Unexpected Pleasures in Gates/Ballmer interview at D Conference

In the joint interview with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer at D last week, I loved some of the stories about the early Microsoft, especially Ballmer talking about how Gates wouldn’t let him hire anyone unless he could prove that they would pay for themselves. Gates was incredibly conservative, and always wanted to have enough cash on hand to keep people employed for a year even if sales fell off a cliff. Everyone thinks about Microsoft as the gorilla of the industry, but it was great to see that view of them as an early, scrappy startup. And that kind of financial conservatism is great advice for startups.

I also liked the description of how they worked together. It’s great to have a partner in running a business, and they did a great job of complementing each other’s strengths. A CEO/COO partnership can be really great. (We have that now at O’Reilly, and it’s been fabulous.)

It was also great to see how relaxed Gates was. He was happy to let Steve take point, had a slightly bemused smile on his face a lot of the time. It was definitely the face and body language of a man who had let go and was ready to move on. It’s nice to see, in an era of aging, driven corporate titans, someone who can step aside. As Lao Tzu said, “To retire when the task is accomplished is the way of heaven.” Microsoft may still need to reinvent itself, but Bill is done.

I wanted to add a comment by Linda Stone that I overheard in the hallways, namely, that it seemed like a real missed opportunity on the part of Walt and Kara that there wasn’t some kind of effort to honor Bill Gates for his enormous contributions to the industry. They acted like this was just a panel like any other. Despite my many criticisms of Microsoft, I truly respect the company and what they have achieved. They played a huge role in the commodification of computing, and made so much possible (even the rise of open source and the internet), and a huge part of that was the vision and talent of Bill Gates. I’m glad he’s now focused on a new “big hairy audacious goal” beyond Microsoft (eliminating diseases like Malaria.) Even if I think that Microsoft has had trouble finding a new BHAG, it’s clear that Bill himself still thinks big.

P.S. Despite what I said about “aging, driven corporate titans” above, I have to admit to being very impressed with both Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller. Both are brilliant, forceful, and surprisingly candid. You could have knocked me over with a feather when Murdoch came out and all-but endorsed Barack Obama. I love it when people don’t fit your preconceptions. (I was <a href=http://www.twitter.com/timoreillytwittering this live, but twitter managed to have an outage so all my notes were lost. Glad there’s video — even better, though you don’t get to see my amazement and delight.)

It was also fabulous to hear Barry Diller talk about Carl Icahn and Yahoo! and the responsibility of management to maximize shareholder value. I loved the way Barry said that he feels a deep responsibility to do well for his long-term shareholders, but that he feels absolutely no obligation to make money for short-term speculators (and presumably that Jerry shouldn’t feel any responsibility to folks like Carl Icahn either.) All shareholders are not created equal.

These guys are blunt and insightful, afraid of no one, and still having fun. Great role models for any entrepreneur.

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