Bill and Steve

Before they were billionaires, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were regular players at Comdex, and I often saw them up-close and personal. I wasnt their friend, just an observer. But a careful one – I watched them closely, trying to find out what made them tick.

Bill was always happiest going one-on-one with people or problems. The retinues surrounding him were never just yes-men. Usually armed with a soft drink, he would focus on a critic, tell him he was wrong and argue with him. Bill was nervous on-stage, uncomfortable with the trappings of power. But give him one problem, one high-bandwidth mind at a time, and Bill was a happy camper.

After Bill became Americas richest man in the early 1990s it suddenly seemed everyone had stories to tell about him, even the casino cops. It was Bill carrying his own bag, flying coach, reaching down to pick up dimes Sam Walton stories. Hed created a character, like Walton or Henry Ford before him, but he never wanted to end up the Colonel Sanders of software. I could tell he wanted out.

Back in the ’80s, when Wall Street suggested Microsoft needed “adult supervision,” they were really criticizing Steve Ballmer. Bombastic, competitive, and always hungry, Steve lived for the fight. He loved building teams and defending those teams. My favorite Comdex moment of Steve came at what was billed as a reception for a German PC distributor. After a few minutes of wine and snacks, a stage with chairs and a table appeared, and he spent the next two hours up there, arguing over European software distribution. Those who had come to party were angry, but Ballmer was in his element. If Bill secretly wanted to be Steven Hawking, Steve had a yen to be Vince Lombardi.

Thursday both men got what they wanted. Steve, now a middle-aged multi-billionaire (but otherwise unchanged), had been moved up steadily: from head of marketing, to president, to the one man everyone reported to. Bill, now Michael-Jordan famous, had meanwhile rotated rising executives as personal assistants whose job was to scout trade events, be his eyes and ears, tell him what it all meant and argue with him.

In the long run, the title “chief software architect” is just a graceful way out. Steves been running the show for years, and on Thursday as Steve spoke boomed out is more like it Bill couldnt hide a sly smile. His secret was finally out the burden was finally lifted.

What comes next? Heres some unsolicited advice, Bill. Your little girl is getting old enough for sports and games. Sign-ups for spring soccer have begun. Theres a box on those forms where you can volunteer to help coach – check that box. Then bring your dad to the games with you. Laugh a little, cry a little, and help your child accept defeat with good grace.

The secret of your success was always one thing. You got under the software pyramid and captured the keystone everything else depended upon (the operating system), controlling everything else from that center. Im sure that at work youre looking for the next keystone.

But that games over, Bill. Youre going to be the worlds first nine-figure man. Its your own keystone that youre really looking for, isnt it? Well, you wont find that one in the office. Youll find it on the field, in the eyes of your children and those of your father. Its time you started the journey.

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