For most of Microsoft’s history it was Bill
Gates who was at the helm.
It was under his guidance that Microsoft first
conquered the operating system market and
in fact he was so successful that the US government
almost broke Microsoft up.
But after 25 years of leadership, Bill eventually
stepped down and the man he chose to replace
him well, he had a much more different vision
Steve Ballmer was not a technology guy: even
though he was the 30th employee hired at Microsoft
and had been around for decades, he had worked
in departments like business management and
In Steve’s eyes it was these departments
that were responsible for Microsoft’s success
and so he did his best to reorganize leadership
around the business people instead of the
As he himself put it, he wanted to “break
up the technology fiefdoms,” which in his
view were spending ridiculous amounts of money
trying to develop new technology without any
idea whether it would be beneficial to the
dominance of Windows in the PC world.
Steve saw that Windows worked and he tried
to promote it as much as possible.
That’s why the biggest move in his career
was the attempt to spread Windows to the mobile
market, first through Windows Mobile and then
In many ways, Steve was continuing the philosophy
Bill Gates had adopted two decades earlier:
aggressive expansion and an outright war against
Unfortunately, Microsoft was far too late
in the smartphone game, so Steve’s dream
of making billions by selling phones never
If you look at a chart of Microsoft’s stock
price under his tenure you’re gonna see
just how bad things were: even though Microsoft’s
revenue increased during this period, the
loss of the smartphone market was just too
These years under Steve became a lost decade
for Microsoft and in 2014 when he announced
his resignation, the stock jumped 7% on the
news: that’s how badly investors wanted
him to go away.
The biggest question then became who would
be his successor and everyone naturally assumed
Microsoft would hire someone external to reshape
the company and to bring it back on the path
The answer, however, was exactly the opposite:
not only was the new CEO a longtime insider
at Microsoft, he was in fact the leader of
one of the division Steve Ballmer himself
Satya Nadella had been around in Microsoft
since 1998 and a decade later, when Steve
Ballmer announced the creation of Microsoft’s
enterprise division, Satya became its executive
Of course, at the time nobody considered Steve’s
idea to push Microsoft into the enterprise
business as viable.
This was before Amazon Web Services had become
profitable and before the cloud had really
taken off in the mainstream.
In reality, when Steve saw that Windows Phone
wasn’t working he wanted to pivot towards
else and enterprise was his idea.
Unfortunately, this pivot began only a few
years before he was forced to resign, but
internally, it was becoming clear that enterprise
was indeed the way to go.
The immense success of Amazon’s cloud business
convinced Microsoft’s board that they should
work in that direction as well, and who better
to execute that plan than the man in charge
of Microsoft’s own cloud efforts.
When Microsoft announced that Satya Nadella
was: when you look at the search volume from
Google Trends for his name you’ll see what
So out of nowhere, a rather unknown executive
becomes the CEO of Microsoft and unsurprisingly
there’s a lot of skepticism around the decision.
But then, something almost magical happens:
the stock starts climbing up after a decade
of stagnation and Microsoft’s cloud computing
platform, Azure, starts growing rapidly and
becomes incredibly profitable.
Within a few years praise for Satya Nadella’s
leadership is coming from across the world
as everyone believes they’re witnessing
But the truth is that when Satya took over
from Steve, Azure had been in development
for over six years and the enterprise division
had been profitable even during Steve’s
Ironically, even though during Steve’s leadership
the stock price didn’t move, Microsoft’s
net income more than tripled.
So Microsoft’s rebirth at the hands of Satya
isn’t an economic one: the fact of the matter
is that Microsoft was wildly profitable before
and continued being so after.
What Satya did achieve was a philosophical
rebirth, and while that might not sound nearly
as impressive, it’s actually just as important.
When Satya took over, Microsoft was suffering
from decades of bad reputation, which was
honestly very much deserved: from anti-competitive
practices to suppression of open-source development,
there were very few people saying nice things
about Microsoft in 2014.
And yet, the reorganization Satya enacted
after he took over had an incredible effect.
Microsoft essentially did a 180 degree turn
on its philosophy: it not only embraced open-source
development, but actively started supporting
it, so much so that one of Satya’s biggest
moves was to acquire Github.
It is extremely telling that in Satya’s
first ever speech as CEO of Microsoft, he
didn’t mention Windows even once.
In fact, during that speech Satya announced
that he’d be bringing Microsoft Office to
iOS and within a few months he did the same
It turns out that in such an interconnected
world making friends is better than making
Of course, none of what Satya gets credit
for today would’ve been possible without
the groundwork Steve Ballmer laid a decade
While everyone is quick to praise Satya for
economic achievements he might not have been
fully responsible for, we should recognize
his true contribution: taking decades of cutthroat
aggression and transforming it into an attitude
of productive collaboration.