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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

Topic: Steve Ballmer

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November 13, 2013 at 10:33 AM

The death of stack-ranking: About time

If Microsoft begins a turnaround now to regain its innovative edge, the hinge won’t be the retirement of Steve Ballmer or any new device. It will be the elimination of the employee evaluation system known as stack-ranking.

This was the origin of the poisonous culture that has damaged the company, setting employee against employee, department against department.

Far from providing an honest evaluation of performance combined with benchmarks and coaching to improve, it required that a certain percentage of employees be deemed falling behind the bell curve — as in, find another job — even if they were excellent. Kurt Eichenwald described it in his influential Vanity Fair article, “Microsoft’s Lost Decade”:

Supposing Microsoft had managed to hire technology’s top players into a single unit before they made their names elsewhere—Steve Jobs of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page of Google, Larry Ellison of Oracle, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon—regardless of performance, under one of the iterations of stack ranking, two of them would have to be rated as below average, with one deemed disastrous.

In an interview earlier this year with my colleague Janet I Tu, Ballmer seemed to begin backing away from the system as part of the company’s reorganization.


Comments | More in Microsoft | Topics: Bill Gates, Stack-ranking, Steve Ballmer

August 26, 2013 at 10:34 AM

A few thoughts about Ballmer

My two weeks away were timed for the part of summer “when nothing happens.” So much for that.

• There’s a school of thought in classical economics that in the long run monopolies always commit suicide. Why? They become so dominant and wedded to the enormous revenues of their monopoly that they are insulated from competitive forces, new ideas and market discipline. Thus, for example, they miss the next new thing, price their products at a disadvantage and fail to see, forgive me, the road ahead. If this is so, whatever the merits of the federal case against Microsoft, it behaved as a classic monopolist and paid the price. It failed to snatch the escape clause of this theory, which enables today’s oligopolies: Capture the government to perpetuate your power.

• Of course Steve Ballmer was forced to walk the plank. His statements, and my sources, made it clear he intended to stay as long as he wanted. Yet according to Kara Swisher of All Things D, “Ballmer’s timeline had been moved up drastically — first by him and then the nine-member board, including his longtime partner and Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates — after all agreed that it was best if he left sooner than later.” A potential proxy fight was one danger. The recent disappointment in earnings, and the broader washout of Windows 8 and the Surface tablet were likely the final straws. He lost the confidence of Gates, the backbone of his power.

• Microsoft is a very big deal to the Seattle area economy. For one thing, it employs 42,000 here in well-paying jobs. That alone is a rare asset in today’s America. Apple employs only 16,000 in Silicon Valley. In addition, it has been a magnet for software developers and spun off much talent which, in turn, started new companies. Why did Jeff Bezos put Amazon in Seattle? Maybe he likes the weather. But he also had his pick of top technology talent.  Microsoft helps explain why Seattle punches so far above its weight class. We lack two world-class universities, one of Silicon Valley’s big advantages (we do have one, badly underfunded). But we have Microsoft. Thus, whatever happens under a new chief executive will have wide consequences for the future of the Puget Sound economy.


Comments | More in Microsoft | Topics: Microsoft, Steve Ballmer

July 11, 2013 at 10:07 AM

Vote: Now what do you think of Microsoft’s plan?

When I held Friday’s poll anticipating today’s announcement of the big shakeup at Microsoft, most respondents wanted to wait for details before deciding whether it had a strong chance for success or not. Now we know, so I’m going to ask again. As the Seattle Times’ Janet Tu reports, CEO Steve Ballmer will…


Comments | More in Microsoft | Topics: Microsoft, Microsoft reorganization, Steve Ballmer

July 5, 2013 at 10:16 AM

Vote: Microsoft’s reorganization

The word is that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer could announce a major reorganization of the company as early as next week. Don Mattrick, who led the division that produces Xbox is already leaving to become chief executive of Zynga. According to BloombergSkype president Tony Bates might be placed in charge of acquisitions and relationships with software developers, while Windows boss Julie Larson-Green is given oversight of hardware engineering for all of Microsoft.

The speculation is a moving target. In early June, Kara Swisher of All Things D reported that a larger role was being contemplated for several executives, including Mattrick, as Ballmer moves to fulfill his promise to make Microsoft into a devices and services company. Now, not for Mattrick, obviously. Last fall, Ballmer wrote to shareholders, “This is a significant shift, both in what we do and how we see ourselves — as a devices and services company. It impacts how we run the company, how we develop new experiences, and how we take products to market for both consumers and businesses.”

Microsoft is trying to catch up in a number of areas and make the shift to leapfrog in tablets and phones, not repeat the mistake it made with search. There’s also an activist shareholder in the background, even though MSFT shares are almost $10 higher than they were three years ago and dominant shareholder Bill Gates would block any activist attempts to control the board. Another issue about the restructuring is how it affects larger employment for one of the biggest employers in the Puget Sound. What do you think?

Read on for some important stories you might have missed plus the haiku…


Comments | More in Microsoft | Topics: Microsoft, Steve Ballmer