Friday, May 20, 2005

Lessons from Ballmer

Last week, I attended Microsoft's VC Summit in Mountain View. The 4th annual summit offered venture investors the opportunity to meet with Steve Ballmer and varoius senior managers from across Microsoft's product teams. I really enjoyed the day, and the clear highlight for me is the opportunity to ask Ballmer questions on MSFT's strategy and future direction. He is simply a force of nature and a real inspiration - passionate, articulate, and determined as hell to win.

Microsoft is rolling out a variety of tools to support the information worker - video conferencing, improvements to Outlook, IM, new Office features, etc. As all of us can attest, a major challenge for the modern day information worker is the fact that we are always on and that our days are often interupt driven. IM's ping in, followed by email, phone calls, Blackberry messages - all conviences of connectivity and all challenges of sustained thought and focus.

The VC industry is full of crack-berry addicts, people who cannot go a meeting, seemingly a minute, without pulling out there device and reading the latest email. We are trained to be responsive to email and often a day can go by with tens if not hundreds of interuptions.

I asked Steve if MSFT is builiding a policy driven filter that will allow the knowledge worker to dial his availability up or down and filter inbound messages when he simply needs to get sh*t done. I jokingly referred to a recent study that compared IQs of frequent electronic communicators with those who smoke pot daily and found the electronic messengers lacking!

I found Steve's answer very telling. He does not carry a Blackberry, he does not carry a cell phone during the work day. He does not permit meetings where people use laptops or notepads to check and write email. His goal is focused interaction, drive to a solution, and then break up the meeting and move on. He recounted a story of where a major company CEO interupted him in mid-sentence as his Blackberry vibrated, only to tell him after checking that Scott Peterson had been convicted. The CEO then had to ask Steve where they were in the conversation.

The VC industry suffers from very short attention spans, and I pity the CEOs who need to compete with VCs checking random emails and text messages during their pitches. I, guilty as anyone at times, took a lot from Steve's views on self-discipline and respect to other meeting participants.

Rather than join the Luddite crowd rejecting the convenience of mobile email, I simply am trying to ensure that meetings are sacred (as is time with wife and kids!!!). Perhaps, I will recover some IQ points (I need them) and get more done as a result.

As an aside, Steve provided a list of things he is looking for in an M&A situation. I found the list instructive:
  • technical innovation with impact
  • protected IP (patent portfolio)
  • market understanding
  • engineering excellence
  • alignment with sales capacity (can you sell it?, do you know how to sell it?)
  • timing and tenaciousness
  • understanding of value chain and how to partner to win


  1. Will:

    Welcome to the blogosphere, saw Seth Levine's link.

    I think the bottom line on the whole mobile device thing is that it simply is not *productive* to check the CrackBerry every minute. If you lower your response time standard a little bit, even going from an average response of 10 minutes to 25 minutes, you can get a lot more done!

    Good luck, look forward to your posts.


    Ben Casnocha

  2. Welcome to the B-sphere, Will.

    I agree with you, I found Baller's answer quite telling, but first and foremost, what you should expect from a reponsible senior executive. Crack-berry addiction is out of control. You see so many VCs rushing to their pocket (or belt) every time the device buzzes, as though any email was more important than what they are doing.

    I remember kicking board members out of BOD meetings for reading their emails on their laptops, but it is now so widespread that you'd end up on your own very quickly. So you have to add "blackberry/bio breaks" to your meeting agenda.