I Knew Gates and He Was No Steve Ballmer, MS CEO Resignation Letter, Commentary

Written by Gina Smith

Our edit director Gina Smith knew Steve Ballmer pretty well back when she was a beat reporter covering Windows for PC Week. Clck in to get her memories of Ballmer, perspective on what Microsoft loses when it loses a charismatic leader, find out how a Ballmer vs Gina Smith debate on TV blew her mind, and find the resignation letter here, too.

aNewDomain.net — News came today that Steve Ballmer will retire from his post as Microsoft CEO within 12 months. This raises all kinds of questions. One is, does that mean rumors about Bill Gates’ return are true? We’ll look into such issues in further analysis. Right now I want to talk about Ballmer, the guy I knew, and give you some personal memories and insights that lead me to believe that Microsoft might not be the better for Ballmer’s exit. No matter what the stock market says.

Now, I knew Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his former boss,  MS founder Bill Gates, pretty well back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That’s when I was the beat reporter covering operating systems for the trade pub PC Week — now eWeek. I’d constantly and aggressively dog them and their representatives for deep information beyond what PR released. That’s what reporters did back then.

At PC Week in those days, Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates would routinely show up at our Boston offices to brief the staff on upcoming technologies.

These guys were polar opposites — and I think no one on staff experienced that reality as much as I did. Here’s an example.

Take Gates. In 1989, I was a 23-year-old aggressive reporter who covered Microsoft as if it were the 2013-era NSA. That’s why I sometimes had a difficult relationship with Gates. At least at first.

Once I had to convince him with a long, technical explanation that I understood the intricacies of how multithreading worked in Windows (when Windows didn’t support it) on the 286 processor (which also didn’t support true multithreading). I was forced to do this in front of 100 coworkers in my conference.

Good thing I knew the topic cold. There was more than honor at stake. Gates had just dismissed my question about multithreading and how Windows got around chip barriers by answering, “If I thought you’d understand the question, Gina, I’d answer.”

After that, I never had trouble getting an interview with Bill. And I was always heads down in BYTE magazine before I even spoke to the man. I knew he’d gained a kind of grudging respect for me, but I was taking no chances after that previous potential disaster.

Steve Ballmer? Polar opposite. I found him gregarious, fair, a brilliant communicator of tech ideas and always open to answering the tough questions I’d riddle him with. And he never spoke the strictly-party-line Microsoft lingo pretty much everyone else there did.

The day I heard that a PR person I know, Connie Snyder, was getting engaged to him, my immediate reaction was, Wow, she’s marrying one good guy. That’s not the reaction I had when other friends of mine married top tech execs, many of whom appeared to be either arrogant, introverted or angry to the extreme.

Even when I had to debate Steve Ballmer on the eve of the Windows 95 launch on then-PBS show MacNeil/Lehrer — and I was hitting him with some tough accusations about Windows 95 truly being ready for consumer computers, as hyped — he was jovial, to the point, and honest.

And yes, he admitted, you would have to buy a new computer to run Windows 95 if you didn’t already have 8MB in memory. Unusual at the time.

Ballmer’s decency is rare among humans, and especially among tech execs. His Swiss-immigrant parents raised him right. I never ran into Steve Ballmer in the last 25-plus years without his saying “Hi” and taking time to talk. He was the perfect yang to Bill Gates’ yin. Without Bill Gates and his coterie, perhaps — just perhaps — there was too much yang. That will take further analysis.


But this much is certain. As the industry criticizes Ballmer and his team for not moving quickly enough to embrace tablets, and its approach toward just sinking money into Nokia to get into smartphones, Microsoft prospered under Ballmer’s leadership. Financially, too. The company has more than tripled revenues and doubled profits since Ballmer took the helm.

But I have another question. Will the replacement CEO have the same energy, enthusiasm and magnetism Ballmer had? This is key.

If he or she doesn’t, despite how the stock market postively reacted at the news today, Microsoft will be worse off. Just as Apple is suffering as a result of the absence of the unbelievably magnetic late Apple CEO and founder Steve Jobs, Microsoft also will pay the piper for choosing anything less than a magnetic, dynamic leader. Combine that quality with someone who is future-facing, and Microsoft could soar again.

Following is his resignation letter in full, as posted on a Microsoft blog.

I am writing to let you know that I will retire as CEO of Microsoft within the next 12 months, after a successor is chosen. There is never a perfect time for this type of transition, but now is the right time. My original thoughts on timing would have had my retirement happen in the middle of our transformation to a devices and services company focused on empowering customers in the activities they value most. We need a CEO who will be here longer term for this new direction. You can read the press release on Microsoft News Center.

