Dear Tim Cook – Learn from Steve Ballmer


Dear Mr. Cook

I am sure you are settling into your new role as Apple CEO, wondering how do you succeed a legend? I can only imagine it is a daunting task. Speaking from experience though I can say I have witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly of what can happen.  I was at Microsoft when Bill Gates decided to step down as CEO of Microsoft and handed over the reigns to his self-appointed successor, Steve Ballmer.  At the time things seemed to go so swimmingly as it was never in question who would be the successor to Steve Ballmer.  Things have worked out far differently than those of us who were around would have predicted.

I have been a witness to greatness as I had the opportunity to listen to BillG speak many times.  His ideas and vision for Microsoft and the industry always so crystal clear. As if they had been freely floating around in his mind since the day he was born. As change took place in the industry, Bill always seemed  to understand it, to grasp it and to be ahead of it.  This is not much different then Bill’s chief competitor for the top spot in tech history, your former boss Steve Jobs.  Steve seemed to understand the impact technology could have on day-to-day life and what it emotionally meant to people, and most importantly how to get there.  But these chapters are now closing and it’s time for your chapter, but let’s hope it is better than Steve’s.

When SteveB took over from Bill he was the golden boy.  He was much revered and loved in the field sales force.  Many of us considered him one of us.  Unlike you he even had the benefit that Bill would hang around for a while as Chief Software Architect.  And for a while things seemed to look like they would work out ok, or so we thought.  He was being given the opportunity to lead the future, not just of the industry but of a company that had made changes in the world, in the way we live..  But cracks in the armor were starting to show.  And that is my first bit of advice to you which is old advice, big things start small.  Both the positive and the negative.  We started to see some of the tech guru’s leave the company, most notably Paul Maritz.  Even though I revere BillG he had a circle of people around him that was his think tank. People he could turn to and have those deep discussions on the state of the industry and where it was headed.  Today I don’t know who Steve listens to these days for advice and guidance, but he has become an increasingly isolated figure.

Point two, remember the core of who you are and what makes you great.  It’s easy to look at others success and think it may be a good idea to emulate, but don’t do it at the cost of what got you to where you are.  As Microsoft grew managing growth became a paramount obsession for Steve,  He really fell under the guise of Jack Welch and the GE model, trying to apply those ideas to Microsoft.  The problem was that though it worked for GE that does not necessarily mean it was a good fit for Microsoft.  Over time the passion that was so core to Microsoft seems to have dissipated and been replaced by big corporate politics from the top to the bottom.  It has created an environment where people are more interested or fearful in doing the politically wrong things versus doing what’s right for the company.

Point three is drive the industry and don’t let it drive you.  This to me was a direct result of point two.  When I first started at Microsoft, the idea of standards and specifications were something that Microsoft was directly involved in and trying to drive a major influence in bending them to what Microsoft saw as the right direction for the industry.  It was important that Microsoft be viewed in the lead on technology.  As new start-ups and technologies have come forward Microsoft has chased these new opportunities, thinking they could catch up like they did in the past and taking their eyes off the core standards.  A case in point was HTML5.  While Microsoft was pursuing Adobe with their Silverlight Player and Smooth Streaming, Apple rightly saw that the right thing to do was support the new standards being developed for playing media files, HTML5.  Thus causing Microsoft to do yet another about-face.  This type of mistake can be blamed on product groups, but ultimately these type of visions start at the top.  Which is why your mentor was on record as saying the future is HTML5, Microsoft has seemed to stutter and fail with each new change in the industry and ultimately be viewed as a laggard.

Microsoft back in the day was always fearful of falling prey to a company that was smaller and hungrier than they were, Steve was certainly involved in a lot of those discussions.  It was an obsession of  the executive teams. However today that does seem to be exactly what is happening to them.  It has everything to do with that they forgot all about those fears and took their eye off the globe shaped ball predicting the future.  Nothing has changed in the industry.  This remains an industry where small start-ups innovate and create the next generation shifts in the technology industry.  You and I have both seen companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Flickr, Pandora, Linkedin, Dropbox etc. emerge within the last 10 years.  Some of these will grow very large and some already have, some will fail.  The only guarantee is that there are more to come, so pay close attention to who they are and where that are taking the market place.  And most importantly capitalize on it.

In conclusion Mr. Cook you have been granted an exciting challenge and opportunity at what today is the most admired company in tech.  The pipeline is solid for product delivery over the next five years.  Be true to who you are, but more importantly be true to who Apple is.  I don’t want to see you become a Steve Ballmer,  it has been painful to watch.  At the same time as I have outlined there is a lot you can learn.  The one guarantee I can make to you is history always repeats itself, but you do not need to be the one to repeat it.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann  September 7, 2011

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