Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates have 'drifted apart' since Ballmer left Microsoft

Microsoft Steve BallmerBloomberg TVMicrosoft Steve Ballmer

The 33-year partnership between Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his 30th employee, Steve Ballmer, has not fared well since Ballmer left the CEO job almost three years ago.

Gates and Ballmer have “drifted apart,” Ballmer told Bloomberg TV’s Emily Chang.

“He has his life. I have mine. Microsoft was the thing that bound us. We started off as friends but really got quite enmeshed around Microsoft. Since I’ve gone, we really have drifted a little bit.”

He says for most of their time together, Microsoft was like “my baby and Bill’s baby. We were growing it and nurturing it. He was kind of like the senior partner, I was the junior partner. If it was raising of children, I would say it was like mum gets to decide more than dad.”

Things didn’t shift even after Gates stepped down from the CEO role in 2000 to become chief software architect, and Ballmer took over.

“When I became CEO, we had a very miserable year. Bill didn’t know how to work for anybody and I didn’t know how to manage Bill. I’m not sure I ever learned,” Ballmer said.

And Ballmer’s choice to leave Microsoft in 2013, “was not a simple thing for either one of us.” 

“He and I have always had a brotherly relationship, the good parts and the bad parts and in the end that was a bit more difficult than not, particularly with the strategic direction change,” he said.

“The stock price wasn’t going anywhere, so the rest of the board felt pressure, despite the fact that profits were going up. So I think you had a combustible situation,” he added.

Disagreement over hardware

The two men also had a “fundamental disagreement” about how important it was to be in the hardware business. While Microsoft had always dabbled in hardware like everything from keyboards to Xbox, it had never built PCs. And it wasn’t making its own phones.

Bill gatesAlex Wong/Getty ImagesBill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks at the 2015 Financial Inclusion Forum.

Ballmer chose to do both of those things, launching the Surface and buying Nokia. When Surface launched, Gates was a vocal and public supporter of it. 

But Ballmer said he had to push the board into accepting the idea of Surface and “things came to a climax about what to do around the phone business.”

Looking back, Ballmer said he wishes he had pushed into the hardware business sooner.

Ballmer also said that he did his best work after Gates left his full-time job at Microsoft as chief software architect in 2008, including launching Bing. While one could argue that the Bing search engine never became much of a threat to Google, it did cause Microsoft to build data centres worldwide and learn the fundamentals of cloud computing. 

And with that experience, under Ballmer, Microsoft was able to move into cloud Office 365 and Azure. 

All three of those things: cloud computing software, cloud computing hosting surfaces, and more exciting hardware — including multiple versions of Surface and new devices like HoloLens — are the core of current CEO Satya Nadella’s strategy.

Today, as owner of the LA Clippers, Ballmer is no longer directly involved with Microsoft except as one of its biggest shareholders. He left the CEO job in 2014 and stepped from the board a few months later. There’s new excitement around Microsoft and the share prices are up, so Ballmer says he’s happy with the company. He’s also happy about his achievements there.

“I started a company that had 2.5 million in revenue and 30 people and I left a company that had 22 billion in profit and I feel that net, net, was a pretty good success,” he said.


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