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Why Steve Ballmer left Microsoft better than he found it

Rob Enderle | Feb. 10, 2014
New Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella certainly has his work cut out for him, but his job pales in comparison to the mess Steve Ballmer inherited in 2000. Nadella should succeed -- and if he does, he owes a lot to his oft-maligned predecessor.

In addition, Ballmer made peace with most of the folks driving Linux. Now that product is less of a customer driven-threat and, like Android, more of a competitive offering. It's still powerful, sure, but that makes it a vastly easier problem to deal with.

Ballmer also put the antitrust stuff behind him, shifting much of the focus onto Google - which is now getting all the government's attention, largely for arrogance and abuses that are far more widespread and frightening than Microsoft's. Finally, Ballmer delivered quarter after quarter of solid financial results, which gives Nadella a rather impressive war chest if he decides to use it.

Nadella Will Benefit From Microsoft's Addition by Subtraction
Nadella gets some additional benefits that can't be directly attributed to Ballmer, too.

For starters, Bill Gates proved to be more of a liability to Ballmer than an asset. Gates wasn't a good mentor, he hung like a cloud over everything Ballmer did and, from time to time, parachuted in and did damage. Gates was connected to cancelling the Currier Tablet, which would have been a far more timely response to the iPad than the Surface.

Also gone is Ray Ozzie, who proved to be no help at all. Gates is coming back - not as chairman but, rather, focused on bringing products to market, and he's working under Nadella, not above him. Nadella gets a well-trained mentor in John Thompson, who got the best CEO training there is from IBM, and this gives Nadella a huge initial advantage over Ballmer, who got a lot of really bad advice during his tenure. Finally, Nadella is a programmer, and a company such as Microsoft is always better run by someone who understands its products and technologies intimately. That wasn't Ballmer.

Microsoft Survived Its Surgery, Will Recover Well
If you find out someone finished last in a race, you might conclude he did poorly. But if you find out he finished despite being shot, run over and having a heart attack, you'd be impressed. That's Microsoft.

Certainly Microsoft has slid in the last decade, but Ballmer revived a company in crisis when much of what was needed to fix it either gone or rendered ineffective. He systematically fixed the firm while running it, even though he didn't have the ideal skill set. This is like a Marine performing surgery while fighting the Taliban on a sinking ship being attacked by a sea serpent. The fact the patient lived — and is recovering well — is damned near a miracle. Now a specialist can take over and make things even better.

Nadella should succeed at Microsoft — and he'll owe much of that success to how Ballmer cared for the company during his tenure.


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