Since naming Satya Nadella as CEO, Bill Gates spends a third of his time working at Microsoft, he told Vanity Fair’s Bethany McLean.
That’s a surprisingly big chunk of time, and more than most people realize. When Nadella became CEO, Gates gave up the Microsoft chairman job and took on the vague title of “Founder and Technology Advisor.” That made it sound like he was practically dusting his hands of Microsoft.
During the CEO search, Gates had repeatedly told people that he would not, under any circumstances, come back as CEO.
And for a decade he’s been selling off his Microsoft shares. He once had a 45 percent stake of Microsoft, or 1 billion shares. He’s down to just under 300 million shares, less than a 4 percent stake and is no longer the company’s biggest shareholder. Former CEO Steve Ballmer (with 333 million shares) is. If Gates continues selling his Microsoft stock at this rate, he’ll be out of Microsoft entirely by the end of the decade.
But, with a new CEO of his own choosing, his attention to the company has returned in force. When Microsoft announced Gates’ new role, it said that Gates would “devote more time to the company, supporting Nadella in shaping technology and product direction.”
That turned out to be very true. But it also might turn out to be a big mistake. The same one Gates made with Ballmer. Gates gave up the CEO title in 2000, (in the midst of the company’s anti-trust litigation with the Justice Department), but he actually didn’t leave his full-time job at Microsoft for another eight years. He became “Chief Software Architect” until 2008.
During those eight years, Gates pretty famously, and regularly, undermined Ballmer. Ballmer told Vanity Fair, “I didn’t feel completely in charge until Bill left [entirely in 2008]. … He didn’t know how to let me be CEO, and I didn’t know how to do it.” Ballmer and Gates had epic fights during that time, especially the first year. When engineers grew frustrated with Ballmer, they would go to Gates, McLean reports. Employees say it was like living with a mom and a dad and not knowing who was in charge.
Gates told McLean he won’t make the same mistake with Nadella. If the two of them disagree, “Satya runs the company, so he gets to decide,” Gates says, admitting that as a part-time Microsoftie, he may “not have the full picture. So I get to give input. And if I say to Satya, ‘Hey, this project needs 10 or 15 people, ‘I’ll bet I’ll get it, but it’s up to him.”
For his part, Nadella, who is more tactful than the hard-charging Ballmer, notes that he’s been at Microsoft for 23 years, including those “mom-and-dad” years. “The thing you’ve got to remember is I grew up in a Microsoft where Bill and Steve were there,” Nadella told McLean. “If there’s anything that I know it’s how to get stuff done with Bill around.”
But given Gates’ clout in the world, the tech industry, and, especially, at Microsoft, you have to wonder: As Nadella’s term proceeds and he wants (or needs) to defy Gates, will that really be possible?