A Few Words About Bill Gates: admire, salute, dislike
June 26, 2006
There have been many points along the way from October, 2001 to this week that made it clearer and clearer that I was now a teacher and no longer a technology journalist. Few are more stark than the fact that I put last week's column to bed without a word about Bill Gates' retirement. I was reminded of this error when I read Jim Forbes' valedictory Adios BillG--you were relevant and fun. My personal experience of Mr. Bill differed from Jim's, although we reach much the same conclusion.
I interviewed Gates' face-to-face only three times, the first in the fall of 1979 when Microsoft was, literally, indistinguishable from Timberline Systems in Portland. We talked about Basic and Cobol, and Paul Allen struck me as way more social. To top off that encounter, I flipped the caption, identifying Bill Gates (at left) as Paul and vice versa. Having attended MIT, I recognized Gates immediately as of a type: socially backward genius. By my third and final interview with him in 1992, he had honed one of his favorite lines, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," which he used three times during the interview. I was bothered by it for years, until I read in a biography that it was a catchphrase he often used with his employees. That didn't make me feel much better.
I didn't travel as much as Jim Forbes, so I didn’t often see Gates in social and semi-social situations. Also, I was covering minicomputers and mainframes until 1992, so he was important but tangential to my main beats. I never went to the Ziff-Davis Comdex parties, where Gates famously went to let it all hang out. At trade shows and conferences, I found his minders offputting.
And I remember things I heard and saw that cemented his reputation in my opinion. At a joint Apple-Microsoft news conference, Apple chief John Sculley and Bill Gates were the center of two scrums of reporters; John's was large and included virtually all the non-technical reporters. He was witty and entertaining and from Apple. Gates' scrum was small and consisted entirely of computer journalists (was Forbes there? I don't recall). I made a conscious choice, given time restraints, that I would rather be amused and enlightened by a guy who once sold Pepsi than put to sleep and/or insulted by a guy who dropped out of Harvard to write BASIC compilers for Z80 computers. Of course, we all know who ended up being more important in the history of computing. No question there; I'm just talking about who (like President Bush) passed the "I'd rather have a drink with him" test.
I don't much respect Gates for trolling Redmond-area bars on Saturday nights with the line, "Want to sit outside in my Porsche," attested to by a good friend of mine who was competing with him in the 1980s. Low taste in women is a character flaw, in my opinion, although I hugely admire the brilliant and aggressive women he has chosen to associate with publicly. My brother, a reserve police officer, said Gates had a terrible reputation for enormous speed and "do you know who I am" traffic stops. This locked in my impression of his disdain for those he feels are unimportant--including, all three times I interviewed him, me.
Now, having said all that, I need to acknowledge his genius. The man is brilliant. I've known genius; he's a genius.
I also acknowledge the utter truth of an insight from one of his biographers: Gates competed, in the early years, against dewy-eyed ex-hippies and other new agers (no, I don't just mean Gary Kildall and Intergalactic Digital Research) who thought business was fun. Gates always knew, never forgot, from day one, that business was business. He wrote the first nasty public letter from a software vendor to the software pirates of the world in the late 1970s. I concede that Forbes is right, most Microsoft competitors were killed by their own management errors. But some, in my personal experience, were killed by making an NDA presentation to Microsoft, not getting the contract, and finding a Microsoft product in their exact space weeks later. That may be business, but it is not fair, right or ethical, and Bill set the tone from the top. Balance that with the fact that Microsoft has always been a great place to work. A lousy company to compete against, but a great place to work.
In the end, however, we must judge people by what they do with their lives. And by that standard, Bill Gates is my hero. Unlike Warren Buffett, he's not waiting until the end of his life to get his philanthropy started. Unlike many rich people, he doesn't spend night and day figuring out how to leave it to his kids. And unlike the great Robber Barons of the 19th century--almost the only people in American history to whom his charity can be compared--he is supervising the dispersal of his fortune personally. And bringing to that dispersal the same near-autistic focus and bottom-line orientation he brought to his business career. Which means that, unlike most charities, the Gates Foundation is actually helping people who really need help.
The computer industry will be poorer for his departure from it. I'm not sure if Microsoft will become more aggressive, as Forbes predicts. I am not sure that is possible. In fact, I'm not sure it will survive. Perhaps Gates is displaying another of his unquestionable skills: excellent timing. Yes, he was late to the Internet, but he founded Microsoft at the perfect time in history, joined up with IBM at the perfect time and split with IBM at the perfect time. I believe he is leaving Microsoft at the perfect time. The future belongs to Google.
I dislike Bill Gates personally, but I admire and salute him.