Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer kicked off the 2021 Silicon Slopes summit on Wednesday morning at the Salt Palace Convention Center to a packed crowd welcomed to the Salt Lake City tech conference by four on the floor dance music and club lights.
After a short introduction by Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts, Romney and Ballmer took the stage for a question and answer led by the senator.
During the 45 minute conversation, which ranged from antitrust and the global economy to government oversight of the tech industry, Romney told the crowd he first met Ballmer in 1980, when he was interviewing candidates for summer jobs with Bain & Company.
“I tried to get him to come join Bain, and he turned me down and instead went to a little startup that was Microsoft,” Romney said. “I’ve told him since then, had he joined us, he’d be a millionaire by now,” the senator joked.
After spending 14 years as the former CEO of one of the world’s largest technology companies and now the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, Forbes estimates that Ballmer’s net worth is upward of $94 billion.
Romney started the Q&A with a softball and asked what the early days of Microsoft were like. Ballmer, who was hired by founder Bill Gates as the 30th employee of the budding company after dropping out of Stanford University, said Microsoft had a rough start.
IBM, an early personal computing goliath, dumped Microsoft after 10 years of partnership, Balmer said. He added that Windows 1.0 and 2.0 crashed, and it wasn’t until 3.0 that Microsoft started finding success. “Stay with your products,” he told the audience of tech entrepreneurs and enthusiasts.
The senator said some politicians in Washington, including himself, think the United States is highly competitive — “frankly leading the world globally” — in the tech sector, and that “trying to take it apart, may be a misallocation of a government focus.”
Romney then asked Ballmer what he thought Washington should be considering as lawmakers eye antitrust interventions.
“At the end of the day, this is about consumer harm,” the former chief executive responded and added that it is “very hard to argue” that big tech companies are “suppressing competition in a way that will hurt the consumer.”
Balmer argued breaking up tech companies won’t foster more competition that benefits customers and that businesses would lose their ability to innovate if broken up. Respectfully, he told the senator, fixing issues in the tech sector shouldn’t be done with the “blunt tool of legislation,” but with negotiation with the Federal Trade Commission.
How does the United States technology industry stack up against the global competition, particularly against China, Romney asked.
“We have every advantage in the world,” Ballmer said emphatically, “but what are the advantages?”
The United States has the largest domestic economy in the world and a wonderful university system, he said. Also, “you’re not going to get the best people from Germany, India and Russian moving to China; they’re moving here,” he added.
“You take a look at that and say, ‘How can you possibly screw it up?’ And the answer is, we’re not likely to screw it up,” Ballmer explained. “I do think government can help us screw it up,” he added to applause from the crowd. “Sorry, Senator!”
Romney asked further about China’s drive to be a global military, economic and geopolitical power and how liberal democracies of the west can maintain their own influence. “What kinds of things should we do to maintain the lead of liberal democracy in the world?” he asked.
Ballmer said ensuring the United States has enough investment capital available for businesses, and not just for government spending, was important. Along those lines, he said, “I care a lot about our deficit.” He thanked the senator for hosting a bipartisan event in Washington to discuss the issue.
And when it came to leadership, the Clippers owner said the Beehive State was in good hands.
“I think the state of Utah has one of the greatest senators in our country,” Ballmer said of Romney, to the applause of the Salt Lake City audience.