A glistening, opalescent dome quivers in the half-light. It throbs and pulsates. Gasps of anticipation can be heard. And then Steve Ballmer steps on stage, a sweaty bald mess before he has even begun his oration, but every inch the expensively dressed, all-American CEO. In an unexpectedly high pitch he yelps at the crowd in aggressive, staccato bursts. “Developers! Developers! Developers! Developers! Developers!”
This continues for some time, as anyone who’s heard of YouTube already knows. But listen carefully and you can hear, even as the vast sweat patches seep from Ballmer’s sodden orifices, a hideous concatenation of anguish and impotence. Leaping inelegantly on any stage he graces, part nightmarish leprechaun and part psychotic wildebeest, Ballmer is comic, tragic, comic and, finally, simply terrifying.
All that’s left when he’s whisked away in what can only be an Escalade are the fine cashmere sweaters he tends to leave on the backs of greenroom chairs. They are mocha, taupe, sometimes burgundy. Normally a minion is dispatched to collect the orphaned knitwear, but once in a while a lucky roadie will secrete it away, only to have it stolen by a girlfriend with a penchant for luxurious fabric.
Since October 5, 2011, the technology industry has been left with only one legendary chief executive called Steve. Ballmer, the Harvard-educated math genius Bill Gates hired to manage Microsoft’s business in June 1980, was the company’s thirtieth employee. In other words, Microsoft is in his bones, and to many outside observers, he is the company. Yet for decades, the tech industry has been out to get bullish Ballmer—and the media, seduced by the youthful gloss of Silicon Valley, is following suit.
Vanity Fair struck a nasty and violent blow to Ballmer’s reputation in August 2012, publishing a full-length profile of him under the heading: “How Microsoft Lost Its Mojo.” It featured an unprecedented series of interviews with current and former Microsoft employees, and helped weld the lid tightly shut on Ballmer’s legacy in the process. Shortly afterwards, Ballmer issued a moratorium on public comment from his close allies about his leadership style and personal life.
He stands accused of running one of the greatest companies in American history into the ground, even as its stock price remains remarkably resilient and the company continues to turn a healthy profit. He is held up as a specter: a man who single-handedly embodies how the arrogance of corporate America can destroy innovative company cultures. “At this point, even cancer might not rehabilitate him,” was the verdict of one social gaming start-up chief executive I spoke to last week.
Why was such a brutal hatchet job written in America’s most illustrious magazine, normally so unctuous in its praise of the rich and powerful? Why does everyone hate Steve Ballmer?
We should begin in Silicon Valley, which resents Microsoft’s chief executive at least in part because he has helped grow what the Internet industry has so rarely managed in all its decades of boom and bust: a stable, profitable company, built on a solid grasp of numbers and proven sales techniques, with wildly successful products that people actually pay for. Contrast that with social networking companies such as Twitter and Facebook—and of course Google, with its rapey contextual advertising—all of which throw their users “free” toys but violate them with privacy-invading ad sales and user-data scandals. Microsoft can seem positively virtuous by comparison.
But it’s not just the hipsters of SoMa, of course. There’s the hardcore geek contingent, too, that feels betrayed not only by the company’s public relations collapse but by its perceived lack of strategic vision. Looking out on vitriolic assessments from developers and journalists, it’s tough to believe that Microsoft used to be the cool place to work—somewhere employees spent long nights in pursuit of perfection, albeit in chinos and polyester shirts rather than hoodies and flip-flops.
Now it’s Microsoft that represents the evils of establishment largesse, complexity and corruption. It is the perfect inversion, because the company—like its bellower-in-chief—has not aged well. It has joined the ranks of Research in Motion as the uncool uncle at the party, picking up the tab while being whispered and giggled about by the cool kids at the soda fountain.
It’s true enough that for all its uncoolness with West Coast elites, Microsoft’s re-engagement with developers and the start-up world has, to an extent, been a success. “I think Ballmer most endeared himself to start-ups when he came out chanting ‘Developers! Developers! Developers!’ says Mike Butcher, editor-at-large of the pre-eminent startup blog, TechCrunch.
