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Tech execs raise heck

Microsoft president Steve Ballmer's achievements aren't going unnoticed, particularly after he shot a few holes in the stock market bubble. The only ones unhappier with Ballmer than Microsoft shareholders were Microsoft employees with options. Grumbling abounded on the sprawling, drizzly campus last week as Ballmer sent markets--and Microsoft--plummeting.

Like any head of an organization, I am occasionally called before my board of directors. In the context of the Rumor Mill, this involves facing down the stern judgments of my twelve-year-old son Vermel, his compatriots Ammonia Blossom and Jai Pegue, and my assistant Trixie Pixel. At these meetings a mirror is held up to my absenteeism, alcoholism, and general journalistic irresponsibility. How refreshing that one's accomplishments do not go unappreciated!

Microsoft president Steve Ballmer's achievements also aren't going unnoticed, as I learned in Redmond last week, particularly after he shot a few holes in the stock market bubble. The only ones unhappier with Ballmer than Microsoft shareholders were Microsoft employees with options. Grumbling abounded on the sprawling, drizzly campus last week as Ballmer sent markets--and Microsoft--plummeting with his contention that everything in this crazy industry is crazily overvalued on Wall Street. (For economy's sake, I paraphrase.)

Ballmer's remarks, which he reiterated at an MSN shindig I attended later in the day, aren't supposed to be shocking. Ballmer's just your average no-nonsense (if eccentric) billionaire executive speaking his mind, willing to lose a billion dollars in an afternoon in the service of the truth.

Insiders view it a little more cynically--if cynicism can be imagined in Redmond. Their view follows the theory that Ballmer, inheriting a job from his predecessor Bill Gates, will routinely trot out deflationary comments because the high price on Microsoft stock, inflated or not, is a recruiting headache for the company. What engineer in her right mind is going to go sign up with Microsoft for options priced at $100 a share when she could get them for practically nothing at a pre-IPO startup?

So, is Microsoft done making millionaires? Of course, people were wondering about this three and four stock-splits ago, and Microsoft points out that its recruitment success rates have actually been edging upward over the past four years. But the psychological barrier and the real risk for employees winding up with underwater options remains. Hence Microsoft's latest round of salary increases earlier this year, and its spin off of Expedia as a separate, publicly traded company.

Ballmer was in fine form at the MSN event. In the press gallery, the sentimental favorite moment had him pounding his podium, driving home Microsoft's commitment to MSN despite a dismal history of trying to revive it. "We're going to keep coming and coming and coming and coming and coming..." Come again, Steve?

Ballmer came to speak about Windows technology at San Francisco's Sheraton Palace last week when he was cut off mid-sentence by what sounded like a voice from above. Actually, it was a speaker at a jewelry sales luncheon next door, coming though loud and clear on the house public address system, thanking the "eastern region for a great job." Ballmer stormed around the stage and raised his voice even higher, attempting to drown-out the intruder, shouting, "Can we shut him off?" No less than a dozen minions scrambled to find the silence switch. Ballmer finally threw in the towel and took an unscheduled 30 minute break before a hotel official solved the problem.

Misery loves company, and Ballmer could only have been comforted when Brad Chase, on the verge of announcing the Expedia spin-off, was interrupted by a fire drill that sent everyone out into the summer rain for a half hour. Audience members accustomed to Windows handled the interruption with aplomb. The timing was so exact (the word "Expedia" was half formed on Chase's lips) that the same question occurred to everyone present: was this a bug, or a feature?

Microsoft isn't the only company with eccentric executives, however. Oracle's Larry Ellison is said to have his own set of idiosyncrasies. At a networking soirée for women last week, Ammonia Blossom overheard a story from an ex-Oracle employee who regularly dealt with the acrobatic pilot cum database billionaire. Ellison, this ex-staffer reported, requested to see every resume that went through the department for a development VP position or higher, but would deposit resumes containing the words University of Chicago into the proverbial circular file. Why? Because the school denied him a diploma on some technicality.

Oracle declined to comment on the fate of the U of C grads' resumes, or Ellison's role in it.

Another CEO keeping mum about his idiosyncrasies is Apple CEO and Gap director Steve Jobs. A friend of Trixie's recently hired at the hip ("everyone in burlap") clothier said Jobs showed up for his first board meeting--wearing Levi's!

I'm supposed to be wearing the pants around here but sometimes I accidentally put my shoes on first and then the day is pretty much a wash. Help me get my priorities straight with your rumors.