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Ballmer: up close and personal…

by Jack Santos  |  August 26, 2013  |  Comments Off on Ballmer: up close and personal…

I first met Steve Ballmer around 1988 over breakfast at the then newly built Boston Harbor Hotel. Even then, Steve’s reputation preceded him: master marketer, the business brains of Microsoft (Gates was the techno geek visionary). By then he had already established himself in the annals of computing history.

Ballmer played to the Gates & Allen (Allen was gone by then) mystique, not unlike Jobs played to Wozniak. But the outcomes were oh so different. Jobs, for one, is no longer with us. Ballmer is. He’s a survivor.

I didn’t like him. He struck me as rather oafish, probably a brute and a bully behind closed doors. Not the lovable teddy-bear that Woz was (and still is, based on his Dancing with the Stars gig). Even then, the button down management at my company – and I was only a rising star mid-level manager –didn’t see why they should meet with Steve – much less Bill Gates. No doubt these kids would burn out and be immaterial in the IT equation at our F100 insurance company. So they sent me.

Over eggs and bacon, I remembered thinking this guy was a heart attack waiting to happen. Big, and not exactly social. Microsoft was in the midst of their big Windows push, and following the not so secret kill OS/2 strategy (which I think they would admit was stumbled upon, rather than carefully planned). Ballmer and Gates had, to their benefit, the rising tide of techno geeks behind them prepared to scale the walls of Big Blue. Today we call that the consumerization of IT.

Ballmer wasn’t yet President or CEO. Gates often bowed to investor pressure for adult supervision – like with Tandy corporation lifer Jon Shirley. I really liked Jon. He knew he was in a different game, and quickly fell back into a role of parent advisor, went off into the sunset to polish his stable of classic automobiles, significantly richer from both the Tandy and Microsoft experiences. Microsoft needed an adult, Jon brought corporate respectability for a while (83-90). He came in after Gates had a particularly difficult time with another adult supervisor (James Towne) whom I never met – and was by all accounts the wrong guy for the job. Shirley lasted longer; he was wiser in the latitude he gave to the kids, and the role he played.

When Shirley went into the sunset (I particularly liked discussing cars with him, so was sad to see him go), Mike Hallman, with an IBM pedigree, took the reins. Hallman was Boeing’s CIO – and I felt we connected because we both understood what it meant to run a large IT shop (although, admittedly, I was still reporting 2 levels down from the CIO at Aetna).  Alas, he was too corporate, and it wasn’t much longer than one year that he, too, was history.

Hallman’s departure resulted in an innovation: office of the president, which had three people. The discussion at the time was whether any large company could have one person really handle the job when three would do – and whether this was the future for corporate management. Or what it really was – a beauty contest. And in the office of the president was the requisite bean counter (Frank Gaudette, the CFO), Mike Maples ( another outsider from IBM), and Ballmer. One could make the argument that this was a test between Maples and Ballmer; Maples (the outsider) was well liked by engineers and had good, strong, Blue processes in his blood. Ballmer was still a loose cannon, could be a bull in a china shop, and was a FOB (friend of Bill), which only meant that maybe – since he didn’t have the technical chops – he didn’t have the management chops as well.

Bob Herbold, a P&G veteran, was there during that period in various roles: COO, CIO, ran their consulting (if memory serves me). He was pretty instrumental IMHO, to keeping things together through the many management changes from 1994-2001 – maybe as much as Gates.

Ballmer took the president reins in 1998, CEO in 2000, and made public statements about wanting to keep doing that until 2018. Obviously he isn’t going to make it. It was a stupid thing to say, anyways. Typical Ballmer…

Call me Woody Allen’s Zelig, fortunate enough to have looked at most of these guys in the eye, shook their hands, maybe even broken bread. And then went off and made corporate decisions based on what I saw. Ballmer has turned out to be very impressive. Tenacious, and (like I said) a survivor. Since I graduated college in 1977 (the same year as Steve) I have kept a book called “the Computer Entrepreneurs” – which had one page portraits of early PC and computer pioneers. Ballmer is one of the last to still be around actively engaged in the industry. During his tenure Microsoft’s annual revenue surged from $25 billion to $70 billion, while its net income has increased 215 percent to $23 billion, according to Wikipedia.

I suspect, every pundit (and analyst) will be forecasting Microsoft as the next Blackberry, IBM, or DEC. I can’t predict the future. But I can report on the man.

Kudos to Steve Ballmer on a great run. I’ve warmed to you, but still don’t like you. First impressions last a long time…

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Category: career  managment  windows-7  windows-8  

Tags: career  consumerization  it-relevance  management  microsoft  vendor  

Jack Santos
Research VP
7 years at Gartner
40 years IT industry

Jack Santos is a Research Vice President with Gartner, part of the Enterprise Architecture and Technology Innovation team within the Gartner for IT Leaders product. He focuses on enterprise architecture and technology trends. Mr. Santos' specific area of research covers individual development, leadership and management practices for enterprise architects, EA innovation, and collaboration approaches. Read Full Bio

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