Is Ballmer critical to Microsoft's future?
A few days ago, we posted an article exploring Steve Jobs’ role within Apple and how critical he is for Apple’s current and future success. With Bill Gates out of the picture and his apprentice leading the show, Microsoft is one generation ahead of Apple, but one generation behind Intel. Conceivably, Ballmer has maintained stability and profitability, but I wonder if we expect tech companies to have celebrities and legacy at the very top to thrive? Would we miss Steve Ballmer if he dropped out of Microsoft today?
Steve Ballmer has a resume that qualifies him to run the business side of virtually any company on the globe and puts him into the desirable position to gain the power to change our lives in many aspects. In some way, he has been doing this for the past 30 years already, since June 11, 1980, when he joined Microsoft. He has been CEO for more than 10 years now and it is fair to say that everything you like and hate about Microsoft products you may use is very much tied to a decision Steve Ballmer made in the past.
Still, there is this inherent feeling that Steve Ballmer cannot be identified with Microsoft. Microsoft is still identified with co-founder Bill Gates and despite the fact that Gates is rumored to have lost interest in Microsoft’s everyday business, that situation may never change. Gates is still the face of Microsoft’s core product line. Ballmer is not.
So, who is Steve Ballmer?
If Ballmer dropped out of Microsoft tomorrow, for what would he be remembered? Personally, my first thought would be he is famous monkey dance, after which he so enthusiastically and breathlessly said “I love this company.” I remember the way how he dissed Linux as “cancer.” I can also recall moments of more than dozen speeches I had the privilege to listen to, speeches that were more business than product and more strategy than vision. Personally, I miss listening to Gates, as far-fetched his visions sometimes were. But Gates always commanded a stage presence in keynotes as well as personal meetings that was filled with an almost spooky type of respect and had everyone listening. The kind of respect you experience when Steve Jobs is present.
If you compare Ballmer to other personalities in the industry, we notice that he is one generation ahead of Apple, but he is one generation behind the leadership changes at Intel, for example – where Otellini has followed Craig Barrett and co-founder Andy Grove. Grove, Gates and Jobs were very similar – people with unique visions who built astounding businesses on top of great ideas at a gold rush time. They built a left a legacy behind for which they are remembered. Barrett had a tough time following in Grove’s footsteps and Grove’s way to lead, and it’s even more challenging for Otellini. I remember Pat Gelsinger, one of Intel’s key people behind the 486 and Pentium processor and President of EMC today, once telling me that Grove’s mentor ship was like a treatment at the dentist without Novocain, and that meetings with him required the best game face as you knew that you began every discussion with a ”deficit of intelligence.”
Ballmer and Otellini also command respect, no question about it. However, when you visit Intel today, Otellini feels much more approachable than his predecessors. You may meet him running around the offices and watch people greeting him with a casual “hi, Paul.” The closest you ever came to Grove was visiting his spotless cubicle. I personally was only able to meet and talk to Grove once, but it was a memorable experience, even if Grove did not hesitate to tell me that he did not like half of my questions shot them down with a brief “next?”
Where Grove is generally remembered as the origin of the x86 processor as we use it today, where Jobs is remembered for the Mac, iPod, iPhone and possibly the iPad, and were Gates is remembered for Windows and Office, it is tough for their successors to build their own legacy. Paul Otellini has done a great job turning around Intel in 2005/2006, even if the company laid off or moved 20,000 people, and Steve Ballmer just recently saved Microsoft from the Windows Vista disaster and maintained a stable course, as well as a product line and profitability that is the envy of an entire industry. For the company, Otellini and Ballmer have done what was expected of them, even if there are persistent complaints about sluggish stock performance. But I wonder, if Ballmer as well as Otellini are caught in a trap of being just apprentices of the great minds that have shaped their companies forever?
It may sound arrogant from my perspective to say so, but the current time in the industry, more than any other before, suggests that we do look for celebrity executives to represent the products we are using. Do we need faces for companies that shape our personal life? I believe so. Even if you may point to Google, where Eric Schmidt is now CEO. But there are still Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which very much represent the innovation and culture Google was built on.
What is particularly amazing about Steve Ballmer is the fact that he could have become the face of Microsoft as there have been plenty of new products in the past 10 years, yet he chose to let other people take over ownership of those products. Think about the Xbox 360. People like Robbie Bach are much more identified with this device than Ballmer. Windows 7 or Bing have no ties to Ballmer. Even if he did not take credit for those products and left it to others, I am convinced that it would have been for the good of the company to take ownership of those products on a public level – not just on a business level in executive meetings.
It may be too late for Ballmer to become the face for Microsoft and it may actually be time for Microsoft to change leadership soon – in a time where products are more and more personal to more and more people and require familiar faces to identify them with.
So, who would be best to take Ballmer’s spot? I’ll invite you to join the conversation below, but here is my bet. I personally believe that it is easier to teach and support enthusiastic engineers with business decisions than teach business people what’s truly exciting about tech. I would always choose an engineer at the top. For Microsoft my first choice would probably be chief software architect (and Bill Gates successor in this role) Ray Ozzie, who has a certain legacy and the charisma that is necessary to lead a company like Microsoft. On Intel’s side, my vote would be chief technology officer Justin Rattner.
What are your thoughts?