great sellers. Xbox, Kinect, WP, Windows 7. Yes we are seeing a new Microsoft and that is a good thing. They have been able to adapt to changing technology. They have been more open with their technology. So here's to seeing what the next few year will be bring us from Microsoft.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • @LD

      Just because it's about someone who works in tech does not make it a tech article.

      It's a business/business-culture article.
    • Since you are paid by Microsoft

      why wouldn't you say he's done a good job??????
      • MS, Apple et al wouldn't employ idiots to post on ZDNet

        But are you wanting to get paid yourself?
        • They wouldn't because they've hired you

          Must be a slowdown on the call center work, eh buck-o?
  • The three phases of Steve Ballmer

    Pre-monkey boy = where he learned ape sounds

    Monkey boy = where he did his little dance for us

    Post-monkey boy = where he retired eating bananas
    • Glad to see

      this critical framework wasn't left out of the story. ;)
    • You too...

      10 year old mentality, 10 year old comments. Go get a job.
      • As I'm positive...

        a girlfriend is out of the question. If you had one, you wouldn't be here with such angst. I'm other letting you know for your own good. Can't wait to see the many responses from such a lonely person. They really tell your story for you, you know.
        • *only*

          typo, not "other"
        • Wow, you love Ballmer

          I'm sorry I picked on your boyfriend.

          lol... :D
      • LOL...

        Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear
        Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair
        Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn't fuzzy,was he?

  • Totally Upside down

    If you are trying to imply the MS was a chaotic sinking ship when Balmer took over that's just flat out wrong. MS was the dominant player with a stranglehold in the market. Microsoft products are better. Yes, better than what they were but still way behind the competition.
    • MS is failing behind in growth markets

      The big products for 2012 is a radical update for their OS (receiving mixed reviews), a branded tablet and Office update. That's it?

      Consumer reaction to Touch and Metro on the desktop will be interesting to watch. I don't see it working for them.

      The article is right about this being Ballmer's time. Everything has the Ballmer stamp on it; bewildering UI changes, reactionary Apple cloning, kicking their partner OEMs, license fee increases, etc.
      Richard Flude