Chairman Bill Gates famously cursed out Microsoft programmers. CEO Steve Ballmer screams and throws chairs. But online chief Qi Lu is as subtle as he is lethal, a corporate terminator who will hunt Google endlessly until it is dead.

That, at least, is what the Redmond, Washington software company clearly wants everyone to think. Lu, who headed Yahoo's search efforts before snubbing a Facebook job in favor of Microsoft, is described in today's New York Times as "self-effacing" and strict in his propriety. So it's safe to presume the overlord is being pushed, not stepping, forward, and that it's all part of a Microsoft PR campaign.

The implicit message: We will iterate until we pass Google in the market, burying the company with the same persistent tactics we used against Netscape, done in by a steadily improved Internet Explorer, and Apple, trounced in market share by a steadily improved Windows. Li is to be the icon of ruthless self-improvement: Born poor in China, Lu couldn't even afford the application fee for Carnegie Mellon, where he ultimately earned a Ph.D.

He ended up at IBM, then "poured his heart and soul" into improving Yahoo search. Now he's president of online services at Microsoft, and the Times makes him sound like Drago in Rocky IV:

He sleeps three to four hours a night. One most weekdays, he wakes up around 4 a.m., goes through his e-mail and runs four miles on a treadmill while listening to classical music or watching the news.

He prefers to be in his office between 5 and 6 a.m. to have uninterrupted time to prepare for his day. He is often sending e-mail to his staff until midnight or later.

Do these work habits trickle down to Lu's staff? We'll answer that question with another nugget from the Times piece: Lu's daily staff meetings are at 9:30. At night.

There is no doubt an big element of caricature in this portrayal of Lu, but that doesn't make it any less clever a gambit by Microsoft's aggressive flacks. For all his superhuman strength, Lu has already lost once to Google, when he worked for Yahoo. That makes him the underdog. Now, thanks to Yahoo's defacto merger with Microsoft, he's in the ring again, building the technology behind Yahoo's search, and behind Microsoft's to boot. It's a grudge match, and a possible comeback story. If Lu wins, he's definitely not Drago any more. He's scrappy Rocky Balboa. At least until everyone remembers who he works for.

(Top pic: Randy Stewart)