This is a time of important transformation for Microsoft. Our new Senior Leadership team is amazing. The strategy we have generated is first class. Our new organization, which is centered on functions and engineering areas, is right for the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Microsoft is an amazing place. I love this company. I love the way we helped invent and popularize computing and the PC. I love the bigness and boldness of our bets. I love our people and their talent and our willingness to accept and embrace their range of capabilities, including their quirks. I love the way we embrace and work with other companies to change the world and succeed together. I love the breadth and diversity of our customers, from consumer to enterprise, across industries, countries, and people of all backgrounds and age groups.

I am proud of what we have achieved. We have grown from $7.5 million to nearly $78 billion since I joined Microsoft, and we have grown from employing just over 30 people to almost 100,000. I feel good about playing a role in that success and having committed 100 percent emotionally all the way. We have more than 1 billion users and earn a great profit for our shareholders. We have delivered more profit and cash return to shareholders than virtually any other company in history.

I am excited by our mission of empowering the world and believe in our future success. I cherish my Microsoft ownership, and look forward to continuing as one of Microsoft’s largest owners.

This is an emotional and difficult thing for me to do. I take this step in the best interests of the company I love; it is the thing outside of my family and closest friends that matters to me most.

Microsoft has all its best days ahead. Know you are part of the best team in the industry and have the right technology assets. We cannot and will not miss a beat in these transitions. I am focused and driving hard and know I can count on all of you to do the same. Let’s do ourselves proud.

Steve “

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Gina Smith.

Gina Smith is the New York Times best-selling author of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s memoir, ” iWOZ: How I Invented the Personal Computer and Had Fun Doing It”. (W.W. Norton, 2005/2007/2012). With John C. Dvorak and Jerry Pournelle, she is editorial director at aNewDomain.net. Email her at gina@aNewDomain.net, check out her Google + stream here or follow her @ginasmith888.



  • I also met Gates a couple of times back in the Altair days. Most memorable (and last) was on the phone when he screamed “don’t you know who I am” after I told him that I had not selected him as keynote speaker for the personal computing program at the National Computer Conference. (Another of my bad decisions :-).

  • But he could have a sweet spot, too. I once was at a party — I think it was Oprah’s bday party in NYC — when he waxed on about having children completely changed him. I think he has mellowed with age. And those kids sure are beautiful.

  • Although I didn’t know him well, had the pleasure to meet him a few times and found him quite likeable. I sure hope MS finds a leader ready for the challenge ahead.

  • From Google Plus follower

    Allan Barry Laboucan

    Aug 23, 20131

    At least we still have +Loren Feldman Ballmer puppet.

  • Gina —

    Great story. I’ve never read anything about Ballmer before, or any quote from him, that suggested that he wasn’t a finalist with Ed Esber and Larry Ellison for the title of the tech industry’s biggest a**hole. (Although to be fair, I always figured — on the basis of his public comments — that Ballmer would be disqualified for failing to meet the minimum IQ standard for that award.) It’s great to read another perspective on the man, although I’m hesitant to give too much credit to reports of 1:1 conviviality compared to evaluating his public performances.

    As for Gates, I only met the man once — sitting at a conference table with him and 20 other PC Weekers (you were undoubted there if it was during your tenure) , and on that occasion.I found him to be remarkably open. Aside from that, my only contact with him came at a joint Microsoft/IBM OS/2 press conference at Comdex, where immediately after he and the IBM CEO announced their status as BFF, I asked “Isn’t Windows 3 going to put an end to this charade and blow away the crap you’re pushing today?” (Actually, I was more polite in those days. My exact wording escapes me.) The answer came from Gates (the IBM guy certainly wasn’t going to say anything), who assured the me and the rest of the assembled press that the market for Windows 3.0 would never have any impact on that for OS/2.

    At the time I thought that was a load of crap, but, in retrospect, I think he was actually being honest. After all, Windows 3.0 found a huge audience the day it was announced, whereas there was never a commercially-viable audience for OS/2. So clearly Windows 3.0 couldn’t have had a negative effect on a market that never existed. (I jest, sort of…)

    Anyway — I think you should cut Gates some slack, despite what sounds like a horrific attempt to embarrass you in front of your peers, and his general lack of social graces and tenuous relationship to the truth at that time Remember, those were the pre-Melinda days, when his staff couldn’t get him to wash his hair more than once a fiscal quarter — no matter how many co-marketing offers the folks at Head & Shoulders made. Clearly he was lacking in experience with intelligent women at that time.