Speaking to students at The Oxford Union, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer offered his thoughts on the importance of passion, Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Microsoft’s future.
“I’m nervous,” he said at the beginning of his talk. “This is the first speech I’ll give — and maybe the last, too, if it doesn’t go well — as something other than a Microsoft employee.”
Ballmer, who stepped down in February, reflected on the 34 years he spent at Microsoft and shared several lessons from his days leading the Redmond-based company that he joined all the way back in 1980.
One of the interesting tidbits from the talk came when Ballmer referred to Microsoft as “two-trick pony.” He said that many successful companies are “one-trick ponies,” in that they do one thing really well. For example, Coca-Cola invented one thing, got it right, and has sustained a profitable business for decades.
“That’s basically a 100-year-old trick,” Ballmer said of the soda maker.
But he also noted that there are “no 100-year tricks in the technology business.”
“In a lot of businesses, you are forced to do a second trick or you die,” said Ballmer, who recently surpassed Bill Gates as Microsoft’s largest shareholder.
After inventing the modern PC, Ballmer said Microsoft’s second trick was working with IBM and figuring out how to incorporate microprocessors into the way businesses work. He added that Apple is also a two-trick pony, having built the Macintosh and then pushing forward low-power touch computing, starting with the iPod.
“They’re an amazing company because they did two tricks,” Ballmer said of Apple. “We’re an amazing company because we did two tricks.”
Yet Ballmer admitted that Microsoft hasn’t quite nailed down its third trick.
“We’ve done two tricks and those will go for a lot of years,” he said. “But in our industry, you have to do a third trick.”
In terms of where he’d like to see Microsoft go, Ballmer said he’s enthused about cloud services and hardware devices. He’s also excited about the idea of combining machine learning with big data for products like virtual digital assistants.
“How do I get a virtual digital assistant that’s with me always, that knows about me, that knows about the world and can act in my behalf?” he wondered.
Ballmer, who will be giving the University of Washington graduation speech next month, also advised the students to be passionate about whatever it is they choose to pursue in life.
“Too many people don’t really get revved up, fired up, consumed — heart, body and soul — by what they do, and yet I find that sort of really sad,” he said. “You really want to do something you can fall in love with, particularly coming right after college.”
He also riffed on the philosophy of acquiring other companies and brought up Facebook’s $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp:
In addition, Ballmer talked about open software and admitted that Microsoft made Windows “too open,” which created too many ways to hijack the system.
“Yet people will say, from a software developer’s perspective, they prefer how open it was to extensibility,” he said.
The speech took place a few months ago, but extended excerpts were just made public on YouTube. You can watch highlights below: