In Defense of Steve Ballmer

Dan Lyons recently posted an opinion piece on why Steve Ballmer is no Bill Gates, titled “The Lost Decade.” Steve Ballmer is under a microscope at the moment, so let’s talk about why this is, and whether the position that Lyons and others are taking is reasonable.

I’ve worked with and for a number of CEOs over the years and am one of the very few people who has been through a formal CEO training program. Let’s be really clear: while being a CEO looks like a lot of fun, it’s far from easy and virtually no one taking the job is qualified to do it.

In addition, when following a founder like a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs you have an impossibly high bar because you’ll never be as good as a founder who took a company for nothing and made it into something great.

Even when the same founder leaves the CEO job and comes back, like Michael Dell did at Dell, the conditions have changed to a degree that they generally can’t meet their earlier level of performance. Of all the CEOs that left the position and came back (recall that Steve Jobs wasn’t CEO when he was fired from Apple), Larry Ellison stands out as one of the few that were successful and he did it by creating the “office of the CEO,” which divides the job up among a number of younger, talented people. Even he didn’t try to duplicate his own success (and near failure) by himself.

The Post-Windows Launch News Gap

Traditionally when a new Windows product launches, it takes up a massive amount of media, largely funded by the various launch budgets from Microsoft and the OEMs. Then this money runs out and the interest in the product’s launch is no longer important (because it has launched) leaving a lot of people with space to fill and nothing much to fill it with.

Historically, at least since Windows 95 when I started following the product, this gap was filled with launch problems.

Well, this time, Windows 7 doesn’t really have any problems. The Microsoft team has managed to process relatively well but that still leaves a news gap and some are starting to fill it with shots at Microsoft’s CEO because, and this is my opinion, the budget for sustaining marketing that should be filling this gap remains too low.

Apple, on the other hand, tends to spike their advertising spending after the launch to help keep any problems from becoming newsworthy or, worse, having anyone target their CEO (which has happened a lot because of Steve Jobs’ illness this year).

It is my belief that stories in a gap tend to drift negative because writers have been so positive during the launch of a new product that they feel the need for balance and negative stories, because they contrast with the earlier positive ones, will pull a bigger audience.

I think we see a similar behavior when a popular celebrity has a problem – saying positive things has become boring, so negative stuff is very popular.

Unfortunately for Steve Ballmer, folks seem to be focused on him as a result.

Following a Founder

Dan Lyons argues that Steve Ballmer is no Bill Gates. Hard to argue against that, but I would counter by saying that even Bill Gates would be no Bill Gates this decade.

The Microsoft that exists and the market it exists in is vastly different than it was when Bill left the company. Much of what Lyons is pointing to actually is a result of decisions made during Bill’s watch. It takes a long time to change a company of Microsoft’s scale and, as Dan points out, Microsoft went flat soon after Bill left the CEO job, which would suggest Bill created the problems Dan is pointing to and Steve has been unable to fix them. That’s a little different than blaming Steve for being the cause.

In fact, the part of Microsoft that continues to run well is the enterprise side and this is the side that Steve Ballmer was responsible for before taking the job of President. You could actually argue that his work has sustained better than Bill’s.

Founders, particularly once they’re gone, tend to become even more legendary. I can’t tell you the number of times folks wished HP’s founders came back last decade or Thomas Watson Jr. came back in the 80s and early 90s. People build these folks into demigods who can solve any problem and forget that forming a company is as much luck as talent – and even the talent likely came from a large number of people who have also left the company.

Think about the poor fool who takes over Apple when Steve Jobs is gone. How would you like to fill those shoes? I don’t think even Bill Gates himself could step in and hope to meet the expectations Bill’s name sets for the job of CEO.

Messing with a complex company has huge risks. For instance, Steve Ballmer did try to fix Microsoft’s enterprise pricing problem and with the best of intentions, by any measure, actually made things worse.

Rob Enderle is principal analyst with Enderle Group

Rob Enderle
Rob Enderle
As President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, Rob provides regional and global companies with guidance in how to create credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero dollar marketing. For over 20 years Rob has worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, ROLM, and Siemens.

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