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On Steve Ballmer leaving Microsoft

I’m fairly certain that much will be written today about Steve Ballmer’s decision to retire from Microsoft within the next year.

I don’t normally post about so-called “breaking news,” but in this case, I want to throw my two cents in as well.

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Steve’s the guy that ultimately hired me into Microsoft back in 1983. To say that I’m grateful for that little turn of events would be an understatement, as you might expect.

Steve’s a great guy. You probably know him in part for his “cheerleader” approach at assorted Microsoft events, but that’s just one aspect of a very gregarious and approachable personality. In the early days, unlike most of the techy geeks around him (i.e. me), he simply knew everyone by name. That’s hard enough in a 360-person company (as it was when I started), but he was still going strong when it crossed into the thousands.

Steve BallmerWe only interacted personally perhaps four or five times mostly in those early years1, but I’m fairly certain that were we to cross paths today after not seeing me for over a decade, he’d still quickly throw a “Hi Leo!” my way. That’s just the kind of person he is.

He’s also a salesman – a marketer – which was exactly what Microsoft needed as it was growing. That gregarious, salesy skill set was a perfect compliment to Bill, who hung out at the other end of the bell curve.

When Bill stepped down as CEO years ago, Steve was the natural replacement for that role.

The problem, however, was that Steve is not Bill.

Not that Bill Gates needed to be the CEO, but rather that in addition to being CEO, Bill had been responsible for providing the technical direction and leadership for the entire company since the day it was founded. Like so many tech companies, it was the founder’s vision2 that took Microsoft to its heights and the loss of that vision that brought on stagnation.

I honestly don’t know if Steve tried to provide that technical leadership himself, but I suspect not. My guess is that he relied on advisers of various flavors to do so. Unfortunately, the result was not the focused, single-purpose vision that had previously come from a single visionary.

Regardless of exactly how, why, or when, it was the loss of Bill’s leadership that cost Microsoft its edge. While good at many things, Steve simply hasn’t been successful at figuring out how to replace that.

I do know (and I’m pretty sure that he would agree with me) that Steve Ballmer wasn’t the man to provide it. Apparently having someone else be the visionary with Steve as CEO wasn’t working either.

Ultimately, his departure makes sense. Whether or not there might have been a solution that kept Steve at the helm, this is really the kick in the pants that Microsoft needs to renew its vision and review its role in the world. Both the company and Steve’s eventual replacement have serious problems to deal with in terms of direction and vision. The sooner that starts, the better.

The environment Microsoft grew up with relied on that single visionary at the top, the one to point out the destination, and say, “This is where we’re going.” That’s the kind of person that Microsoft must now hire as CEO.

If Microsoft hires another “business man” or salesman, I predict only stagnation will result. I hope I’m wrong. In my opinion, Microsoft’s problems aren’t related to business or sales and continuing to focus on them simply won’t help.

If Microsoft hires a tech visionary – dare I say it, a nerd – as its next CEO, there’s a chance.

Thanks to Steve, Microsoft knows how to do “business.”

It needs to relearn how to do “tech.”

Best wishes, Steve. Take a break. Lord knows you’ve earned it.

Oh, and thanks again for hiring me. 🙂

Footnotes & references

1: Which would be three or four times more than Bill. 🙂

2: Originally “A computer on every desk, running Microsoft software.” As the industry grew the phase “and in every home” was often added. I suspect Bill left, in part, when he saw that his vision had been achieved.

Ballmer Announces Retirement From Microsoft – New York Times

34 comments on “On Steve Ballmer leaving Microsoft”

  1. Microsoft needs to stop pissing people off. I understand clearly why MSFT had to move toward the mobile tech era, but they decided instead to totally botch the introduction of Win 8 by attempting to force people to run software intended for tablets and cellphones on a PC. This botching is largely responsible for accelerating the market crashing for PC sales. They have hurt themselves in the process and are a large cause of sales losses by producers that depended on MSFT.
    Microsoft seems to forget that people turn on a PC to get something done and then get on with their lives at home or at work vs spending hours of unnecessary digging and searching for “Where the hell did my blah,blah,blah go?” ….. Like my toaster,,, I just want to insert some bread, push down the button, wait for the “pop” then butter and eat. My toaster would instantly go in the garbage can if I had to screw around with it every time I wanted a simple bit of toast. If they relocated the steering wheel and brake pedal every time they built new cars I would stop buying cars. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against development and change but there is a line that should be crossed carefully when changes are introduced.
    A tablet or phone doesn’t perform anywhere near what a PC does. And many functions have migrated from the PC to the mobile device, this is obvious. But I would not have ruined what was left of the PC in order to join the mobile market. Corporations don’t need the loss of productivity by staff that need to lose hours dinking around on a new PC running Win 8.
    ’nuff said.
    Roy

    • Roy,
      Couldn’t help but chuckle at your post. I am one of those people who “turn on a PC to get something done and then get on with their lives at home or at work.” It’s bizarre to watch other programmers who latch on to Win 8 like it’s the second coming.

