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Ballmer Reflects on Highs and Lows During Tenure as CEO

As Steve Ballmer prepares to step aside as Microsoft's second CEO after a tumultuous 13-year tenure, his legacy may take years to fully appraise. Since announcing he would be stepping down in late August, some have joyously celebrated a long-awaited change in leadership while others feel, despite some key missteps, that he is worthy of praise for overseeing huge growth during difficult economic times and for making Microsoft a leader in the enterprise.

Ballmer acknowledged his hits and misses with longtime Microsoft watcher and straight-shooter Mary Jo Foley, a Redmond magazine columnist and author of the popular ZDNet All about Microsoft blog. Perhaps no Microsoft outsider knows the innards of Redmond better than Foley and even insiders have learned a thing or two about their company from her over the years. Foley's proficiency for unearthing Microsoft news is well known at all levels of the company. Consequently, Ballmer has avoided sitting down with Foley for two decades -- not for lack of trying on her part -- until last month.

Among the revelations in her interview, which appears today in Fortune magazine, includes the fact that Ballmer had a heavy hand in resolving Microsoft's antitrust litigation in 2000, its push to make Xbox a leading gaming platform and, perhaps most important, his dogged pursuit of the company's enterprise business, which has become a key source of revenue and profit growth.

Regardless how you feel about Ballmer, the company's profit tripled on his watch. At the same time, Ballmer botched Microsoft's Longhorn effort and ultimately the Windows Vista release. Following that debacle, Ballmer failed to accelerate the company's move into the mobile era and now the company is struggling to keep Windows relevant.

A poll of Redmond readers in September after Ballmer's retirement was announced showed 10 percent felt he did an excellent job as CEO, 34 percent said he did a good job, 35 percent believed he was an average CEO and 21 percent gave a poor rating.

Those who commented at the time were mostly critical. "Anyone with a pulse could have ridden that cash cow," said one. "After Gates, Ballmer was a manager, not a leader," argued another. Yet many respondents had more positive assessments. "I think the products introduced, along with the financial performance of the company says it all," a commenter said.

Perhaps the most salient comment I've heard about Ballmer was his inability to make wise management decisions in a company beleaguered with fiefdoms that in many cases rendered innovations to the backburner. As one reader concluded,"...he had command of so much talent and didn't use it wisely."

In her interview, Foley has lots of tidbits worth reading about Ballmer, both in Fortune magazine, and in her All About Microsoft blog, where he recounts and laments the Longhorn debacle. And of course you can find her latest Redmond magazine column, where she looks at the "10 Biggest Surprises of 2013," here.  


Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 12/11/2013 at 12:54 PM


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