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Steve Ballmer’s Unusual Parenting Strategy

Why would the 51st richest person in the world have a life plan that calls for him to retire from his demanding day job once his youngest child leaves for college?  This is the detail about the resignation of Steve Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft that has caught my attention: “Mr. Ballmer had indicated he was going to retire when the youngest of his children went to college, which was in about two more years,” reports the New York Times.  He now is leaving the company two years ahead of schedule; the youngest of his three sons is starting eleventh grade and will now have his father around the house much than expected.

I understand the heated cultural discussion – currently lead by female technology executives like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg – about how to negotiate the period of work life that overlaps with having babies and raising little children until they start school. But what is the logic of the Ballmer Plan, which seems to designed around the expediency of being absent when your kids are at home, and only venturing out of the office once the coast is clear?

If you are a journalist covering the Balmer Descension, this is the question I would like answered: According to what logic does one work extremely hard when the kids are in the house and and then collapse into some version of leisure as soon as they leave?

But maybe I just answered the question, since I am well aware of the pleasure of being alone in the house–though it never goes according to plan.

There is something about this detail of Ballmer story that seems delightfully absurd which is an extension of the reason I have always paid attention to Ballmer: he is one of the few billionaires towards whom you can feel schadenfreude. I am a reforming Apple cultist who has always felt that Microsoft’s primary role is to make things look as ugly as possible. But Balmer’s appeal is his predicament of being such an enormously wealthy and powerful figure who is nevertheless accorded so little respect–the Rodney Dangerfield of tycoons.  Part of this was ability to make his company so much money while managing to look so deficient in the areas people care most about, like ipods and later iphones. And part of it is Balmer’s uneasy relationship to his superior, Bill Gates, who since retirement has been styled and moused into a figure of windblown beneficence  but in the 90′s was the totem of the unhygienic Geek-Gods who would now rule over us with their suppressed, twisted sexuality and inability to clean their own glasses.

All of the nation’s college students are returning to campus in the next couple of weeks, a fact much reported and discussed. Will there be a less discussed concurrent wave of retirements?

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