Category Archives: Books

Steve Ballmer and the meaning of money

I am Objectivist and fan of Ayn Rand’s writings.  One of the great heroes in her books is a man Francisco d’Anconia.  He gives a speech that makes Michael Douglas in Wall Street seem impish in comparison.  dAnconia not only explains why profit is great, but the underlying source of its greatness.  One of the exciting things in my life is finding great heroes like d’Anconia that exist in real life, not just books or movies.  My boss Steve Ballmer is one of those gems.

My guess is that outside the sphere of business and technology, most people don’t know the man by name.  If you ask someone in the world of business who he is, they’re likely to tell you he’s served as the CEO of Microsoft during the time the company’s stock has been flat.  In the technology industry, he is pilloried.  His wikipedia article while silent on his accomplishments inside Microsoft besides passively profiting from its stock, hastens to point out:

Steve Ballmer has been known to be very passionate in expressing his enthusiasm. [...] His wild screaming and dancing on stage at an employees convention was caught on a widely-circulated video known as “Dance Monkeyboy.” A few days later at a developers’ conference, a sweat-soaked Ballmer repeatedly chanted “developers” at least 14 times in front of the bemused gathering.

Despite what the business and technology communities might have you believe, Ballmer is not a crazed lunatic nor has he sat idle at the controls driving Microsoft into the depths of irrelevance.

Under his tenure as CEO Microsoft has tripled its revenue from $19 billion to $60 billion.  Operating income has doubled from $10 billion to $22 billion.  Net-income has more than doubled from $7.7 billion to $17.6 billion.  All of this has occurred amidst a crippling persecution by the United Stated Department of Justice and European Union on antitrust charges.  During this same time, the company has endured the commoditization of large swaths of the software industry at the hands of the open source software movement.  The company went from being virtually unused at enterprise scale, lagging far behind Oracle and Sun Microsystems, to the dominant player.

All of that is fantastic.  But my favorite thing about Ballmer isn’t that he guided the company to achieve these fantastic results, but that he takes pride in it and wants you to be just as proud.  I feel a bit privileged every year as an employee at Microsoft to get to attend our company meeting where 30,000 of us pack into a stadium.  It’s impossible to describe just what a spectacle that is.   The best I can say is that it’s kind of like a giant high school pep rally, except with a bunch of wealthy nerds.

Without fail Ballmer comes out at the end of every meeting to loud music, cheering, applause and meets it with the sort of high fives and tenacity that you might expect from a basketball player not a CEO.

He’s so exasperated after running around the floor of the stadium that he has to stop any catch his breath for a moment.  After he caught his breath, I listened as he started in:

I have to say a couple things.  You know everybody likes to focus on the thing they consider the most important thing that they hear and I sit backstage the whole meeting just listening, listening.  What do people really love?  What do they applaud for?

And everybody’s got their own thing.  You mention their group they go nuts.  You show them their product, they go nuts.  You mention [the Entertainment Devices Division] went from profitable to unprofitable, and they go super nuts.

But the one thing that actually makes me go most nuts barely even got a ripple.

My friend over here Kevin Turner, he put up a slide that showed our growth in revenue and our growth in profit.  And I admit that the numbers are so big and so crazy that they’re so hard to understand.  There’s no reason people should go crazy about them.

Yes, I want to remind you how impressive your work is.  60 billion dollars in revenue.  22 billion dollars in pre-tax operating income.

There is no company on the whole planet, on the whole planet!  — that doesn’t sell oil — [laughs] –there’s a foot note–there’s no company on the whole planet now that makes 22 billion.  It’s Exxon and it’s the world’s oil companies and it’s us.

And the growth that we posted in profit, going on 4 billions dollars in one year.  You can say those are just numbers and you can’t relate to them, and maybe you never should.  But you should be able to take the pride in knowing your work is having big broad impact and it’s being valued by people around the globe–valued by people aorund the globe.

And to all of you, to the most amazing success in the history of world business, for that I want to say thank you, give yourselves a round of applause.

I sat listening to him, as a smile broke across my face.  I am proud to have this man as my boss.  And I feel like I am witnessing a part of history that only the 30,000 people around me will get to see.  A record level of success being achieved in business, and observed for what it is by the man without guilt or shame.

It makes you stop and think

I stumbled across the book Think! by Michael R. LeGault today at Barnes and Noble.  The book caught my eye because it’s cover was an obvious play on the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  I am about a fifth into the book and can’t help but nod my head furiously as I read it. 

LeGault aptly points out that there is no problem with intuition, in other words quickly summing up lots of information to make a decision.  He is careful to point out that you can only do that standing on the back of careful inspection and analysis.  It’s refreshing to hear someone who gets the integration of the two instead of trashing one and championing the other.

