Former chief executive and chairman of Microsoft, the world’s largest personal-computer software company,Bill Gates (born October 28, 1955) needs no much introduction. An American business magnate and philanthropist,he is consistently ranked among the world’s wealthiest people and was the wealthiest overall from 1995 to 2009, excluding 2008, when he was ranked third;in 2011 he was the wealthiest American and the second wealthiest person. In this interview, Bill Gates shares his childhood experience.
Business Matter (BM): We thought we’d start talking about your family. Tell me some of the qualities that you attribute to your family that later shaped your career at Microsoft.
Bill Gates (BG): My Dad was a lawyer and my mom was very involved in business activities as a board member in non-profit organizations like running United Way Campaigns. She was the Director of the University of Washington, banks, that kind of thing. They shared what they were doing out in the world with my older sister and I as we were growing up. So, we always had a sense of, “Okay, this is the Governor coming to dinner, or here is this political campaign, let’s get involved in this.” I was a page down in the State Capitol of Olympia, Washington. Then I went out and spent some time being a page back in Washington, DC. I understood about contracts and things. I was interested in the business world, reading about it all the time. Sort of always playing around with the idea of “What would I end up eventually doing?”
BM: Were other of your contemporaries equally interested in the business, or did you find yourself unusual among the groups?
BG: Well, when I went to Lakeside School, I was about 12 years old. I started there in seventh grade. That was kind of a change for me. It is a private boys’ school. Very strict. At first I really didn’t like the environment. I did eventually find some friends there, some of who had the same sort of interest, like reading business magazines and Fortune. We were always creating funny company names and having people send us their product literature[laughs]. Trying to think about how business worked. And in particular, looking at computer companies and what was going on with them.
BM: What companies, in particular, did you like to follow?
BG: The first computer we used was a GE time-sharing system. It was connected over a phone line. Actually, the school couldn’t afford a full phone line, so someone in the offices had a switch where you could take over the phone line. It was an ASR-33 Teletype with paper tape connected up to a GE computer. But, very quickly, we found out about PDP-8s, and eventually got one loaned to us. And then eventually, BMta General Nova got loaned to us. So, it these companies making smaller computers that were very fascinating to us. Joining all the user groups. DEC had one called the DECUS User Group. Getting on every mailing list. In BMtamation they had these bingo cards where you could check everything you were interested in. So, we just put our name down and checked everything in there and tried to learn about the world of computing.
BM: How did the faculty respond to your interest outside of your curriculum compared to your interest in your own studies?
BG: Well, I was relieved from some classes, Math in particular, because I’d read ahead. So, I had quite a bit of free time. So, when the Mother’s Club which did this rummage sale, got the money for this Teletype and a certain amount of time to buy computer time, it was a question of who was going to figure this thing out? Now, I was very young. I was in eighth grade and some of the older students kind of barged in and thought they could figure it out. And very quickly, the teachers were intimiBMted. So, it was sort of a group of students reading the manuals and trying things out.
You would type the programs off-line on this yellow paper tape and then put it into the tape reader, dial up the computer, and very quickly feedin the paper tape and run your program. They charged you not only for the connect time, but also for storage units and CPU time. So, if you had a program that had a loop in it of some type you could spend a lot of money very quickly. And so we went through the money that the Mothers Club had given very rapidly. It was a little awkward for the teachers, because it was just students sitting there and zoom! — the money was gone.
I wrote a tic-tac-toe program and a couple of other base conversion programs. It was the BASIC language running on this GE system. So, people didn’t know what to think because teachers were fairly dignified in those BMys and usually were supposed to know what was going on. They were okay about it, but then when the money was gone, they had to start billing us for all of our usage. We had these kind of funny student checking accounts so my friends and I still stayed very active. We were kind of desperate to get free computer time one way or another.
The amount of time we’d spend in this particular room that had the Teletype was quite extreme. We sort of took over the room, myself and two other people. They called it the ÒTeletype RoomÓ. We were always coming up with schemes to get free computer time, and eventually did with a local company. Convinced them that because they had a deal with DEC for this big computer, an early PDP-10, serial number 36, that if they could find problems with it they wouldn’t have to pay their rent. Having a few of the students, including me, bang on it and try to find bugs seemed like a good idea. And particularly, let us do that mostly at night. So, we were going down to this … it was called Computer Center Corporation, C-Cubed, in the University District, staffed by some old people from the University of Washington Academic Computing Center had gone over there. So, for a few years that is where I spent my time. I’d skip out on athletics and go down to this computer center. We were moving ahead very rapidly: BASIC, FORTRAN, LISP, PDP-10 machine language, digging out the operating system listings from the trash and studying those. Really not just banging away to find bugs like monkeys[laughs], but actually studying the code to see what was wrong. The teachers thought we were quite unusual. And pretty quickly there were four of us who got more addicted, more involved, and understood it better than the others. And those were myself, Paul Allen, who later founded Microsoft with me, Ric Weiland, who actually worked at Microsoft in the early BMys, and Kent Evans, who was my closest friend, and most my age, was killed in a mountain climbing accident when I was in 11th grade in high school. So, the four of us became the Lakeside Programming Group. We were the hard-core users.
To be cont’d