We all know that Bill Gates is happy where he is, and doesn’t want to return to Microsoft as a CEO. He’s publicly stated it repeatedly, and that has been a fact for a little over a decade. Still, every time I go through Microsoft’s current situation, I can’t deny how much of a déjà vu this is to the story of one of Microsoft’s closest rivals.
Larry Ellison was recently in the spotlight because of his comments regarding Apple’s leadership. The now billionaire CEO that created Oracle and that made it what it is, was also Steve Jobs’ best friend. In the interview, he was very blunt about what we should expect for Apple after the passing of Jobs. While raising his hand up and down to depict growth and decline, he said that Apple grew with Steve Jobs, and fell, and would fall without him.
In business there’s always this phrase that I despise, but that you’ll typically hear from any head of HR: “Nobody is indispensable”. According to many experts, people are not a determining factor for the success of a company, since they can always be replaced. I’ve personally always disagreed with this statement, and I guess Larry Ellison also feels the same about Apple. In my opinion, yes you can replace people, but you simply cannot replace passion.
I’m sure that the new guy will try his best to fit the shoes of the old guy, or in some cases, we’ve even seen that a new guy is what a position needed to grow, even though in very rare occasions. As history has taught us with Palm and now BlackBerry, any board of directors can replace the founder and give another guy the job, but you can’t expect the new guy to love a company that he didn’t have to nurture from a garage.
Microsoft is no different. Bill Gates and Paul Allen created the first successful software company in history, and they did so from scratch. How many of you can honestly say that you saw a magazine article today, and out of the blue decided to create a company, big or small, out of an idea? Even tougher, how many of you would drop out of Harvard and rough it out for almost two decades before you finally got the break you needed to actually have a name for yourself in the industry?
Yes, Steve Ballmer was also one of Microsoft’s first employees, but that was a couple of years later when Microsoft was already a company with an office and customers. He had the chance to quit Harvard and follow Bill and Paul on their quest, and he decided not to because he wanted to do the smart thing, which I will never blame him for. Still, this fact alone can give you enough perspective over how important Microsoft was for Bill, and for Steve. Would you say that Bill had more passion for Microsoft than Steve did? I think you and I can both agree that Bill did.
Bill was so passionate about Microsoft that even as a CEO, he was still helping his team build software. He was clearly never the most admirable of showmen, but his genius and his ability to know where the next bet had to be was clear since the inception of the company.
Today, we all know that Bill is leading the team that will select Microsoft’s next CEO, and I just can’t stop imagining a Microsoft with Bill Gates again. When I heard the news, I immediately wished that instead of leading the team that will select his successor, he would instead decide to take the reigns, at least for a couple of years. Let me explain why:
The difference between Gates and Ballmer
I’m not going to exaggerate, but comparing Bill Gates to Steve Ballmer is like comparing Steve Jobs to Tim Cook. All of these are and were brilliant people, but their expertise is in very different areas. We can’t deny that Ballmer and Cook were the masterminds behind the efficient machines they now lead. It’s under Ballmer’s operational leadership and genius that Microsoft has become the giant that it is, and it was also under Cook’s operational administration that Apple came from bankruptcy to success.
On the other hand, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were never really business administrators. They delegated that talent at a very early stage. They focused on directing their respective companies to their future. Bill Gates was always such a products person, that his personal involvement on many of the key products that are successful today is quite evident. I still find it amazing to listen to him talk at the D7 conference years ago, along with Steve Jobs. If you haven’t watched this conference, please do, and listen to Gates accurately remember every detail of each computer he worked with, or every software package he helped create. Only somebody that’s truly passionate about what he does, can remember the complete start-up sequence for the 1984 Macintosh, almost three decades later. You’ll notice that not even Jobs new what it was. As Gates states, for him it was never a goal to make Microsoft a big company, he was simply challenged to create more software.
Have we seen a decline in Microsoft since Bill Gates left as CEO? Well, that depends on who you ask. Economically it’s clear that Microsoft hasn’t declined at all, but then again, I praise Steve Ballmer for being smart enough to keep his machine efficient. Still, if we tried to compare the level of innovation in products that we saw between the Gates and the Ballmer era, I think it’s clear that Gates was the products person. Many of you can debate this with products like the Surface today, but I meant successful products.
It honestly only took one interview of Ballmer for me to understand why Microsoft is failing to impress recently. If you remember the launch of the original iPhone, where he underestimated the device, he also stated that they’ve recently been investing in other areas to see “where they can find money”. It was never about products, but about the money, and that’s where a “products company” gets lost.
Why Bill Gates and not somebody else?
We’ve seen success stories like the one of Google, or now even with Yahoo, where their founders have taken a step back for others to come build success for the company. Still, in the case of Google, we did see Larry Page remain in the company as a creative mind before returning as CEO, and we’ve also seen how the company has continually grown after Page returned to the spotlight.
In my opinion, the departure of Ballmer is anything but positive, since he’s helped build and expand the Microsoft that we know. Whatever he was good at managing so that the Surface RT debacle would not affect their bottom line last quarter is the work of true administration genius, and honestly, I’m not sure I’d like to see Microsoft risk that portion of their success to an unknown either.
I don’t think Microsoft is in the position to just try somebody out. They need somebody who’s proven to know where the company should improve and strike next, and there’s nobody that’s better fit for the job than Bill Gates.
The bottom line
Am I saying that Bill Gates is perfect? No. I’m just saying that he’s the perfect solution for Microsoft. Surely we’ve seen him fail in some of his bets, like in the case of the Tablet PC; but I still stand by my belief that the problem with the product wasn’t the idea, but the fact that it was simply ten years ahead of its time. That’s really the main reason why I feel the board of directors shouldn’t even debate on who should lead Microsoft at least for the next ten years, since hey, launching products ahead of their time is what the technology industry is all about.
I know Bill Gates is all about philanthropy lately, and I clearly stand by my belief that his recent endeavors have dwarfed what he ever achieved at Microsoft. Still, if you think of it, he won’t have enough resources to continue his philanthropy if Microsoft falls, so it’s also in his best interest that the company can wow us one more time.
Obviously, I’m not an expert in this subject. This is all my personal opinion on what I’d love to see Microsoft do. What do you think? Do you agree that Bill Gates is the best alternative Microsoft should consider, or do you think there’s somebody else that’s more suited for the job? Please share your thoughts, and even names if you do, in the comments down bellow.