It was a balmy night in las vegas and hundreds of techies were packed into opening night of the 2003 Comdex IT trade show. As the lights dimmed and the event kicked off, a well-produced video spoofing the sci-fi classic The Matrix welcomeed attendees. Bill Gates starred as aging sage Morpheus, doling out wisdom. Filling Keanu Reeves’ savior-like shoes was Steve Ballmer, three years into his term as Microsoft CEO.
The video elicited chuckles but its underlying message was sound. In Matrix terms, Ballmer had become “The One” in the computer industry. Google’s rise and Apple’s resurgence were a way off, and Microsoft’s grip on the global computer market was firm and indisputable.
Ballmer’s path to the top was a long one. He joined Microsoft in 1980, lured to drop out of Stanford’s postgraduate business school by Gates, his former dorm mate at Harvard. During the next 20 years, Ballmer steered several important departments at Microsoft, including the industry-dominating sales and OS development departments, before becoming president in 1998.
No person other than Gates has played a larger role in Microsoft’s growth and, in turn, the Puget Sound tech industry’s growth. In the years leading up to his retirement this past February, the press sometimes hammered Ballmer’s Microsoft for being slow to react to new trends. Nonetheless, under his reign, the company saw profits nearly triple to $22 billion while revenues quadrupled.
Ballmer’s enthusiastic rhetoric and near-religious commitment to Microsoft have earned him a reputation as king among salesmen. But his contributions to the area, philanthropic and otherwise, cannot be overlooked. In a location once known economically for only airplanes and fish, Ballmer helped establish the Puget Sound region as a world-class, high-tech ecosystem. His impact will endure for decades.