Ballmer, who announced he is quitting as Microsoft CEO, has had to deal with unfair criticism at times
With the forces arrayed against Microsoft, it was perhaps the best thing he could have done for the company he so loved
WHEN I joined Microsoft Corp in April 2010, I was told that in about a month, the Malaysian subsidiary would be hosting chief executive officer (CEO) Steve Ballmer, who was making a regional tour.
As the public relations (PR) guy, there would be a lot of pressure on me, especially since I had just left a more than 20-year career in journalism to try out PR for the first time. “Steve’s visits can make or break careers,” one colleague told me, by way of reassuring me.
It was an intense breaking in. My predecessor Michael Ang, the guy who sucker-punched … er, I mean, recruited me, would later say, “Look at the bright side – you’ve learned more about Microsoft and PR in your first month than I did in my first year.”
There was all sorts of advice from a whole bunch of people, ranging from “Steve does not suffer fools gladly” and “If he asks you your opinion of someone, even if that person is an idiot, be respectful in your criticism” to “When he asks for numbers, you better have them memorised; he can dive deep.” Yes, in Microsoft, even PR has numbers.
There were some warnings too: “Make sure journalists at the press conference don’t ask him questions that may piss him off.” I wasn’t sure how to react to this one, given that 1) I cannot control questions; and 2) In my career as a journalist, I was usually the one who did the pissing off.
There were mishaps leading up to the day, but all were fixed before the big day finally dawned, and it was a success. There were a couple of thorny moments, especially when Karamjit Singh, then the technology editor at business weekly The Edge, and his reporter Emily Tan, asked some pretty sharp and tough questions in an exclusive interview.
Far from pissing him off, their questions seemed to energise him, making me wonder about his reputation as a combative person. Indeed, Tan even broached the video on YouTube that shows him jumping frenetically on stage, shouting “developers, developers, developers,” which earned him the unfortunate sobriquet ‘Monkey Boy.’
“I do know a lot of my online reputation is based on a few things I have done in life that have gotten a lot of repetition. But I think most of us have many more sides to our personalities than you’d get with a 60-second YouTube clip,” he said, without batting an eyelid.
Which I thought was pretty profound, and so much unlike the Ballmer I had been expecting. Indeed, after Karamjit and Tan left the room, he just about jumped out of his chair to enthusiastically proclaim, “That was the best interview I’ve had on this trip so far!”
As an aside, you can see why I thought joining Karamjit to establish Digital News Asia (DNA) was a great idea. Tan, meanwhile, is rocking it at Campaign Asia, a regional trade journal that covers the advertising and marketing scene.
Ballmer (pic) had a good point: One’s life or character should not be defined by a single moment. Unfortunately for him, while few remember that “developer, developer, developer” video these days, he will be chiefly remembered for his track record as chief executive officer of Microsoft, and the fact that he just wasn’t as good as his predecessor Bill Gates, let alone the CEO who has been out-staging him for the greater part of his leadership, Steve Jobs of Apple.
So last Friday, when I heard that Ballmer had decided to quit within 12 months while the company looked for a new CEO, two thoughts ran through my mind: “Well, it’s about time” and “Poor chap, he was never going to win this!”
Last August, in perhaps the sharpest indictment of his reign, Kurt Eichenwald described his decade of CEO-ship as one “littered with errors, missed opportunities, and the devolution of one of the industry’s innovators into a ‘me too’ purveyor of other companies’ consumer products.”
“Over those years, inconsequential pip-squeaks and onetime zombies – Google, Facebook, Apple – roared ahead, transforming the social-media-tech experience, while a lumbering Microsoft relied mostly on pumping out Old Faithfuls such as Windows, Office, and servers for its financial performance,” he wrote in Vanity Fair.
Eichenwald noted that in the last decade Microsoft’s stock has been hanging around the US$30 mark, while Apple’s stock is worth more than 20 times what it was 10 years ago. This, he did however acknowledge, despite booming sales and profits from its flagship products.
Eichenwald was merely echoing what Wall Street had been clamouring for – a change of CEO. In 2011, influential hedge fund manager David Einhorn, president of Greenlight Capital, called for Ballmer to step aside. “His continued presence is the biggest overhang on Microsoft’s stock,” Einhorn said.
At the time Einhorn called for Ballmer’s ouster, Microsoft had just reported record revenues of US$17.37 billion in its first fiscal quarter, up 11%; although operating profits rose only 1% to US$7.2 billion.
So the company was doing well enough, yet the stock market was not responding. What gives?
Part of this perhaps has to do with the technology industry itself – good business management by itself just doesn’t cut it, not for a company with Microsoft’s depth and breadth of products and markets. It’s an industry marked by cyclical disruptions, so vision plays a role as well.
Part of it perhaps has to do with Wall Street’s love-fest with Apple and Google, an understandable infatuation given public perception and their own financial performances; yet inexplicable given the number of times their market practices have been called into question, especially with regards to privacy.
Part of it perhaps has to with the fact that it is hard to get out of the shadows of Gates (pic) and the late Jobs.
Gates has managed to achieve a kind of living martyr status – not only did he leave Microsoft when the company was soaring, he left it to pursue philanthropy in the single-minded fashion he’s always been famous for.
So much so that many are willing to forget his own missteps at the helm, including missing the whole ‘Internet thing’ at the beginning. Sure, one could argue that when he did catch up, he did so with the kind of drive that saw him make Microsoft the most dominant technology company at the time – but it was also with the kind of ruthless business practices that got the company into trouble with the US Justice Department, and later the European Commission.
As for Jobs, many seemed to have forgotten that when he was first ousted at Apple, there were solid business reasons for doing so. Sure, it seemed mean that John Sculley, the man Jobs himself had hired, had led the coup, but nobody batted much of an eyelid when Jobs did the same thing to Gilbert Amelio, the CEO who brought him back into the Apple fold.
Gates and Jobs were such iconic figures and visionary technology leaders that they managed to sail past such imperfect moments in their careers; Ballmer, however, is only human. He has tried to take bold steps – moving into cloud services, Windows Phone and Windows 8 gamble – but the execution has been lacking.
He has lived and breathed Microsoft; shed blood, sweat and tears for the company, but this thing – the technology landscape today, and market perception of Microsoft and his leadership – is bigger than him.
It is time for Microsoft to reboot, and for Ballmer to start a new chapter in his own life.
Microsoft CEO Ballmer to quit within a year, successor yet to be named
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