Microsoft was trying to signal renewed interest in developers—and therefore in startups. “Most developers I talk to today say Microsoft still has the best support tools and documentation around software in the market,” says Butcher.
Steve Ballmer can also claim credit for the first series of Microsoft-backed accelerators and for the BizSpark programme, which made canny hires such as Bindi Karia, now at Silicon Valley Bank (but who previously shepherded the BizSpark programme in London with just the right mix of corporate polish and sassy, startup-friendly charisma).
“It remains a difficult relationship, given that so many startups still bootstrap from their earliest moment on free open-source tools,” Butcher points out. “Many often look to the BizSpark initiative not for Microsoft’s software but for the business support and mentoring.”
And it’s in that observation that Microsoft’s current public relations woes are best explained. The anger of developers in the late 1990s and 2000s has been replaced by something else: voyeurism and ridicule from an aloof, social media-obsessed commentariat. When every software release and new hardware product is met by literally thousands of journalists and bloggers desperate to see it fail, is it any wonder that Microsoft struggles to grasp market share in the new verticals it expands into?
As it is, Microsoft represents everything that is out of vogue with today’s trendsetters: stable, profitable business models and upfront pricing. So San Francisco’s fashion elites, who, like the liberal newspapers they read, cannot understand why normal people don’t relate to their bien pensant but disingenuous Bobo value systems, hate it with the sort of bitterness reserved for the father who warned you against dropping out of Yale to do an arts degree at Brandeis, but was proved right ten years later.
It’s tough to admit—so tough that most reviewers and, now, even consumers don’t bother to try – that Microsoft often makes terrific products. It always has. With Apple’s OS X ossifying, its desktop operating system is once again the best in the world—and always was, if you forgive an infamous misstep in 2006 called Windows Vista. Its word processor is the only widely used, world-class software of its type.
Indeed, the entire Office suite is a revelation since the introduction of the Ribbon user interface, a new way of approaching menus that leads users through the process of constructing complex documents. Glossy toys from Apple and others, like the execrable iWork, don’t come close. And Microsoft’s Xbox console gaming system is regarded by many hardcore gamers as the best in the world.
It’s tough not to sound like a member of Microsoft’s own marketing department when you consider the gargantuan task originally faced by the company—making an operating system and office software that works with literally millions of devices from a multitude of manufacturers—and how well, broadly speaking, it has acquitted itself in that effort.
Even in design (hardly something it is famed for) Microsoft has often led the way—though it has rarely been appreciated for it. Apple’s upcoming mobile operating system overhaul, iOS 7, is a hideous piece of design work. But what is good is lifted almost directly from the package of “flat” design guidelines formerly known as Metro, which is now embedded in Microsoft’s desktop and mobile operating systems. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that Cupertino would copy a visual style of Microsoft’s so blatantly.
Despite its triumphs, Microsoft remains characterized as a sprawling hodgepodge of hits and misses—with Steve Ballmer embodying those awkward virtues. At a dinner I attended in 2011, Ballmer was practically blanked by the fashion-forward venture capitalists throwing the supper. Eyebrows were raised and glances exchanged at his avuncular enthusiasm. There was “something of the soccer coach about him,” opined our host afterwards.
He embodies them in part because, as former Microsoft analyst Matt Rosoff wrote in a widely read article in January 2011, “Ballmer is a numbers guy. He aced the math portion of the SAT. He majored in mathematics—not business, not computer science. Insiders tell stories about how he often knows more about the performance of their business than they do, and he isn’t afraid to dive deep.
Rosoff, who has followed Microsoft closely for over a decade, often throws cold water on rumors that Ballmer is some kind of unhinged sociopath. “Employees who work closely with him say that stories about his temper are way overblown,” he says. “And he’s actually fair and generous—and he works like a maniac. If you disagree on something fundamental, though, he’s still the boss. That sounds like just about every other boss in the world.”