      While I Sit down, get my work done, and go home, they’re still on the phone with IT trying to figure out where their files are, and why their mouse doesn’t work half the time.
      Thanks for the constructive look at Win 8, tipped with humor.

  2. If they, (Microsoft), are smart, Leo, they will tap you to fill the upcoming vacancy. I know of no other “nerd” in the country that is more suited to run Microsoft than you. (That is a compliment, by the way).

    JR

  3. I couldn’t have said it any better than Roy. While I “loved” Windows 7 from the first day I saw it, I have hated Windows 8 exactly that much and still do. Fortunately there are companies that have managed to “fix” some of the major problems with Windows 8 with programs of their own. I immediately bought one and now have one that fixed the parts I HATE on “8” so that I now have the appearance of Windows 7 (the desktop loads immediately and I never see or look at the screen with all the little boxes of apps, etc. yet I have maintained the speed of the Windows 8 operating system – best of both worlds! I hope Microsoft soon realizes their customers are of two very different types – the kids of any age that want to shove “cute” things around and play with their electronic equipment (even if they are working) and the others of us who do NOT want anything like this but prefer to treat electronic equipment like the tools we think they are!

    • I don’t think I will be going to Win 8. I’ve been playing with Ubuntu off and on for a few years now and I think Win 8 will be the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.

      • My feelings exactly. I had the Windows 8 preview installed for about an hour when I realized, “I can’t do this!.” I’ve been poking around with Mint 13 for a few months now, and went out and bought a couple of extra Windows 7 Professional packages just in case. I can only hope that they don’t screw up Windows 9 – if I’m still in the Windows universe by then and haven’t made a complete transition to Linux. If Microsoft’s miss-fail-miss-fail history with operating systems is anything to go buy, then there still cause to be optimistic.

  4. It took me the best part of a FULL WORKING DAY (I kid you not) to figure out the best version of Microsoft Office 365 to recommend to a small business one-man-band client who was minded to upgrade and who actually cared what he got, and was interested in details being satisfied. It then took the best part of a morning to explain why this was the best option. None of this I can honestly say was “my fault”. It was simply down to the fact that Microsoft’s offering was so incredibly complicated, so densely layered, so mix and match, that it was physically impossible to make any sense of at all, in anything like a reasonable time span. Even lengthy online “chats” with the massive salesforce of ill-informed Customer Service reps that were hired to help people make sense of it all, none of these helped in the slightest. Office 365 may be a fair-to-decet product, but the range of purchasing options, and the absurd “give with one hand and take with another” attitude made it profoundly unattractive. One example. An Office 365 Home Premium user gets 25GB SkyDrive space free with their purchase. Meanwhile, a small business Premium user gets 7GB of the relatively obscure and hard to understand “SkyDrive Pro”. Why? Why? Why? Wouldn’t the small business user most likely NEED more space than the home user? If the Home Premium user is PAYING MORE, why do they get less SkyDrive space than the Home Premium user. This, to me, sums up the modern Microsoft in a nutshell. It’s whole way of doing business is all about making things easier, more convenient, “simpler” for Microsoft…Everything is pitched at the bottom line, with minimal regard for what make a person’s life genuinely easier. When the rot set it is hard to say, but I think Microsoft reached a pinnacle with Windows XP SP 3, and Office 2007. Then stuff started to go down the pan. It’s going to be a long journey before Microsoft starts making sense again.

  5. I agree with most of what has already been said about Microsoft’s failures to touch the buttons of their customers. There is one more thing: Their pricing strategies. One thing that separates Microsoft from that other (a fruit) company is that their products work with other products. In years past, nerds like me could build our own PC’s and push the envelope of the technology sold by the likes of Microsoft, AMD and Intel. Now, Microsoft wants us to pay $150 for a copy of Windows 8 if we build a PC when we can buy an off-the-shelf laptop or desktop for as little as $250. To be fair, the tech retailers and mail order people participate happily in this attempted rip-off. I built my last PC 3 years ago. I would probably have built two or three more since then if Windows had been reasonably priced.

    And what about upgrades? If Microsoft had priced upgrades in a reasonable manner, there wouldn’t be nearly as many people still running XP or Vista today. Instead of making $100 per copy on an upgrade, they make nothing – because the customer does not buy it. It just does not present a “reasonable value.”

    I guess that’s the bottom line: Microsoft just has lost the ability to understand what the customer perceives as “value received.” Both in the performance and feature set and in the price demanded.

    Since I really hate the havoc created by the efforts of that “fruitty” computer company’s attempts to put a proprietary lock on their customers, I hope Microsoft succeeds. Ubuntu and Android are just not ready for prime time. I’ve tried them both.

    • My wife and I recently went shopping for a new laptop for her, visiting all the usual suspects. What we found with the $250 – $500 machines was:
      No.1 – everybody was pushing Win 8… period.
      No2. – every lick of software, including MS Office, was demo software.
      No.3 – The 18+ year olds showing the machines had no idea how anything other than a touch screen worked.

      We ended up at Microcenter where they were more than happy to sell us a Win 1 laptop.

  6. I have been using and teaching Window 8 and 8.1 at Central Kentucky Computing Society, Lexington, KY since it came out. I really like it, but would love it if they would just put the original Start Button back. Please put the real Start Button back.

    • Microsoft might have taken the Start Button out, but the free Classic Shell puts it back in. I’ve been using it from the beginning, and I completely forget I’m not using Windows 7 most of the time. It simply works.

  7. Microsoft blew it when they abandoned the Flight Simulator market. It comprises of millions and is getting bigger. The market is still there for the taking for a upgraded version and add ons for PCs. The teenagey gimmick market for phones will lose its edge but PCs will always outperform them. Go back to Win7 and try again.

  8. I have been a DOS user since version 3.3 and a Windows user since 3.0. The only one I’ve missed so far was Vista, due to negative press.
    Nowadays I see a lot of my co-workers screwing around with Windows8, and it hasn’t charmed me yet.
    Then again I was never in the frontlines, where new os’ were concerned.
    My motto: Warn me when servicepack 2 comes out!

    I am actually considering to downgrade one of my pc’s to XP, and I have a few Ubuntu systems. Both due to the simple fact that application does not work (well) on Windows7.

  9. As a small IT company we used to sell a lot of Microsoft software, especially when you bought it as a boxed product. In the main their office suite had three versions, Professional, Small Business and Home, or you could buy individual products, such as Microsoft Word. For me everything started to fall apart when it came to the stage that Microsoft offered courses on how to understand their licencing configurations. Then the final straw arrived when they launched Office 365 and they started to target customers directly.
    How or why they let everything become so confusing is beyond me but they’ll need somebody brilliant to get things back on track?

  10. I suspect many of the Win8 whiners just don’t know how to drive this model.
    It only took about an hour to watch a few basic Win8 Youtube vids to get a handle on this version.
    Most legacy things are still available, albeit somewhat hidden from view eg Desktop, file explorer,control panel , msconfig. system tools, et al
    …oh & btw, Steve Ballmer ..good job & happy retirement ..the Microsoft revenue actually tripled under your stewardship apparently.
    Jp

  11. “If Microsoft hires a tech visionary – dare I say it, a nerd – as its next CEO, there’s a chance.”

    You would not be angling for the job would you Leo.(wink, wink)

  12. I have to agree with Roy as well. However, I also have to say that it isn’t about specifications anymore, it is about the user experience, which Apple gets. Additionally, I stated on a different article online that Microsoft can reorganize its company all they want to, but that will not help them. What they need to do is focus more on the user’s needs like what Apple is doing, instead of shoving a product down everyone’s throat the most people dislike and have trouble using.

  13. Even though I am probably older than most of you – technically, I am not qualified to make a comment really.

    However, my instincts tell me that Leo COULD make a great contribution to MS even though he is too shy and unassuming to accept praise.

    Thank you all for the potted history.

  14. What MS need is a politician – someone to point out to the US and other governments worldwide, that Apple are completely anti-competitive with their lock-in policies and that MS are at least open and will run on thousands of different platforms. That’s *real* competition!

  15. Leo, I was REALLY refreshed by your comments about Steve- your positive & appreciative attitude is a lot like my own. My few interactions with him were very good ones- IMO he’s a great guy with a huge heart- and he’s also a incredible well of enthusiasm. I was around MS for a couple of years in the early & mid-80s, and the energy & warmth that came from Steve Ballmer STILL make me smile whenever I think of him. IMO he’s an incredible person with an amazing heart. I hope that he’s got LOTS of happy years ahead for him, & for the people & the Company that he cares about.

  16. I’ve been using PCs for a very long time and though improvement have been for the most part, beneficial, I do believe that is it’s not broken, don’t fix it…fine tune it yes and include a disk that walks you through the goodies…go to YouTube to learn about your product ?? WOW!!!

  17. @Bob D. – Fascinating insights on Bill Gates’ health. I wouldn’t have thought Bill’s personal physician would have time to post here. (If you *are* a doctor, you are technically in violation of HIPAA Privacy Rules.)

    @Paul Richards – Spot on, plus I can relate. To think that PC’s and their corresponding OS’s (well, Microsoft’s at any rate) are no further advanced is an absolute travesty. We are *still* dealing with corrupt registries and restore points, to name only two annoyances. I’ve been saying since at least 1995 (and only partially in jest) “Where’s my Star Trek computer?” As if touch screens are a monumental breakthrough.

    With regard to Windows 8, this is my plan: I am shortly going to buy a laptop for use as a desktop replacement. I plan to special order it from a well-known maker. If I can’t buy it with Windows 7 Ultimate installed, the deal is off and I will start looking with greater interest at a MacBook.

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