Microsoft’s Ballmer loves Bill, hates Bob

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Steve Ballmer had [a fine old time at Stanford ](/search/article.php/3819201/Ballmer+Microsoft+Is+Like+a+Startup+in+Search.htm)yesterday. The Microsoft CEO entertained a packed hall of students with tales of how he joined Microsoft 29 years ago after getting a call from his friend, and former Harvard undergrad dorm mate, Bill Gates, who said he needed “a business guy.”

“My parents thought I’d lost my mind to drop out of Stanford Business School,” said Ballmer. He’d just finished his first year and was mulling summer job possibilities when Bill G. called.

Ballmer’s recollection of Gate’s pitch reminded me of a successful recruiting call Steve Jobs once made to then Pepsi-Cola president John Sculley. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water to children, or do you want to change the world?” Sculley said in his book “[Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple.](”

“Bill got me to stay by saying we were going to put a computer on every desk, in every home,” said Ballmer.

In his talk and Q&A session, the Microsoft CEO let the student’s know the software giant was hardly an overnight sensation. “We kept grinding and grinding.”

He readily admitted Microsoft’s made its share of mistakes, if not outright disasters. “One thing people tease me about is this thing we had called [Microsoft Bob]( The screen loaded like a house and a dog talked to you about writing reports,” Ballmer said, laughing as though he could scarcely believed Microsoft really did release such a product.


“It was like a precursor to 3D user interfaces,” he said. “It flopped miserably, but didn’t hurt us.”

(Trivia Alert: One thing Ballmer didn’t mention was that the Bob project was once headed by Bill Gates’ girlfriend Melinda French, who he later married).

**A rough start**

Microsoft was 30 employees when Ballmer joined and Gates shot down one of his first suggestions. “I said we needed 18 more people. Bill said, ‘the ones we have now aren’t very good, why do we want more? You’re going to bankrupt us.”

Ballmer was quick to add there were in fact a lot of good people in the early days of Microsoft. The company hired friends and others who came highly recommended. But as Microsoft grew, Ballmer sharpened his hiring skills and said he looks for very specific qualities in a job candidate, regardless of whether their experience was with a startup or a big, established firm.

“The key to me is, ‘Did you dig in? Did you perspire?’ I don’t care where they did it, but did their brain fan out and were you thinking comprehensively? And if it didn’t work, can they be honest and direct about what happened? That’s what’s important to me.”

He said the biggest mistake he thinks people make about deciding about their first job is not going somewhere where they’ll love the work.

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