In speech to Stanford grad students, Microsoft CEO says he might have ended up in auto insurance if he hadn't joined buddy Bill Gates.
That insight was part of a wide-ranging chat Ballmer had with a packed hall of students at Stanford's Graduate School of Business on Thursday. During the discussion, the chief executive also announced his plans beyond Microsoft, saying he planned to retire in about 12 years, after his three sons have all graduated high school.
"I'll be 61," he said. "That seems appropriate."
The news won't come as a shock to those inside the company, as Ballmer has been talking about that plan for some time.
Ballmer also noted several times that the company is launching its sequel to the Xbox later in the day in an MTV special, but offered no new details on the game console, joking he'd be "fired for insubordination." He did please a few in the crowd, who found vouchers under their seats good for a free Xbox 2. (Ballmer also wouldn't confirm the new name of the console, widely speculated to be Xbox 360.)
During his formal chat, Ballmer talked about the need for good companies to keep innovating, noting that it is especially necessary in Microsoft's case, where the products can be used indefinitely.
He made veiled references to Microsoft's Silicon Valley rivals, particularly Google, noting that some hot companies fizzle out and become a "one-hit wonder." He did say that organizing information better is one of the critical needs that software can address in the coming years.
There are already some good search engines, he said. "I'm particularly fond of the one we make--MSN Search," he said. "But everyone has their favorites," he added, eliciting laughter from the crowd assembled near Google's birthplace.
Ballmer was also asked about the company's recent decision to again back a gay rights bill after switching to a "neutral" position this year.
"I decided that anti-discrimination in the workplace was mission-critical," Ballmer said. "We do not discriminate, but our employees have partners and significant others. We need to make sure they can find work."
"Our employees...of all races and all sexual orientation," he said, "need access to housing financial services, banking services so I decided to take a position, and we'll be firm on it."
Ballmer attended Stanford's business school for a year, starting in 1979, but dropped out to join Microsoft. The fact he never completed the second year of the program was the subject of frequent jokes by students, Stanford officials and Ballmer himself.
Before the speech, Ballmer was given a certificate by the school's dean commemorating his partial completion of the program, noting that he still managed to create a company worth $270 billion in market value. But Ballmer was quick to note that by that measure, he was twice as successful the last time he spoke, given that Microsoft's stock has fallen roughly 50 percent from its peak.
Ballmer said that he stays at Microsoft because he loves what he does, but added that he might have been happy if life had taken him in another direction.
Progressive Auto Insurance, he said, recruited him heavily both as an undergraduate and a Stanford student. Had he not joined Microsoft, he said he probably would have entered that field.
"Maybe I'd have been super happy," he said.