Ballmer: Nokia buy was hardest decision at Microsoft

4 Mar 2014
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Steve Ballmer answered questions at a talk at University of Oxford weeks after stepping away from his role as CEO of Microsoft

Steve Ballmer said buying Nokia was one of the hardest decisions he made at Microsoft.

Weeks after stepping down as CEO of Microsoft, Ballmer gave a lengthy interview at the University of Oxford to Dean Peter Tufano, taking questions from the audience of business students.

Asked about the hardest parts of his job, he said the acquisition of Nokia was one the toughest decisions to make - other than recruitment decisions, such as hiring or firing staff.

Ballmer said he had to talk to the board "a lot" about the acquisition because it was a major change to the company's business.

"It's important because the name of the company is Microsoft," he said, stressing the latter part of the name. "It was a fundamental part of the founding principles: we were a software company. And yet: Xbox, Surface and now the phone, and we have a profile that will end up being mixed in the future. That's a pretty fundamental change."

I would say it's fair to say that in the last ten years there are things that did not go as we intended them to

Ballmer also defended Microsoft's record on innovation - though he admitted Microsoft did make mistakes.

"I would say it's fair to say that in the last ten years there are things that did not go as we intended them to," Ballmer said. "We would have a stronger position in the phone market if we could redo the past ten years."

He added: "The thing I regret is we didn't put the hardware and software together soon enough... if you really want to bring a vision to market it is helpful to be able to conceive and deliver the hardware and software."

However, Ballmer said Microsoft is "like a child" to him - and that includes taking responsibilities for its mistakes. "If there's something I don't like about Microsoft, I should have changed it. I could have changed it... we've made mistakes, but fix the mistakes."

Indeed, the trick to making up for a missed opportunity is getting ready for the next one, he said. "What do you do when you get behind: give up and go home, or try to seize on things going forward? We say go forward: we came out with Surface, we came out with our phones, we have our proposed acquisition with Nokia."

"We're there working hard to make sure that the next wave, we're there," he added.

Other insights

Ballmer offered other insights about his lengthy tenure at Microsoft, noting he and Bill Gates initially laughed at the prospect that 100 million PCs would ever be sold, luckily getting the size of the potential market wrong. "We weren't planning for it to be that big," he said.

Asked if Microsoft could have happened in the UK, he said "possibly" - it has the right language for business and easy enough immigration, but lacks the large domestic market of the US.

He also claimed to have started out in life quite shy, contrary to his now infamously boisterous persona. "I was painfully shy as a kid... even when I got to college where I met Peter [Tufano], I was pretty darn shy," he said, claiming he got over it by helping to manage his school's football team. "You had to get up in front of the team all the time and tell them what to do... I had to get myself pumped up and charged up."

Member of the board

Ballmer hasn't entirely left Microsoft: he's still a member of the board, and a "very interested" one at that, he said, pointing out that he still owns 4% of the company. "I care a lot about my child and my investment," he said, adding he's "available to help if the company needs me in any way".

However, he added the company is fully in his successor Satya Nadella's hands: "What is the greatest joy I could see as the founder of a company? To see it flourish with me gone."

The end of the interview suggested Ballmer still stood in Gates' shadow - for his interviewer, at least. Ballmer and Tufano discussed first meeting each other during college, but the latter still nervously - and repeatedly - referred to him as "Bill". Ballmer's response: "A lot of people think we look alike."

You can watch the hour-long interview here:

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