Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry-and Made Himself the Richest Man in America
© 1994 Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews
I recently watched Pirates of Silicon Valley, a questionably-acted movie based on the rise of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and found myself curious about the facts. Did a young Bill Gates really race bulldozers and ram his buddy’s sportscar? Gates is an astonishingly detailed biography of not just Gates himself, but of the computer industry as it developed throughout the seventies, eighties, and early nineties. The book culminates with the release of the then-revolutionary Windows 95, an OS that merited even Rachel and Chandler from Friends pitching it. The evolution of computing hardware and software overshadow Gates himself, not surprising given that developing software was his singular obsession from high school on. This mix of biography and technical history makes itself more attractive as computer history than personal, but it still presents a more interesting Gates than “Brilliant, Nerdy Billionare”. He really did race bulldozers, and they weren’t his.
Gates is not a rags to riches stories, as young William Gates started off fairly comfortably: his parents sent him to a private school that exposed its older students to computer programming, and one of Gates’ classmates there would become his partner in founding Microsoft later on — Paul Allen. Both were enthusiastic members of a student club called the Lakeside Programmers Group, who were allowed free computer time — back when computer users could be billed on how many seconds of computer processing they used — in exchange for helping debug programs and and machines. Being both self-confident teens and curious about what they could do, Gates and his friends also found ways to cheat the billing cycle outside their arrangement — and when Gates took on the challenge of creating student schedules, he somehow found himself the only boy in a class otherwise filled with girls.
Even before they were out of high school, Gates and Allen were making a name for themselves as programmers, and exploring the possibilities of this for their future. Their first huge coup was writing a language to use with the first consumer-marketed microcomputer, the Altair. The Altair was amazing popular considering it had to be assembled, component by component, by the buyer, and that the finished product was initially only capable of blinking its lights. Programming was done not with a keyboard, but by flipping toggle switches. Although Gates and Allen did attempt building their own computer, one pitched at municipal governments for managing traffic, their talents lay in software. Gates was both obsessive and aggressive: he had no objections to working eighty hours a week trying to iron out bugs, and expected that from whomever he hired later on. Gates hated to lose, and if that meant selling products he hadn’t even built yet– hadn’t even planned yet — to prevent someone else from making the pitch, he would. (Hence the reason for those eighty hour workweeks..) Gates’ success came not just from his gifts with programming language, but because he and his partners were so intent on making sales: one of Gates’ tricks was to use one product to sell another. His dream was a computer in every home, on every desk, running Microsoft software. It didn’t matter who the manufacturer was: Microsoft did work for both IBM and Apple, as well as smaller computer companies which have fallen away, and Gates’ goal was to create a hardware ecosystem where everyone was using a common software, with the effect that devices would be cross-compatible. A monitor made by one manufacturer — IBM, say — would be compatible with a computer made by another firm, like Hewlett Packard.
Gates delves into an astonishing amount of detail both on the technical hurdles and on the business deals that Gates made: there’s an entire chapter on a font battle with Adobe, for instance. Readers do see the man behind the machine, however: Gates the crazy-competitive, Gates the parsimonous executive who regarded hotel rooms and first class as decadent, Gates the teenage millionare, Gates the spectacularly reckless driver, Gates the bellicose boss who liked people who stood up and yelled right back at him. Although Gates is not necessarily the ideal book for someone merely curious about the man, its depth of technical and business history would recommend to those interested in the microcomputer revolution. Oh, and the bulldozers? Gates literally saw them sitting in a rural construction yard, discovered the keys were in them, and decided to figure out how they worked. Then he and a buddy drove them around and raced, because that’s what you do when you’re twenty and it’s 3 am.
Pirates of Silicon Valley, trailer below
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