If Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates had not asked Steve Ballmer to join his start-up software company as employee number 24 in 1980, the now infamous Ballmer would probably have made a career out of selling car insurance.
Known for his sometimes wild exuberance, rallying the Microsoft troops at the company's annual meetings and firing up developers at a conference, the "embalmer" is also a math whiz and affable business manager with a clear focus on Microsoft's customers and the company's bottom line.
Ballmer was raised in the suburbs of Detroit where his father, a Swiss immigrant with a knack for languages, worked as a manager for Ford Motor. His mother was a native of the motor city. One of his crosstown friends was Scott McNealy, now chief executive of Microsoft rival Sun Microsystems.
At age 8, Ballmer was told by his father that he was headed for Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. He did well in school academically, earning valedictorian honors at Detroit Country Day School. Ballmer also wanted to excel in sports, but ended up being the basketball team's manager.
Today, Ballmer often escapes from the Microsoft campus on time to play basketball with his sons.
He met Bill Gates at Harvard, who lived in the same dormitory. The two became fast friends. "I was his business buddy," Ballmer told the Detroit News in a 2001 interview. "When Bill needed a business person versus a technical person, he'd give me a call."
While Gates dropped out of Harvard, Ballmer stayed and received a bachelor's degree in mathematics and economics. After college, he worked for two years at Procter & Gamble marketing cake mix then headed to Stanford University Graduate School of Business in Stanford, Calif. He later dropped out of Stanford to join Microsoft.
Ballmer had a hard time convincing his father, who had no clue what Microsoft did, that leaving graduate school was a good move. "He had no idea why I was dropping out of graduate school to go to some fly-by-night outfit in Seattle run by a buddy of mine who was just 24 years old," Ballmer told the Detroit News.
As the nonengineer at Microsoft, Ballmer was charged with thinking about the company's bottom line. A close partnership with Gates, sometimes referred to as a marriage, was born. Gates would be the technologist, while Ballmer was the business strategist.
Ballmer has been credited with deciding against an IBM-style direct sales network, instead relying on a large network of partners for sales. He also persuaded large software makers such as Germany's SAP AG to port their software to Windows, key to win enterprise customers.
Business Week once described Gates as Microsoft's brain and Ballmer as its "wildly thumping" heart. His wildness led to throat surgery in the early 1990s, when Ballmer blew out his vocal chords.
In July 1998, Ballmer was promoted to president after six years running sales and support. Some saw the promotion as public recognition for the fact that Ballmer had been Gates' co-pilot for 18 years, others thought naming Microsoft's top bulldog president was a curious move amidst the antitrust woes the company faced.
Two years later, in January 2000, Ballmer was named CEO and took full management responsibility at Microsoft, replacing Gates who had been the company's CEO for 25 years and now took on a new title of chief software architect.
Lately, Ballmer has been more of a button-down business man, appearing in suits and more tame in his public speeches, but he still rallies the troops at Microsoft's annual sales meetings. He's faced with a maturing software market where high double-digit growth is no longer a given. Plus, Ballmer is working to turn Microsoft into a kinder and gentler company after the it was found to have abused its monopoly powers and adopted a harsh tone against Linux.
"I'm still every bit as energetic, and able to get kind of pumped up about something as I ever have been. But just as I've had to understand what my role is in Microsoft as CEO, and it's a little different, I also have to recognize that the role that I have to play externally as the leader of the company is different," Ballmer said in 2003 at an event hosted by Business Week.
Steve met his wife Connie Snyder while at Microsoft. They were married in 1990 and have three sons.
If he had not responded to Gates in 1980, Ballmer would probably have signed on as assistant to the president of Progressive Casualty Insurance, he has said. At the time this was a small car insurance company, and now is one of the largest in the United States.
Date of Birth: March 24, 1956
Curriculum Vitae: 1956 - Born in Farmington Hills, Michigan, near Detroit
1977 -- BS from Harvard University in mathematics and economics, where he meets Bill Gates.
1977 -- Begins career at Procter & Gamble as a marketer for Duncan Hines Brownie Mix and Moist & Easy Snack Cake Mix.
1979 -- Attends Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
1980 -- Becomes employee 24 at Microsoft, after Gates persuaded him. Is first nonengineer at Microsoft.
1990 -- Marries Connie Snyder, a former Microsoft PR staffer.
1998 -- Gets president title at Microsoft after six years of running sales and support, will run day-to-day operations.
2000 -- Named CEO in January, full management responsibility for Microsoft.