There was an interesting story in today’s news about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s outburst at an iPhone-carrying Microsoft employee. Apparently, Ballmer was addressing a company gathering when the employee pulled his iPhone out to take a picture of him. Ballmer went nuts. He grabbed the phone, ridiculed the employee publicly, then pretended to stomp on the device. You can read the full story over on Engadget. There is even an alleged photo taken as Ballmer reached for the device.
Ballmer is an interesting character. Certainly there is plenty of evidence on YouTube of his over-the-top antics as he revs up Microsofties with his ranting and raving, screaming and yelling. And who could forget his chant of “Developers! Developers! Developers!” at a gathering of software developers, as he tried to make the point that Microsoft’s success was partly due to its army of, well, developers. It’s even spawned a remix version.
Even back on the very early days of Microsoft, Ballmer was seen dressed up as a cheesy salesperson, doing the whole “How much would you expect to pay?” spiel as he promoted Windows 1.0, throwing away dollar bills in an over-the-top display of sales showmanship. If you don”t know much about Steve Ballmer or where he fits into the Microsoft story, I’d recommend you watch the excellent video series by Robert X Cringely, “Triumph of the Nerds“. It’s a wonderful record of the first 20 years of the personal computer revolution, and if you call yourself a geek, you absolutely should see it.
I got thinking about Ballmer as I read through the comments on the Engadget blog. One person made the comment that Ballmer was stupid. Another came to his defence, noting that Ballmer was overly brash and passionate, but not stupid. The Sydney Morning Herald even ran a story with a psychologist analysing Ballmer’s crazy antics, concluding that Ballmer isn’t crazy, just an attention seeker.
I actually met Ballmer once. I was at a fairly intimate Microsoft function in Sydney for the launch of Office 2003, and I managed to sit in the very front row directly in front of Ballmer as he gave his address. He spoke to the small crowd in a very reserved tone, talking earnestly about the development of the new software, and giving some background into the challenges and successes of getting it to market. I was actually quite impressed with Ballmer, and was struck by his obvious passion and belief in what he was doing. When he finished his talk, he asked if there were any questions, so I stuck my hand up and asked one. To be honest, I thought it was a bit of a curly question and I was sort of hoping to stump him a little. To the contrary, Ballmer looked right at me and fired back a detailed and well-thought out answer, explaining how Microsoft was addressing the issue I’d raised. He outlined three aspects to his answer and confidently explained each one. There was no fumbling or dodging the question. He knew what he was talking about and clearly had given a lot of thought to the issues I asked about. I was actually a little surprised at just how well he responded, and at the quality of his answer.
I was impressed not only by the clarity and detail of his answers, but also by the fact that, as CEO of Microsoft, the intricacies of how the software works and a detailed answer to the question I asked (which was related to how Microsoft was addressing the issues faced by software training providers and how it was coming up with ways of making it easier for users to learn to use new software versions) were not typically the sorts of things you’d expect the CEO of the company to be so close to. Ballmer is a hands-on kind of guy and he’s clearly passionate about Microsoft. And he knows his stuff. As the Engadget commenter remarked, he may be brash and passionate, but he is clearly not stupid.
I’ve seen the thoughtful, intelligent and focussed side of Steve Ballmer, and I’ve seen the outrageous, wild and crazy side of Steve Ballmer. Perhaps the yelling and screaming, the running around the stage like a sweaty crazy person, the (pretend) iPhone smashing behaviour, the silly comments about the iPhone, the blunt denigration of anything non-Microsoft, is all a bit distracting from just how intelligent Ballmer can really be.
Most people who read this blog will know that I’m not much of a Microsoft fan, but as the Engadget commenter says, “You know, I like Ballmer – he’s brash and in your face but he believes in what he does and has the guts to be passionate about it. I respect that.”
Me too. Stay crazy Steve.