A visionary founder steps down after leading his company to unprecedented success, and hands the reins to his most trusted lieutenant. That’s what happened last week with Steve Jobs and Tim Cook.
It also happened 11 years ago with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.
Microsoft watcher Paul Thurott pointed out the parallels this morning, and Apple enthusiast John Gruber — who hardly ever agrees with Thurott about anything — reposted the link, while noting that Cook hasn’t yet said anything “stupid” like Ballmer’s comments about the iPhone failing.
Still, the parallels between the men are noticeable:
- Neither is a programmer — Cook was an engineer, while Ballmer majored in mathematics.
- Both are known for a relentless focus on the numbers — sales, margins, trends.
- They’re known to shred underlings who don’t know their business.
- They don’t flaunt their wealth — Cook lives in a rented house, according to this 2008 Fortune profile, and Ballmer is known for driving bland American sedans (although he briefly traded up for a Range Rover when Ford bought the Rover trademark from BMW)
- They’re both workaholics — Cook is often the first in and last to leave, and Ballmer has been known to work through the night.
They also have differences — Cook is cool in public while Ballmer can be manic, and Cook came from operations while Ballmer was in sales.
Perhaps most important, Steve Jobs really wants to come back to Apple, and is stepping down only for health reasons. Gates, on the other hand, seemed happy to leave Microsoft and its antitrust troubles behind.
The companies themselves are also different — Microsoft’s monopolies (Windows and Office) in 2001 are more powerful than Apple’s near-monopoly on MP3 players in 2011, and Microsoft has a lot of enemies in powerful places, particularly the government.
Still, Jobs himself never underestimated the importance of having a product visionary at the helm. Here’s an excerpt from his 2004 interview with BusinessWeek.
Q: What can we learn from Apple’s struggle to innovate during the decade before you returned in 1997?
A: You need a very product-oriented culture, even in a technology company. Lots of companies have tons of great engineers and smart people. But ultimately, there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together. Otherwise, you can get great pieces of technology all floating around the universe. But it doesn’t add up to much….
Apple had a monopoly on the graphical user interface for almost 10 years. That’s a long time. And how are monopolies lost? Think about it. Some very good product people invent some very good products, and the company achieves a monopoly.
But after that, the product people aren’t the ones that drive the company forward anymore. It’s the marketing guys or the ones who expand the business into Latin America or whatever. Because what’s the point of focusing on making the product even better when the only company you can take business from is yourself?
So a different group of people start to move up. And who usually ends up running the show? The sales guy….
Q: Is this common in the industry?
A: Look at Microsoft — who’s running Microsoft?
Q: Steve Ballmer.
A: Right, the sales guy. Case closed. And that’s what happened at Apple, as well.