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November 18, 2008

Microsoft "Political" History

It's possible, with a little hand-waving, to draw some parallels between the person running Microsoft and the person running the United States in the same period of time:

  • Microsoft started out run by Bill Gates, an optimist intent on changing the world by sheer good intention--this would be the "Carter" era (Gates and Carter both later wound up as world statesmen types, which is another interesting parallel, but not really relevant here).
  • In 1983 Microsoft brought in Jon Shirley, who ran the company (to the extent that anybody other than Bill really "ran" Microsoft back then) until 1990; this corresponds to the "Reagan" era.
  • Microsoft then brought in Michael Hallman as President, for a short-lived stint during which Microsoft was concerned about its equivalent of a recession--this is "Bush pere" time.
  • For the next eight years, Microsoft was run by various forms of committee of wonkish engineers--the "Clinton" years.
  • Finally, in 2000 came the ascension of Steve Ballmer, who steered the company through a somewhat rocky period--and we know what was going on in the U.S. then.

If you've read the blog, you probably know where this is going: towards a shaky analogy that Microsoft has alternated between Democratic and Republican leadership, and that, like the country, it has prospered in the Democratic era and done poorly in the Republican era.

Well, of course I am heading there, but first I will put some disclaimers out. First of all, Jon Shirley, according to the Huffington Post, is a staunch progressive Democrat, so his tenure doesn't match up with Reagan, a Republican. Then again Microsoft did quite well during the Shirley era, which means that while the analogy with the U.S. President is strained, the point about Democrat vs. Republican is arguably strengthened. Second, at some point Microsoft got big enough that it became tied to the U.S. Economy, so the fact that the company has done well or poorly is much more dependent on who was running the country than the company; if Obama can pull the country out of a tailspin, Microsoft's stock price should follow.

Still, it does get us to our current situation of Ballmer having been in charge for 8+ years. There is no doubt that Ballmer is a Republican; his donation record shows that (although he did give a bit to Obama), and any case it is known that after years under the tutelage of Bob Herbold, he is solid GOP. I don't mean this as a negative in and of itself; Ballmer is vastly smarter and more competent than George W. Bush, and he may at heart be a true "small government" conservative, which I think is an intellectually defensible position (needless to say, this is most emphatically NOT the kind of alleged conservatives that have been running the country recently). And Microsoft has a genuine commitment to advancement for women, doing the right thing for the environment, keeping its workers healthy, and the like which are definitely on the progressive side of the business agenda (they are all good business also, in my opinion; but I feel that way about progressive government policies also).

Nonetheless I think it is fair to say that Ballmer has run the company with a more Republican approach than it has been in the past. This manifests itself in two specific ways that I have noticed: his view that everybody starts out with the same shot at success, and a tendency to focus on obvious solutions to problems.

The first one doesn't concern me much. The U.S. government has a moral (and I would also claim an economic) need to level the playing field for everybody, by providing equal access to education, health care, and so on. Microsoft has no such moral obligation; people work here by choice, and although ideally we should give everybody the same chance to succeed, it's not a moral failing if we don't--we'll get hurt because people will underperform or quit, but in the end we can boil it down to a business decision. So while Microsoft's differentiated reward system, which Ballmer has championed, IS based on a notion that everybody has an equal shot once they get here (and therefore the ones who succeed do so because they deserve it, not because of advantage or luck), and I don't think that is quite true, this doesn't strike me as fundamentally "wrong"--certainly not as much as the federal government's equivalent regressive policies do.

The second aspect of Microsoft "Republicanism" is the one that worries me more. This is the tendency to focus on obvious solutions. You see this a lot in Republican government thinking: the way to prevent crime is to mandate harsh mandatory sentences, the way to avoid teen pregnancy is to teach abstinence, the way to solve the drug problem is to work on eradicating drug production and jailing drug users, the way to help the economy is to cut taxes, the way to achieve energy independence is to drill for domestic oil, the way to avoid traffic jams is to build more highway lanes, etc, etc, etc. These may all be wrong, but they are easier to explain to voters than the more subtle answers that actually work.

Similarly, I think Microsoft has a tendency (and let me emphasize that this is a TENDENCY, not a dramatic shift) in recent years to go for the obvious solution to problems. Unlike the U.S., which there is only one of, the marketplaces in which Microsoft competes have other companies, so the most "obvious" obvious answer is to mimic a successful competitor, and this seems to be Microsoft's recent approach in some areas: to look at what Google, Apple, Sony, RIM, Facebook, and so on are doing and try to do the same thing ourselves. This does not mean that we don't ever do innovative things (such as the ribbon in Office 12) or that Microsoft was never a "follower" in the old days (it certainly was, at least until we passed the company we were following, but that often happened quickly because we innovated within the space we were competing in).

As I said above, Microsoft is a long way from the nadir of the recently-completed Bush era, and I am not trying to suggest that Ballmer needs to be swept out of office. There are plenty of smart, progressive thinkers at Microsoft, and in any case the company is so diverse that it is impossible to say that we behave in any one way. And if you are, say, a college student wondering whether to come work here, I'll point out that I'm voting with my feet, by sticking around for the foreseeable future. It's still a great place to work, just as the U.S. is still a great place to live. Nonetheless, as I await the out-of-the-box thinking that I expect to accompany the Obama presidency, I hope that a little bit of that rubs off on Microsoft.

Posted by AdamBa at November 18, 2008 09:40 PM


It's been a long time since I've been around Steve, and don't claim to have any insight into his politics, but I note that his donation record is a mixed bag of Rep & Dem (though it seems to lean Rep).

Could it be possible that as CEO of Microsoft, he's basically bribing politicians in general ( and the in-power party in particular) for better consideration for his company. The Bush administration has been helpful to MSFT re anti-trust etc.....

Posted by: KnowOne at November 19, 2008 06:49 AM

Yes, the anti-trust point is one I forgot to mention and would predispose a Microsoft executive, circa 2000, to be in favor of Republicans. But I suspect Steve is a lifelong Republican. Also, as a prominent CEO I expect him to cover his bases (and support democracy in general) by giving something to both parties.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at November 19, 2008 12:08 PM

Hit me up Adam. I've got a unique perspective on the mortgage industry.

Posted by: charles king at November 29, 2008 09:45 AM