Anyone who’s watched Steve Ballmer’s “Crazy Eddie” probably views the Microsoft CEO as slightly unhinged but ultimately harmless. If an ex Microsoft exec is to believed however, Ballmer has a bit of a ruthless streak when it comes to holding onto his Microsoft throne.
According to Joachim Kempin, who worked at Microsoft between 1983 and 2002, Ballmer systematically forces out any rising managers who might challenge his authority. For part of his time at Microsoft, Kempin oversaw the sale of Windows to PC manufacturers and had full access to Bill Gates.
Speaking to Reuters, Kempin reckons that “for Microsoft to really get back in the game seriously, you need a big change in management… As much as I respect Steve Ballmer, he may be part of that in the end.”
The former exec has written a book about his time at Microsoft and is the most senior former employee to write something critical about the company which, as Reuters points out, is famous for the loyalty of its ex-workers.
It’s worth remembering however that Kempin left Microsoft in 2002 under a cloud of controversy after the aggressive contracts he drew up with PC manufacturers were viewed as fodder for the US-anti-trust case that the company faced in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
According to Kempin, one of Ballmer’s earliest targets was Richard Belluzzo, a former Hewlett-Packard (HP) bigwig who moved to Microsoft, successfully heading up the Xbox division before being promoted to chief operating officer. He only lasted 14 months in that position however, apparently due to pressure from Ballmer:
“He (Belluzzo) had no room to breathe on the top. When you work that directly with Ballmer and Ballmer believes ‘maybe this guy could someday take over from me’, my God, you will have less air to breathe, that’s what it comes down to.”
Then there was online head Kevin Johnson who left to run Juniper Networks Inc, Office chief Stephen Elop who is now CEO at Nokia and Ray Ozzie, the software guru Gates designated as Microsoft’s big-picture thinker, who left to start his own project.
“Ozzie is a great software guy, he knew what he was doing. But when you see Steve (Ballmer) and him on stage where he (Ozzie) opposed Steve, it was Steve’s way or the highway,” said Kempin.
That long line of people who’ve been earmarked as potential Ballmer successors before leaving the company ends with Steven Sinofsky, who left shortly after the launch of Windows 8, which he had been instrumental in building.
Kempin reckons that it was a mistake making Ballmer CEO in the first place:
“Steve is a very good business guy, but make him a chief operating officer, not a CEO, and your business is going to go gangbusters,” he said. “I respect that guy (Ballmer), but there are some limitations in what he can and can’t do and maybe he hasn’t realised them himself.”
“Is he a great CEO? I don’t think so. Microsoft’s board is a lame duck board, has been forever. They hire people to help them administer the company, but not to lead the company. That’s the problem,” he added.
Another interesting claim made by Kempin is that Microsoft actually foresaw all the big changes in the tech industry over the past few years but failed to act on them:
“They missed all the opportunities they were talking about when I was still in the company. Tablets, phones… we had a tablet going, we had tablet software when Windows XP came out, it was never followed up properly,” he said.