Filters, slices and context color everything. Or how I got to "omg. wtf. I guess Steve Ballmer is pretty cool"

I ended up listening to two long interviews of Steve Ballmer over the last couple of weeks. The first was on Bill Simmons' podcast where the conversation was primarily around basketball and the second was on the Freakonomics podcast where they talked about a bunch of things - his USAFacts site, philanthropy, tech etc.

From each of these, I came away thinking - "Wow. This is a pretty smart, passionate and likable dude". Why is this surprising?

Well my quick impression of him before listening to both of these "Man, how was this guy CEO of Microsoft for so long" and well, a lot worse to be honest.

And then I thought about why I thought this.

  • I hadn't really heard him speak (in-person or watched a video) for any length of time
  • objectively, even with all the missteps in his later years at the helm it's hard not to evaluate him as a pretty successful executive and CEO
A few years ago, I was talking to two people who'd worked at Microsoft and seen him in action at close quarters. I started to compare him to another exec with a business background and their immediate reaction was "OMG. Steve was actually really great." 

So why did I think he was a bit of a buffoon? 
  • Slices: Well, the first is slices. I rarely ever saw a large sample of him speaking or how he dealt with things. I just saw slices (clips, quotes, videos) - like his infamous "Developers, developers, developers" moment, or some of the things he happened to say like laughing off the iPhone. It's easy to jump to conclusions if that's all you see.
  • Filters: I re-watched the entire "Developers, developers, developers" thing as well as the video above. You know what - they're actually not that bad.
    If I'd watched them in isolation without pre-existing commentary i.e. an article that said "look at the ridiculous CEO" or a share that said "look how wrong he was", I'd actually have come away with a much more favorable impression. 
  • Context: And finally context. I was in school studying computer science when Windows vs. Linux, and what those operating systems embodied seemed like the most important platform war in computing and everyone in school was on the Linux side.
    It was hard not to assume the worse (and man there actually was enough of it) on the other side.
Take all that away, and my reaction was "Huh, makes sense he was in the position he was". His backstory and what he's doing now (USAFacts and the most enthusiastic NBA owner in history) even makes me root for him - just him, not the Clippers. That would just be insane. 

So what do I take away? 

Watch out for the limited slices we see on things, the filters we see them through and the context we might already have - which may actually lead us to incorrect conclusions.


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