According to Rosoff: “Ballmer may appear irrational from the outside, but his decisions are driven by the numbers.”
Microsoft employees past and present that Slashdot spoke to were remarkably reluctant to be quoted on the record, despite some effusive praise. Ballmer, they said, is still smarting from Vanity Fair’s one-two punch, and has forbidden them from going on the record if they value their friendships—and, it was hinted in some cases, their jobs.
The tribal loyalty Ballmer inspires in his intimates is remarkable. One longtime senior Microsoft executive, who now works at another large technology company, told us he could not comment publicly on a competitor but ended a note with: “I love Steve B!” Another former employee, who was hired by Ballmer, refused to be named but gave us permission to reprint the following:
“I have never worked for anyone, and I never will again, as driven, determined and impressive as Steve. He’s incredible. The stuff you read about in public doesn’t bear any relation [to him]. In fact I think he’s one of the most impressive CEOs on the planet. I’m just sorry other people don’t get it.”
That level of fidelity is another disorientating aspect of Microsoft’s corporate culture. The mature verdict on Steve Ballmer is that he has made only one major strategic error: not combining his own brilliance for sales and detail with a visionary product leader who has the authority to create bold new revenue streams for the company. Also-rans such as the Zune music player are an embarrassment that would never have seen the light of day under a world-class product lead.
Microsoft’s PR department predictably declined to comment about any of this, as they had declined to speak to Vanity Fair. As a journalist, the complexity and intransigence of Microsoft can be frustrating, but it’s not surprising that Ballmer is reluctant to engage with the media after being so unfairly savaged so many times over. Microsoft’s story has become tragic in part because it never properly cultivated its slavish devotees in the 1980s and 1990s.
Earlier this week, Ballmer once again wrongfooted his critics—those who say he is incapable of making bold decisions and is too long in the tooth—by announcing a seismic restructuring of Microsoft’s entire business. The ramifications will take a long time to assess, and the stories of mismanagement, perverse incentives and, as Vanity Fair put it, “self-immolating chaos,” will no doubt persist.
But after speaking with so many friends and colleagues, past and present, of Ballmer’s, it seems to this author that the time has come to cut Redmond some serious slack. Microsoft’s repeated product renaissances in the last decade suggest that despite the sclerotic structure within its walls, the company is still more than capable of releasing brilliant software and hardware—by interfacing with startups which, to their credit, aren’t necessarily in the TechCrunch-San Francisco beauty nexus.
Those startups tend to be more quietly impressive, such as the Israeli company PrimeSense (which developed the chips for the Xbox Kinect), than fluffy social networks of the type Yahoo! is currently hoovering up. (When Microsoft does acquire a company, it means business: for example, with its purchase of Skype.)
Ballmer himself is integral to these innovative gestures, because he goes through every element of his company with a fine-tooth comb. He knows how all the business divisions and their subgroups are operating. He understands enterprise sales, and how Microsoft’s licensing policies affect revenue. And he is perhaps the best-prepared executive in the industry, never attending a meeting without a full prior briefing.
In an industry obsessed with surfaces and public relations, it can be difficult to believe that Ballmer’s hyper-manic behavior is “the real him.” But everyone close to the man says that it is. “He barely sleeps, works through the night and is a constant presence within Microsoft, always paying attention to every aspect of the business,” says one former intimate. “That’s why it works.”
And so the insistent and predictable calls for Ballmer to step down amuse insiders, not only because Ballmer apparently has the job for as long as Bill Gates supports him, but because he evidently shows no evidence of tiring of it. He evidently loves what he does, and Gates’s support for Ballmer does not appear to have diminished significantly since he first stepped aside as chief executive.
Stepping back out of the feverish, hateful blogosphere, it can be hard to work out why the calls are even being made. But no matter. If he does fall, Ballmer would find a willing berth at any major sales machine in the world, particularly in traditional retail. He does, after all, have impeccable taste in sweaters.