Alter Egos

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2000

It was clear that Bill Gates had had enough.

The company he had founded and built into a colossus was taking a beating from federal antitrust lawyers. His competitors were emboldened, and the marketplace was chaotic. Chief among his frustrations was that he was spending little time on the technology work he loved most.

At one meeting, Gates's voice broke and his eyes teared up. Over the next several months, colleagues noticed that he was becoming increasingly overwrought, distracted, quicker tempered. He seemed to be losing weight and sleep.

So early this year, the world's richest man gave himself a present. He restored himself to full-time nerd status, stepping down as chief executive of Microsoft and assuming the title of chief software architect. He would remain as chairman of the company, but the rest he would leave to his best friend, the new CEO, Steve Ballmer.

On Jan. 13, the day the switch was to be announced, Gates called a few friends to tell them.

"Well, Steve certainly got the short end of that stick," longtime Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold told Gates.

"I know, he really did," Gates said, laughing. "Thank God he's willing to do this for me."

Steve Ballmer would do nearly anything for Bill Gates. Likewise Gates for Ballmer. Although the two men were assuming new roles, it was clear to anyone close to Microsoft that the company's intellectual and emotional core would still reside where it always has: in the complex and symbiotic relationship between Gates and Ballmer, the new economy's most powerful partnership.

To understand the bond between them is to understand why Microsoft has become the exemplar of new-economy dominance--and America's most famously embattled company.

By now, Gates has achieved the stature of an icon, both for computing generally and Microsoft specifically. But throughout his life he has always picked out an alter ego, someone who could nourish less-developed sides of himself while matching his brainpower and zeal. He and Ballmer have been friends since they were Harvard dormmates 26 years ago. Since Ballmer joined Microsoft in 1980, the two men have come to function almost as a single executive.

Like many high-tech pioneers, the two enjoyed comfortable suburban childhoods that whetted, rather than dulled, their drive to succeed. They embody the old-money and new-money prototypes of 20th-century affluence: Gates is the great-grandson of the man who founded Seattle's National City Bank in 1911; Ballmer's father, a Swiss immigrant who settled his family in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, was a Ford Motor Co. accountant who began trumpeting his expectation that his son would attend Harvard when the boy was 8.

Both endured early social problems that friends say marked them for life. Ballmer was so shy, he would hyperventilate before going to Hebrew school. "I was just so scared," he says. "So I wouldn't throw up, my mom would have to make me take short breaths." Today, his motivational speeches at Microsoft events are legend--but before he gets to the part where he runs through high-fiving, cheering crowds till he doubles over, sweating and panting, he has to psych himself into the idea that he's up to the performance.

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