Larry Page Becomes the New Steve Ballmer

Rob Enderle

The title of this post was the point Ed Bott made on Twitter this morning when he tweeted this link to a chart showcasing that every company covered, including Microsoft, is growing faster than Google. For a company that has seemed to repeat every mistake that Microsoft has made with a gusto, Page can now add one more: killing growth.


Let's revisit the sad tale of Steve Ballmer and then explore what is going wrong at Google.


Steve Ballmer's Sad Tale


I've followed Steve since nearly the beginning of Microsoft for a very personal reason and that is because I was recruited in the early days of that company, but never went to the interview. I'd taken another job and view that decision as pivotal to my life. So I watch Steve as kind of a proxy for a path not taken and while I'm aware there is virtually no likelihood I'd have ever his opportunities and know this isn't real, it is still a hobby. Who says hobbies have to be realistic?


Steve came on board Microsoft as a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard who got what was likely a disappointing job at Proctor and Gamble. I'm guessing things weren't going swimmingly there; otherwise, why give away a job in a company you wanted to work for to take a chance on a software startup at a time when software wasn't all that popular?


He was immediately surrounded by folks who didn't have degrees and who were Geeks and I'm sure he felt like an outsider. He just wasn't, and still isn't, a coder. He was good at math though and so instituted the Microsoft Boot Camp, which was his way of putting the Microsoft heavy hitters in their place. He could demonstrate over and over again that with math, he knew no equal and this likely both helped with his confidence and re-established him as a leader. But he still wasn't seen as a peer.


His closest friend, Bill Gates, was also his biggest rival and he has for most of his life been under Bill's shadow. That's tough being around someone and always feeling inferior to him or her. He lobbied for and got the chance to run Microsoft, but it is a software company running long after the two critical founders (Paul Allen and Bill Gates) left and Steve has clearly struggled with vision and direction.


However, after nearly a decade of flat growth, and massive amounts of work, Microsoft, while not where it once was, is growing at an impressive 27 percent. If Steve can sustain that, he will have proven, at least with regard to growing the company, he is a force to be reckoned with. Windows 8, likely the most challenging product Microsoft has ever brought to market, will either be Steve's crowning glory or coffin nail and my community is pretty much split on the likely outcome.


In the end, looking back, I couldn't have done a fraction of what Steve has accomplished, but I also wouldn't want to be where he is. I don't miss the path not taken.


Larry Page


The Google founders have done some truly amazing things. They found a way to monetize the Web and the dotcom collapse was the result of a massive number of companies that tried and failed at this same effort. They have taken on Microsoft and Apple and mostly held their own or won. They created one of the best places to work in the world and if we ever get driverless cars in my lifetime they will have created that as well.


Google in many ways eclipsed Microsoft over the last decade. However, the firm has sequentially repeated most of Microsoft's mistakes as well. It has alienated its Android OEMs by first surprising them with another OS, the Chrome OS, which then failed in market. It created its own Android phone, the NEXUS, and bought Motorola, putting it in competition with their OEMs. And perhaps worst of all, they stole the idea for Android from their mentor, Steve Jobs.


While pirates in Silicon Valley are not new (both Apple and Microsoft were in a movie of the same name), stealing from someone who is mentoring you is and showcases a level of evil that we haven't seen in this market before. This from a company that basically promised it wouldn't be evil.


It nearly completely disregarded concerns about privacy and intellectual property rules and had its cars chased out of neighborhoods with pitchforks (literally), and coming legislation on privacy rules is a response to its disregard for government concerns. It is both under investigation globally and is carrying one of the highest litigation loads for intellectual property theft that I've ever seen.


And now Page has, like Steve Ballmer did, stalled his company's growth.


Wrapping Up: Larry Page vs. Steve Ballmer


Doesn't seem very similar does it? However, at the core of both men's problems is the unwillingness to do what needed to be done to be successful.


Steve Ballmer, to run a software company, needed to become a coder or he needed to partner with one who could supply that necessary skill in order to assure products and vision.


Larry Page, to be successful, needed to understand that there is more to business than engineering. Strangely if you were to pair Ballmer and Page up, you'd likely see that both mesh nicely. Page is strong where Ballmer is weak and both are failing because they haven't acquired the skills they need to do the CEO's job at their respective companies, nor have they hired them. Ballmer is everything but a software engineer; Page is still just a software engineer.


To be successful, Ballmer needs to recreate what he lost when Gates left; Page needs someone like Ballmer to keep him from repeating, over and over again, Microsoft's mistakes. I doubt both CEOs will do what I suggest and both will struggle to overcome their shortcomings. Of the two, Ballmer is currently the more successful but still likely the most insecure in his job, which is likely at the core of why Bob Muglia didn't become Steve's partner and was forced out instead. In the end, Google is still Larry's company and Microsoft is still Paul and Bill's.


You know I don't often use Oracle as an example of a best practice, but Ellison built the Office of the President to create a skill base that could run his company that was spread between a balanced team. While it is great to have the prestige of being the singular leader of a company, it is generally better to ensure success, and the lesson here is that it not only takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to run a large company and future CEOs may want to remember that. Maybe the next generation can avoid repeating the mistakes of the last one.


It is now Larry's time to be the new Steve Ballmer and you wonder who'll be next. The thing is, no one has to be next.

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