Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer didn’t feel “completely in charge” of Microsoft until Bill Gates left entirely in 2008. Ballmer felt deeply betrayed by Gates when Gates and the rest of Microsoft’s board initially told Ballmer they wouldn’t approve a Microsoft purchase of Nokia. Current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had his top execs read something called “Nonviolent Communication.”
Those are some of the tidbits in an engrossing Vanity Fair article out now that looks at the breakdown of the relationship between Gates and Ballmer, some of their major missteps, and what the company is attempting to do now under Nadella.
While there’s no major news in the article, by writer Bethany McLean, there’s plenty of access and rich detail.
McLean writes about a Microsoft culture that was “confrontational from the start. But what worked so well when the company was young and small carried the seeds of future problems.”
A confluence of events led to increased pressure on Ballmer to step down as CEO, including behind-the-scenes agitation for change by institutional investor Capital Group, as well as by hedge fund ValueAct, which was then pushing for a board seat. In addition, Windows 8 launched to a poor reception.
When Ballmer told the board that he would be stepping down — an announcement made in August 2013 — “no one, including Gates, tried to stop him from quitting,” according to the Vanity Fair story.
Unlike Ballmer and Gates, both of whom one former executive said had personalities that were passionate, crossing into abusive at times, Nadella is regarded as a genuinely nice person, well liked and well respected.
Moreover, Nadella had been and continues to be open to talking to people from outside the company — an important hallmark of the more open Microsoft he is shaping.
Even before Nadella took over as CEO, when he still headed the Server and Tools business, “he did a bunch of things that were totally un-Microsoft-like,” according to the Vanity Fair report. “He went to talk to start-ups to find out why there weren’t using Microsoft. He put massive research-and-development dollars behind Azure, a cloud-based platform that Microsoft had developed in Skunk Works fashion, which by definition took resources away from the highly profitable existing business.”
A former executive quoted in the story talks about the change in Microsoft’s worldview under Nadella this way: “Holding our breath until we turn blue is not going to change the world. It’s not the world we wished it were, or the world we thought it was. It is an example of Satya embracing the world as it is.”
Gates, meanwhile, who is devoting 30 percent of his time to being technology adviser to Nadella, says his role now at Microsoft is “way more intense” than it was when he was board chairman. (Gates remains on the board but the chairman is now Virtual Instruments CEO John Thompson.) Gates and Nadella talk briefly in the article about exploring ideas for a meeting-room application that can recognize people who walk into a meeting room and automatically allow them to share notes and other resources.
Read the full story here.