Q&A: Bill, on Switching Jobs with Steve

Microsoft Corp. Chairman William H. Gates III seems like a man who got a second chance at happiness. His mood is as bright as the view out of his new, fifth-story office on the company's Redmond, Wash., campus. Interviewed by BusinessWeek Senior Editor Kathy Rebello and Seattle Bureau Chief Jay Greene, Gates talks about how pleased he is to have passed the CEO job over to Steven A. Ballmer, and how he's now spending his time on what he likes--software.

Q: Are there changes Steve Ballmer has made that you would not have made had you remained CEO?

A: Yes, absolutely. The thing about how you draw a larger group of people in [to decision-making], for one. I don't know if I would have pushed that as hard as he did. It's a challenge to do. When he first did it, my attitude, a little bit, was, "I don't know if this is going to work." And now that he's got it working smoothly, I can say that I wish I had some of the same systems in place. If I had, I would have benefited.

Q: Can you give a report card on Ballmer's tenure?

A: I think Steve would say in his first year he was learning how to be CEO, and he was trying some things that were in some ways more ambitious or different than what had been done before. And those took time. In terms of being willing to try new things and getting these systems going, I'd give him very high marks.

The goal of letting me focus more on the products--he certainly gets an A on that. He's very protective of my time. There are lots of things that just systematically don't get on my calendar, or that systematically other people take care of. And he is very careful about which business-review-type meetings he feels I need to be in and which ones I don't.

Q: Microsoft is so identified with you. Do you feel that the changes that Steve is bringing in make it less your company?

A: Well, you know, it's not my company. When people think about a company, it's easy not to see the 50,000 people and who they are and how smart they are and how the breakthroughs are really coming from them. It's easy to think about just the few, the one or two people at the top. Hopefully, people are seeing, if you move down the ranks, what the broad set of Microsoft (MSFT ) people are doing. It's not just one person. And it's not just two people, either.

Q: How hard was the transition for you?

A: Steve and I are just incredibly close friends. We've worked together for 20 years. Steve's an amazing person whose skill set overlaps mine in areas, but he's just incredibly good at a lot of things I'm not good at, and vice versa. But in the first six months, there were definitely things that neither of us were doing that one of us should have been doing, or things that both of us were doing that one of us should have been doing. So the first six months were definitely harder than we expected. And even the second six months were just so-so.

It's really as we got into the second year that we got into the new rhythm. And now we're just completely in the new configuration. I have a strong voice, a strong recommendation, but Steve has to decide. Steve's got that very clear, and I understand exactly how I fit into the way he wants to run the processes and do things.

Q: Did it create tension between you two? I've heard the two of you raised your voices in meetings.

A: But that's not new. The fact that Steve and I would disagree in a meeting is not new. The only thing that was new is during the first six months we were saying to ourselves, "Wow, this is harder than we expected. Am I the one? What can I do to make these things better? What does Steve think I should do to make this thing smoother?" There was a set of issues about moving into the new roles and making it work.

Actually, we were very careful to try to minimize the disagreements during those six months. I guarantee you that nobody flipping that configuration will find it as easy as Steve and I did, because of the mutual trust and how long we've worked with each other and the friendship we have with each other. And even so, it was hard. So I would say it's a cautionary note to anybody who wants to try something like that.

Q: What's your role as chief software architect?

A: In a sense, I was CSA when I was CEO. I would do product reviews. People would come in and say, "Here's what we plan to do." And I would say, "Jeez, I want this feature, I want that feature." But it was kind of a one-time review thing. There was not enough time to do early brainstorming sessions. A few weeks ago, I did a brainstorming session with the tablet guys. I never would have done that in the last eight years. This is a meeting where my role is to talk about what are the neat new things that they really ought to investigate.

For this next big wave, the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, we have written down the scenarios that count. I have 10 scenario teams. Digital-rights management is one. The new user interface is one. We have this thing called "information agent," which is about getting you the information you want, when you want it, and never interrupting or bugging you with information that you don't want. But you really can't measure my impact in a dramatic way until Longhorn ships, which is years off.

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