Much has been written about Steve Ballmer’s decision to retire from Microsoft. No doubt there’s a lot more analysis to come, but I don’t plan to add to that narrative today.
But having spent about 11 years of my career at Microsoft as a contractor, full-time employee, and vendor, I decided to share a couple of impressions and experiences I had of Ballmer while I was employed in Redmond.
While working as a contractor in the mid-90s’ I was tasked to create demos executives used to showcase their products at tradeshows and conventions. Some of the products we created demos for were not finished or were not stable enough to demo “live” so we used smoke and mirrors (local websites, Flash, fake data) to make it appear the products worked.
The first few products I worked on never made it to market. This isn’t uncommon at Microsoft where Bill Gates would proudly say he’d rather have product teams compete internally for resources than have the market decide which product succeeds. This Darwinian approach worked well as weaker products faded into oblivion giving the battle-tested products a chance to succeed.
After a couple of failures, I was finally on a team with a product we thought was good enough to bring to market. We were excited to find a prominent customer who would commit to our product, making it more likely it would be selected. In short, we needed a high-profile company to help us champion our software internally before the plug was pulled. Word got out that Starbucks was interested and a meeting was scheduled to get both parties together to work through the details.
I was involved in the meeting only because the software wasn’t finished and I would be part of the demo. Our team, made of mostly of program and product managers, worked for several weeks to make sure we had a compelling and complete presentation. It was a tense couple of weeks. We felt our existence as a product team rested on being able to convince Starbucks to go with our product.
The big day came. The meeting went well and I was pleased our demo didn’t crash and burn, which can and does happen. As the meeting was brought to a close, our group manager mentioned that Steve Ballmer would be stopping by to meet the team from Starbucks. At the time, Ballmer was VP of Sales and Support, and, although he was admired, nobody carried more clout with employees and customers than Bill Gates. One could argue that no CEO in American was more well-known than Bill Gates. Competitors feared him, customers admired him and Microsoft employees both feared and revered him.
On the walk back to our offices, I asked my coworker, who had been with Microsoft for a decade, why Ballmer instead of Gates was being brought in at this critical point of the sales process. Was our product too insignificant at the time to garner Gate’s attention? What was going on?
My coworker had been a part of a number of these meetings, having spent years in the field as a sales manager said, “We bring Bill in to impress the client. We bring in Steve to close the deal.”
And he did.
Years later, after I left Microsoft and returned as a vendor, I worked for the group that planned and provided technical support at the nearly 500 annual events Microsoft takes part in that include conventions, trade-shows, conference and dozens of keynotes.
When a Microsoft executive is asked to speak at these keynotes, say, CES, a small army of technical handlers is there to make sure the presentation goes as smoothly as possible. One group might polish the slide deck while another team configures the computers and software that will be shown. Microsoft even has podiums built that can be shipped around to the most important events. These podiums are full of computer and A/V equipment these geeks know well. Although expensive, controlling every segment of the keynote results in fewer surprises.
In short, the goal is to ensure something like this never happens again.
I was still new to the group and decided to attend a presentation that Ballmer would be giving at a hotel in downtown Seattle. I arrived early and was able to secure a badge that gave me access to the backstage. I followed my team around the stage as attendees began to fill the seats. I watched them wire a podium and demo table with all sorts of electronic gadgets including a row of black flat screen monitors. These monitors are used by the speaker to keep track of his slides and any demos. One monitor is a dedicated speaker timer.
As I looked around I noticed black tape covering the logo on each monitor at the speaker podium. I found that odd since most of the computer gear was donated by HP or Dell. When I asked one of the techs about the tape he told me they had built the podiums to support a certain monitor size, and that a certain IBM monitor was either the best fit or best quality or both. I asked why the logo was covered on the IBM monitors but not the Dell monitors being used on the demo tables.
The tech said, “We cover the IBM logo because Steve hates IBM and doesn’t want to be photographed using any IBM products.”
Both of these experiences helped form my opinion of the man with an oversized personality and ego, who would years earlier, make friends with a computer geek from Seattle.
The rest is history.