The spirit of Steve Ballmer is irreplaceable at Microsoft

Guest Commentary: My first experience with Steve Ballmer was the day Visio was acquired by Microsoft. All of us Visio employees were in a conference room in Redmond to be welcomed to the company. SteveB was quietly sitting on the floor, reviewing his notes. When he was introduced, he stood up and exploded with excitement, clapped his hands together and, in that infamous high-pitched howl, asked if we were “ready to make some money!” It was hard not to be affected by his enthusiasm.

Ballmer MatrixMicrosoft will find a new CEO that takes it in a new direction, but can anyone replace the “spirit” that Ballmer brought to the company? Few, if any, big company execs define a company’s culture in the way that Ballmer has at Microsoft throughout the years.

Many of the company’s employees got one last taste of this spirit during Microsoft’s giant company meeting Thursday at KeyArena in Seattle, as Ballmer made an emotional final appearance at the event.

“You work for the greatest company in the world, soak it in,” he told them, with tears streaming down his face.

An outsider cannot truly appreciate Ballmer’s impact on Microsoft’s culture without seeing him at MGX, the annual company sales meeting. For one day at MGX, Microsoft packs arenas like the Superdome with 15k-20k employees from around the world. It is usually a ~12hr day with keynotes and demos from each product team. There are some cool demos and some worthy execs to listen to, but don’t kid yourself. The reason everyone sits patiently through the droning presentations is in anticipation of SteveB. Even Bill Gates’ presentations paled in comparison.

ballmerYou’ve likely seen clips of Ballmer going berserk at one of these meetings, but whatever you watched was only a couple minutes long and the real thing is far more intense. This was supposedly his favorite day of the year and he was known to fire himself up backstage like an NFL linebacker getting pumped up in the locker room. His fiery oration could easily last 90 minutes and included themes and music that he often picked himself.

I saw him present 7 years in a row. Some years were pure awesome, like when he came up from under the stage in a black trench coat and sunglasses, dressed as Neo from The Matrix. Other years were bizarre head-scratchers, like when he sang an inspirational song from the musical Pippin. Regardless, his enthusiasm was nothing but authentic. He put all of his emotions out there and never left a doubt about how much he loved the company. I always left the meeting fired up and feeling good about the company, even when I had my doubts about where we were headed.

Critics will be quick to point out that this same enthusiasm also made him volatile and difficult to work for, or was just cheerleading for failed strategies. It’s not hard to picture a chair being thrown in his office along with a stream of expletives delivered in that high-pitched howl. Perhaps it even got in the way of enabling other decision-makers in the company.

But regardless of what you think of his product decisions and missteps throughout the years, Microsoft will be a very different — and likely much more boring — place without SteveB.

Kevin Lisota is CEO & Co-Founder of findwell, a Seattle real estate startup, and a former Microsoft employee.  He can be reached at kevin@findwell.com or @kevinlisota.

  • Brett Turner

    Enthusiasm =/= Competence.

    • Out For Justice

      Amen!

    • Stevo64

      True, but “lack of enthusiasm” =/= competence either. Perhaps succeeding in one of the most competitive industries in the world, building one of the most successful technology sales forces in the world, and personally earning billions of dollars, does not equal competence. What have you done by comparison?

  • http://www.mainstreetchatham.com/ JimmyFal

    I hope he stays on as an Evangelist. He would be more than welcome in that role, and far more appreciated.

  • Ex-MSFT Dev

    I developed an aversion to Ballmer, thanks to his doltish performances at the Company Meetings. That rah-rah cheerleading everyone-stand-up-and-whoop nonsense really rubbed me the wrong way. I called those parts of the Company Meetings the Nuremberg Rallies.

    • Arch Stanton

      For me, it showed there was a big old nerd under the skin of the guy in charge. These “acts” were more akin to your Dad being goofy for the family at Christmas time.
      Most of the time (i.e. town halls, analyst meetings, etc.) he was the kind of statesman one would want, presenting a considered position and doing the CEO stuff that only a handful of us will ever appreciate what it really takes to do.
      Also, I’d imagine that your coworkers who were subjected to your pithy little comments comparing the guy to the most vile and evil of human history probably don’t miss working with you much.

  • DoubleApple

    I’m surprised he was allowed to retire from his job instead of getting the boot. Microsoft’s track record for the past 10 years under Ballmer has been one of complete failure. Here is a really detailed analysis of what went wrong under him and what Microsoft would have to do to become successful again: http://dailybarrage.com/2013/09/28/microsofts-lost-decade/

  • Guest

    “Microsoft will be a very different — and likely much more boring — place without SteveB.”
    That’s a glass is half full way of looking at it. Maybe with him gone MS can finally stop being known for failure, or Ballmer’s latest stupid remark or epic competitive misjudgment. And instead become known for leadership, innovation and excellence.

    • Guest

      My bad

      full > empty

  • care

    Microsoft can beat Apple or anyone hands down if they design phones or computers going back to basics. Bloating computers or phones to entice target groups is trouble. they can’t put out phones etc that are just updates of security and not software. more over they need to let the people pick the software and keep the garbage like quick time off anything. to push a phone to the public by colors says a lot. Apple gave the ultimate humiliation to a culture by doing choose a color. Apple did it occur to you people would like the phone to work? It is like an agent selling you a pretty house on the outside and the structure will start degrading the soon as you move in. things should work. this made to fix item is on going and is more of a fashion statement than technology. the phone , or computer could be something – instead today it is just a chat box.

  • Brad Majors

    I am so jazzed to be the captain of this extrordinary ship. I can feel that my excitement is inspiring the crew too, and the passengers — Edward Smith, Captain, RMS Titanic