In Search Of The Real Bill Gates
By Walter Isaacson
Longtime competitors raise a more philosophical issue about Gates: his intensely competitive approach has poisoned the collaborative hacker ethos of the early days of personal computing. In his book Startup, Jerry Kaplan describes creating a handwriting-based system. Gates was initially friendly, he writes, and Kaplan trusted him with his plans, but he eventually felt betrayed when Gates announced a similar, competing product. Rob Glaser, a former Microsoft executive who now runs the company that makes RealAudio, an Internet sound system, is an admirer who compliments Gates on his vision. But, he adds, Gates is "pretty relentless. He's Darwinian. He doesn't look for win-win situations with others, but for ways to make others lose. Success is defined as flattening the competition, not creating excellence." When he was at Microsoft, for example, Glaser says the "atmosphere was like a Machiavellian poker game where you'd hide things even if it would blindside people you were supposed to be working with."
It comes down to the same traits that his psychologist noted when Gates was in sixth grade. "In Bill's eyes," says Glaser, "he's still a kid with a startup who's afraid he'll go out of business if he lets anyone compete." Esther Dyson, whose newsletter and conferences make her one of the industry's fabled gurus, is another longtime friend and admirer who shares such qualms. "He never really grew up in terms of social responsibility and relationships with other people," she says. "He's brilliant but still childlike. He can be a fun companion, but he can lack human empathy." "If we weren't so ruthless, we'd be making more creative software? We'd rather kill a competitor than grow the market?!?" Gates is pacing around his office, sarcastically repeating the charges against him. "Those are clear lies," he says coldly. "Who grew this market? We did. Who survived companies like IBM, 10 times our size, taking us on?" He ticks off the names of his rivals at Oracle, Sun, Lotus, Netscape in an impersonal way. "They're every bit as competitive as I am."
"We win because we hire the smartest people. We improve our products based on feedback, until they're the best. We have retreats each year where we think about where the world is heading." He won't even cop a plea to the charge that Microsoft tends to react to competitors' ideas--the graphical interface of Apple, the Web browser of Netscape--more than it blazes new trails of its own. "Graphical interfaces were done first at Xerox, not Apple. We bet on them early on, which is why Microsoft Office applications became the best."
Gates is enjoying this. Intellectual challenges are fun. Games are fun. Puzzles are fun. Working with smart people is superfun. Others may see him as ruthless, cold or brutal; but for him the competition is like a sport, a blood sport perhaps, but one played with the same relish as the summer games at Hood Canal. He sprawls on a couch, uncoils and pops open a Fresca. Though rarely attempting the social warmth of his mother (he doesn't actually offer me a Fresca but acquiesces when I ask), Gates has an intensity and enthusiasm that can be engaging, even charming. He takes a piece of paper and draws the matrix of strategies he faced when creating applications to compete with WordPerfect and Lotus. See what an exciting puzzle it was? His language is boyish rather than belligerent. The right stuff is "really neat" and "supercool" and "hardcore," while bad strategies are "crummy" and "really dumb" and "random to the max."
His office is rather modest, sparsely decorated and filled with standard-issue furniture. The biggest piece of art is a huge photo of a Pentium processor chip. There are smaller pictures of Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Henry Ford, though he admits that he has little admiration for the latter. The few personal pictures include one of the original dozen Microsoft employees (most with scruffy beards, except him), one of Ann Winblad on a trip to Germany, and one with Melinda and nine friends on a 1995 vacation to Indonesia. There are no pictures of Jennifer displayed, but he pulls a snapshot out of his desk showing him proudly cradling her.
He hopes to be running Microsoft for another 10 years, he says, then promises to focus as intensely on giving his money away. He says he plans to leave his children about $10 million each. "He will spend time, at some point, thinking about the impact his philanthropy can have," Buffett says. "He is too imaginative to just do conventional gifts." Already he's given $34 million to the University of Washington, partly to fund a chair for human genome-project researcher Leroy Hood; $15 million (along with $10 million from Ballmer) for a new computer center at Harvard; and $6 million to Stanford. An additional $200 million is in a foundation run by his father, and he has talked about taking over personally the funding of Microsoft's program to provide computers to inner-city libraries, to which he's donated $3 million in book royalties. "I've been pushing him gently to think more about philanthropy," his father says. "I think his charitable interests will run, as they do now, to schools and libraries."
Asked about his regrets, Gates talks about not getting a Microsoft E-mail application to the market quickly enough. "We were too busy, and at a retreat where I wrote our next priorities on a board, everyone said I had to take one off, so we took off E-mail."
It is hard to get him to delve more personally. But especially since Jennifer's birth, friends say, he has begun to reflect more on his life and what he might end up contributing. He speaks of the promise of computing, not just in business terms but in social ones. "Everyone starts out really capable," he says. "But as you grow and turn curious, either you get positive feedback by finding answers or you don't, and then this incredible potential you have is discouraged. I was lucky. I always had a family and resources to get more and more answers. Digital tools will allow a lot more people to keep going the next step rather than hitting a wall where people stop giving them information or tell them to stop asking questions."
He has also become less enamored with pure intelligence. "I don't think that I.Q. is as fungible as I used to," he says. "To succeed, you also have to know how to make choices and how to think more broadly."
So has family life dulled Gates' intensity? "Well, predictably, he's pumped and focused on Jennifer," says Ballmer. "He showed a picture of her at our last sales conference and joked that there was something other than Netscape keeping him awake at nights. He may be a bit less exhausting and a bit more civil. But he still pushes as hard, still keeps score." Gates likes repeating Michael Jordan's mantra--"They think I'm through, they think I'm through"--and the one Intel's CEO Andrew Grove used as a book title, "Only the paranoid survive." As Ballmer says, "He still feels he must run scared." Gates puts another spin on it: "I still feel this is superfun."
And what about his feeling that there is nothing unique about the human mind, that intelligence can someday be replicated in binary code? Has watching a daughter learn to smile at a father's face changed that at all? At our last meeting, these questions don't seem to engage him. As I wander out of his office, he offers none of life's standard see-you-again-someday pleasantries, but he agrees that I should feel free to E-mail him. So I pose the questions, along with some more mundane technical ones, in a message a few days later. Answers to the tech issues come promptly. But he ignores the philosophical ones. Finally, weeks later, a note pops up in my mailbox, dispatched from storm-swept Seattle:
"Analytically, I would say nature has done a good job making child raising more pleasure than pain, since that is necessary for a species to survive. But the experience goes beyond analytic description...Evolution is many orders of magnitude ahead of mankind today in creating a complex system. I don't think it's irreconcilable to say we will understand the human mind someday and explain it in software-like terms, and also to say it is a creation that shouldn't be compared to software. Religion has come around to the view that even things that can be explained scientifically can have an underlying purpose that goes beyond the science. Even though I am not religious, the amazement and wonder I have about the human mind is closer to religious awe than dispassionate analysis."
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