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Originally published June 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 29, 2008 at 12:55 PM

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Steve Ballmer talks about his buddy Bill, his golf game and basketball

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer sat down for a conversation June 18 in a nondescript, windowless conference room just outside his office suite.

Seattle Times technology reporter

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Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer sat down for a conversation June 18 in a nondescript, windowless conference room just outside his office suite.

Later this summer, Ballmer will move into the office of longtime friend and colleague Bill Gates, also on the top floor of Building 34 on Microsoft's Redmond campus.

Ballmer talked about the transition, his three-decade-plus relationship with Gates, his golf game and his desire to have an NBA team in Seattle.

What follows are edited excerpts from the interview. (A longer version appears online.)

Q: What are you going to miss most about working with Bill?

Steve Ballmer: You know, Bill is a wild ride. He's a roller coaster. We tend to balance each other off nicely, but he's up and down, and there's a lot of excitement that goes with that.

Bill's got a lot of energy, which mostly you can feed off of. Sometimes he's got negative energy, and I've got to bring positive, or vice versa. We tend to figure out how to do that.

Bill has got broad and wise and smart insight, which we'll miss, we will not have. We'll have some in his part-time capacity and his role as chairman but we'll have less.

For me personally, you know, I know what I know about Bill. And when he says something, I can mostly know where he's going, complete his sentence. I may not have the insight, but when he starts, I say, 'Oh, yeah, got it,' and I have so much context.

I'll never work with anybody for 28 years other than Bill basically. So, as great a relationship as I have with the team, I'll miss that. There's a comfort level and it gives you sort of a certain kind of a confidence to have ... that kind of a partner.

Q: Obviously you must know Bill as a businessman and a person better than almost anyone, and I wonder if you could point to a couple of noticeable changes you've seen.

Ballmer: We all are more mature 33 years later. Bill is more mature 33 years later.

You know, one of the questions every kid asks in life is, 'Can I be intense and mature?' I'd say when you're 20-odd, those may look incongruent, because usually when you're intense [it] means you never take no for an answer, you never compromise. And intensity seems the opposite of maturity. Maturity seems to be about this, that and the other thing.

What I think Bill has learned, and ... what we've learned is you can be intense, you can care, you can be passionate.

You can never say die, so to speak, always take the next hill, always the next success, push, push, push, push, and at the same time understand, in kind of a mature way, that doesn't mean every battle is going to go exactly right, and you learn to sort of ride through that, not losing the final goal. But you learn that the ups and downs, the wandering path, you keep that big goal in front of you.

I think when you're 22 or 23, you can react kind of radically on every win, every loss, every vector, every turn, every this, every that, which is great, but you can lose the big goal for the little goals. I think there's a way to balance intensity and the maturity of keeping your eyes on the big goals, and I certainly have seen Bill mature and grow in that way.

Q: Bill has undeniable star power, which has been used to great effect to get the world or the industry's attention. So who can replace him in that respect?

Ballmer: Nobody ever could. Nobody else is the founder. Nobody else has the sort of technical breadth and depth based upon not only brain power, but history that Bill does. Nobody else is one of the world's most recognizable and famous people, in part for founding Microsoft, in part for being one of the world's wealthiest people.

So, you don't say ... 'Wanted: Founder of a $250-billion-market-cap company, who is also incredibly rich and deep and steeped in history.' You just don't replace that.

On the other hand, can the company proceed? And the answer is, of course we can proceed. I mean, at the end of the day our customers do business with us because of our products, because of our current people, because of how we can help them fulfill their needs, desires, whether those are big customers or consumers.

At the end of the day people are going to want to continue to do business with us based upon the quality and innovation of our output.

Q: So you've been here for 28 years. You've been CEO for eight. You have enough money to never work another moment. What keeps you here?

Ballmer: I love the people both who work here and our customers I get to work with. I love that when we do good work, it has such an incredible impact on the world. I love the chance to do that good work. And I love the challenges, and we've got plenty of those.

I don't think I could live a life where all I was doing was tuning my golf game. I don't like myself well enough. I play mostly by myself. It may be a challenge but it's not one I'm particularly good at, and I do like some positive gratification. And then it certainly makes no impact on the world, and I'm not willing to give up any of those three things right now.

Q: What's your handicap?

Ballmer: I just got a notification today. I'm up to a 14.3 index. ... I was down to 12-something, 11-something. I'm back up to 14-something, so I've got a little work to do.

Q: Do you have any explicit goals that you'd like to achieve or see the company achieve that you won't be satisfied until they're reached?

Ballmer: I want us to be strong in five things. I want us to be a great innovator. It's sort of an oxymoron, but I want us to have the greatest innovation approach and system in the world. I want us to have four great businesses: the desktop business, an enterprise business, a phone and TV — call that a devices — business, and an online consumer business. That's all I need. And a great successor. I don't think that's a year from now, but that's kind of what I want.

Q: As you think about that period beyond Microsoft, do you ever consider following Bill into philanthropy or could you imagine doing something like what Warren Buffett did and contribute to the Gates Foundation?

Ballmer: No, I don't think of either one actually. It doesn't mean we won't give away some money; I suspect we will. I'm too far away to think about that or anything else as kind of my full-time endeavor. My full-time endeavor is being here, and that's kind of where my head is at.

My wife is involved in various things, and I think that's fantastic. I don't have time. Who knows when I'm not here, because it's so far in the future.

My knee-jerk reaction is, No. 1, I don't think I'd do it full time, even though I think it's a wonderful thing. No. 2, I think Bill has got his hands full giving away all the money they have to give away, and there's probably also a lot of other good things in the world that need attention. It's good to have multi-focus. I know Bill is going to do a fantastic job on some of the world's most important problems, and I cheer him on with that.

Q: Do you have any interest, given what's unfolding in Seattle right now, in bringing an NBA team here or keeping an NBA team here?

Ballmer: A group of us tried to see if we couldn't at least help get an arena built here, because I think it would be nice to have a basketball team in Seattle. I like the sport. I think, you know, I want us to be a first-rate community, and I think it helps attract people and say this is a first-rate place to have all the big pro sports teams.

So I'd love to see Seattle have a team, and I think it's now well documented publicly, a group of us offered to put up some money to help fix up KeyArena and, if need, be buy a team.

Q: Do you remain interested in that?

Ballmer: Well, it's sort of one of these things where you get a chicken-and-the-egg situation. The current team is moving. Somebody needs to get a new team, and you've got to get a new arena. It's not clear whether you get the arena before the team or the team before the arena. We had a team and we couldn't get an arena.

It's not clear how you football the process, but I'm supportive of everybody's efforts along those lines.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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