Former Microsoft CEO delivers the commencement speech at the University of Washington on June 15, 2014.
Second acts in business can be hard to pull off, especially when you've been as successful as former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
But just months after stepping down from his post, Ballmer, serving as the commencement speaker for the 2014 graduating class at the University of Washington on Saturday, has given us a hint at what his next act might be: motivational speaker.
Before his speech, Ballmer, who graduated from Harvard University as an undergrad, but dropped out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, was given an honorary Doctorate of Science degree.
After thanking the university, Ballmer ditched the ceremonial graduation cap and launched into a rousing 15-minute speech that seemed to wake up the previously sedate audience of graduates and professors.
"It's been a little low-key in here today for my taste," said Ballmer, stalking the stage in the way familiar to many Microsoft keynote viewers over the years.
Then, in a moment that harkened back to Ballmer's famous "Developers, developers, developers!" speech (see below), the new would-be owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers laid out his vision for success, yelling, "Opportunity, Opportunity, Opportunity! It awaits you!"
And while his onstage antics drew smiles and laughter from the audience, Ballmer took on a more serious tone when listing his three keys to success: Carpe diem (seize the day), have a point of view, and be hardcore.
"I don't know what got me to drop out of business school and come to Microsoft," said Ballmer. "My parents thought I was a whack job. Neither one of them graduated college and they thought [Microsoft] was a wild idea. I was lucky, I seized the day."
Have a Point of view
To highlight this point, Ballmer referenced the co-founder of Twitter and founder of Square, Jack Dorsey. "I barely know the guy, but I am in awe of his story," said Ballmer, after which he described some of the well-publicized early efforts that eventually led to Dorsey's best known technology products. "Point of view creates opportunity," said Ballmer.
"When Microsoft first decided it wanted to sell software into businesses, people told us we couldn't," said Ballmer, recounting the early days of the company and the resistance it met from the established players in the 1980s. But then Ballmer, likely aware that not everyone in the audience might be familiar with the epic history of Microsoft, broadened the scope of what it means to "be hardcore."
"Outside the business realm, think of Nelson Mandela," said Ballmer. "Just think about that case. The constant, non-stop, long-term fight against apartheid that finally paid off...
Opportunity is about seizing what's there. It is about having a point of view. But it's also about patience and determinationOpportunity is about seizing what's there. It is about having a point of view. But it's also about patience and determination. Things will not necessarily come to you — 'poof!' — immediately and overnight. You're going to have to be determined and long-term."
If you take the time to watch the video, be sure to watch the faces of the university staff at this point, many of them appear just as inspired and engaged as any of the new graduates.
Wrapping up, Ballmer turned to two earlier speakers seated on stage to make a final point. "The two of you guys said you are respectively 22 and 30 and don't what you're doing [after graduation]?" said Ballmer. "I am 58-years-old and I, too, don't know what I'm doing again!"
That self-effacing admission drew the loudest cheers of approval from the audience, a moment that proved Ballmer knows how to relate to any audience, even if it isn't filled with Microsofties.
"I'm looking for what's next," said Ballmer. "How would I serve going forward. Government, other service — not as a politician, that's certainly not me, you can tell that. But the search for opportunity doesn't stop."
Ballmer wasn't the only major figure on the commencement speech trail this weekend. On Sunday, Ballmer's former colleague, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, gave a 25-minute commencement speech, along with his wife Melinda, to the graduating class at Stanford University. During his speech, Gates also used South Africa as a touchstone for life lessons imparted to the graduates.
On Saturday, at the University of California at Irvine, President Obama delivered a commencement speech that focused on the issue of climate change.
Of course, the art of the commencement speech, commonly delivered by highly accomplished individuals, is a time-honored practice. But Ballmer's first major post-Microsoft public speech was particularly powerful.
All those years of selling Microsoft software to an occasionally skeptical public have clearly honed his oratory skills and ability to inspire, regardless of the topic. Based on Saturday's performance, which had little to do with technology, if Ballmer is really looking for "what's next," he'd do well to consider the role of motivational speaker.