Bad Boy Ballmer

The Book of the Week is “Bad Boy Ballmer, the Man Who Rules Microsoft” by Frederic Alan Maxwell, published in 2002. This ebook recounts the history of Microsoft and the career of its co-founder, Steve Ballmer.

Ballmer grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, which was a community comprised of “intense and well-funded academic, athletic, and social competition, and a high level of parental expectation, involvement, and support.” Ballmer’s father decided he was going to attend Harvard College. Fortunately, his superb academic record proved sufficient for acceptance. There, he met Bill Gates. They struck up a friendship and started Microsoft in the spring of 1975.

In the early 1980′s, under Ballmer’s and Gates’ auspices, the company created applications software that worked best on its own operating systems. This was one of many of Microsoft’s monopolistic practices that prompted government investigations and many lawsuits against it. Legally, financially and politically astute, Microsoft successfully defended itself for well over a decade, and employed unlawful dirty tricks in taking swipes at IBM, Sun Microsystems, Netscape and many other companies that made competing products. The whole time, Microsoft arrogantly denied it was a monopoly.

In the summer of 1998, Ballmer was named president of the company, which was still dogged by accusations of illegal business practices. The corporate culture had changed for the worse, and employee turnover rose. In order to boost morale, Ballmer “scheduled one-on-one interviews with the top hundred of Microsoft’s now thirty-five thousand employees, asking them what they thought was wrong with the company and how it could change.”

Ballmer told the press that his $180 billion company was overvalued. Shortly thereafter, on September 23, 1999, Microsoft’s NASDAQ stock price plummeted. Shareholders in the Seattle area alone suffered collective losses of $11 billion, or over “$3,000 for every man, woman, child and dog.” Other tech stocks fell precipitously as well. It was thought that Ballmer’s remark was a deliberate strategy to financially debilitate Microsoft’s rivals, which lacked the resources his company did.

Performance of Microsoft employees was reviewed every six months, on a 5-point scale. Managers competed for the privilege of supervising employees awarded high scores. However, the system had an inherent unfairness in that some managers gave 3′s for 4.5-level work, because they were supposed to rank their subordinates pursuant to the normal curve.

Read the book to learn more about how Ballmer’s personality and actions shaped Microsoft for over a quarter of a century.