I am also pleased that he doesn’t talk in pure abstractions, but grounds the impact of both poor in good thinking with real consequences.  It’s so important to concretize the practicality in every day life of critical thinking.  This is really the companion book the The World Is Flat in the sense that in a world where globalization exists, we each have to figure out how to be smarter and add value.  It’s not enough to just keep doing what works, because it gets commoditized so quickly–which is a wonderful benefit to us as consumers.  All of this rings especially true to me in software development, where really understanding what you’re working with is imperative.  I can’t count the number of times where I’ve made a 10x better decision by just doing the simple analysis to look at how things work.  That settles so many design arguments that are stuck talking about floating abstractions and personal opinions.

Being an admirer of great architecture, I was interested to read LeGault’s apply his point to the rebuilding on the World Trade Center site:

A brilliant case study of egalitarian intelligence in action is the design plans for Ground Zero.  The plans have changed and shifted countless times as more people and organizations have delivered their input to the committee overseeing the plans.  The striking, twisting wedge-shaped tower originally approved for the Freedom Tower has now apparently been scrapped, a victim of security concerns.  Instead, a new design being favored for the tower is one built on a concrete pedestal, giving the building a fortresslike appearance.  The building’s design has been scorned by critics, who have called it a “nightmare.”  The fallacy in this decision is that, on the basis of one major terrorist attach in the city’s history, security should be made the main concern in the design of a new tower.  Yet, by far, the greatest risk, from a security or financial standpoint, is building a new tower in the first place.  Letting the security issue override all logic, however, the committee is seriously considering approving a building that will mark Lower Manhattan, in perpetuity, with a horrid monument to fear.

It is sad, but true.  Frank Lloyd Wright would be making the same point.  The purpose isn’t to be secure.  That is but a means to an end.  The end is a working space for humans–a temple human productive accomplishment!

The World is Flat

I am in the midst of reading Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat.  I should have read it months ago when it first came out.  It’s the rare book that I can go for long stretches reading, but this is one.  I was up until 5 AM last night and into this morning read it.

I have never felt so optimistic about where the world is going.  There is unprecedented development in East Asia where literally another 1.5 billion people are coming onto the free market playing field the west has been enjoying for decades.  Furthermore, they’re joining at a point where there are a whole new host of tools that Friedman so aptly details–not the least of which is the Internet, workflow and supply chain innovation, new devices and skyrocketing computing power and storage capability.  This isn’t just new technology; it’s a shift where people are no longer constrained by the nation/state they happen to be born in (or at least less and less so).  Individuals drive economic development with their own ideas and innovations.

That is really the great story behind this, and also one of the disappointments of Friedman’s book.  He makes all these great observations, and then almost completely ignores them in his next chapter “America and the Flat World” where he gives policy advice for the United States.  In one breath he’s saying you have all these new tools and opportunities and then in the next he’s saying George Bush needs to champion energy independence.  Well to some extent he already has, but regardless: don’t wait for him to do it!  Anyone who wants to make a difference and enjoy wealth has to make their own choice to get in the game, engage and add value.  Waiting for congress or the president to act is a waste of time.  If anything, their focus should be on getting out of the way.

Anyway, Friedman is redeeming himself in my mind now, because in the next chapter he talks about how simply advocating capitalism wholesale isn’t enough, as a country you have to create the stability and environment where people can succeed.  If it takes 6 months to start a business in your country and 2 weeks in China, guess who’s going to win.  If it takes 2 years to recoup losses from a breach of contract in your country and 3 months in America, guess who’s going to be more competitive.  This is so dead on, and why it’s more than just lip service to free markets that is needed.  Ironically, I took a break from reading to see an interview with Milton Friedman on Charlie Rose from last night, and he was saying the very same thing: that for all of America’s problems, this is still a great place to do business because of the stability of an investment here.

Frank Lloyd Wright autobiography

I just finished reading Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography.  This was an awesome book, and I kept having moments along there way where I would cheer one of his brilliant statements.  Some of my favorite quotes…

“But whom are you goign to build homes for?  If you go against their wishes and try to give them what you think right and not what they thing they want?”

“That’s just where a wise creator comes in, Cecil.  I won’t need but one man in ten thousand to work for–even one man in a hundred thousand would keep me more than busy all my life, because that man will need me as much as I need him and he will be looking for me.”

Nine pounds where three are sufficient is obesity.  But to eliminate expressive words in speaking or writing–words that intensify or vivify meaning is not simplicity.  Nor is similar eliminations in architecture simplicity.  It may be, or usually is, stupidity.

Only where culture is based upon the building of character by freedom-of-choice will we ever have a culture of true democracy.

First came the philosophy of the thing in the little story repeated to the trustees.  All artistic creation has its own.  The first condition of creation.  However, some would smile and say, ‘the restulf of it.’

Second there was the general purpose of the whole to consider in each part: a matter of reasoned arrangement.  This arrangement must be made iwth a sense of the yet-unborn-whoel in the mind, to be blocked out as appropriate to concrete masses case in wooden boxes.  Holding all this diversity together in a preconceived direction is really no light matter but is the condition of creation.  Imagination conceives here the PLAN suitable to the material and the purpose–seeing the probable–possible form.

Imagination reigns supreme, when now the form the whole will naturally take, must be seen.