Power User -- He Saw The Future And It Was Him

From "GATES: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry - and Made Himself the Richest Man in America," by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, published by Doubleday. Copyright (c) 1993 by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews ----------------------------------

For nearly a year and a half, Seattle Times high-tech reporter Paul Andrews and veteran computer columnist Stephen Manes worked what they came to call "Microsoft hours" researching and writing the definitive but independent biography of Bill Gates. The book covers the 17-year history of Microsoft and the 37-year span of Gates' life (as well as his family history); the edited and condensed excerpts below concentrate on his early childhood and recent years. ----------------------------------

WILLIAM HENRY GATES WAS BORN Oct. 28, 1955, at Seattle's Swedish Hospital. A cheerful infant, dubbed "Happy Boy" by the neighbors, he was the only son, and the second of three children, of William Henry Jr. and Mary Gates.

Although actually the fourth in the family line, the William Henry Gates who rose to software stardom has never referred to himself that way. Three became the preferred number, especially after his maternal grandmother, Adelle Maxwell, dubbed him "Trey." Papa Gates, originally William Henry III, and not "particularly crazy to give some top sergeant that line," had officially abandoned the numerical suffix on the eve of his entry into the Army.

The Seattle of Bill's childhood was a regional hub with a lively port, a flourishing aerospace industry and a strong sense of community. Seattle's Boeing was jetmaker to the world, but what first revealed the hardworking, unpretentious city's hidden ambitions was the 1962 World's Fair. Its theme was "Century 21." Its symbol was the soaring Space Needle. Its focus was technology for the 21st century. To young Bill Gates, it was "a huge event, a neat deal. We went to every pavilion."

The vision of the future was strikingly like the one an adult Bill Gates would see and sell 20 and 30 years later. Among the computer exhibits were giant IBM machines set up to translate words spoken into a microphone or calculate space-satellite trajectories, and a Univac that stored "quotations from great books, gazetteer information, and bibliographical material."

The World of Tomorrow included the office of the future, "a complete communications center with devices that project micro-mail, automatic-transmission machines for correspondence, and machines that communicate with one another to exchange information, freeing man for more creative pursuits." And the General Electric Pavilion presented "General Electric Living," featuring "colored television projected on large wall surfaces, the electronic home library, movies that can be shown immediately after they are taken ... and the home computer for record-keeping, shopping and check writing."

Although the adult Bill Gates would eventually work on projects that mirrored every one of these uses and would even team up briefly with General Electric on a computer project called "Homer," what impressed the 6-year-old Bill were things that went fast: the mile-long monorail and the Wild Mouse ride.

When Hazel Carlson, his fourth-grade teacher at View Ridge Elementary, had the class do outlining, Bill's initially neat sinistral hand would quickly disintegrate into a scrawl as he tried to "get as many things down on paper as he could produce in his mind." As Carlson remembered, "He knew a lot about a lot of things." His IQ, which she estimated in the 160s or 170s, "was among the higher ones I've ever had."

Still, Bill had a hard time finding challenges in school, and instead got into a variety of scrapes with teachers and administrators. In an essay on the theme "How I Liked Fourth Grade," he singled out as his sport of choice the game "soak 'em," a strange ritual of personal aggressiveness in which the player with the ball tries to hit others with it.

An early Gates scam involved a neighborhood newspaper route. A local drug-and-discount store's ads would include crude keys, a few of which would open a prize box at the establishment. Bill compared the keys he was supposed to deliver, pocketed the unique ones, and trooped off to the store to collect his booty. In later years, Gates (perhaps in one of his tale-spinning moods) would vow that the scheme made him the proud owner of such wonderful commodities as a hula hoop, a large garbage can and a lawnmower.

The garbage can, or one like it, would eventually become a prop for one of Bill's singular athletic talents: leaping out of a trash receptacle at one go. There were always "things like that that he would work on," his older sister Kristi recalled. "He was always upset about his little toe curling in, so he'd work on it. He'd spend time holding it out so he'd have a straight toe." It was the kind of obsessive focus that he would retain even as an adult.

There was a reason Adelle Maxwell, nicknamed "Gam," had dubbed her grandson "Trey": She loved games, particularly cards, and taught young Bill double solitaire, fish, gin, bridge and a variety of other favorites. "Very early on we played bridge," Mary Gates remembered, "and she was always saying to him, `Think smart, think smart!' "

Games of all sorts were a constant in the competitive Gates household. After dinner the family often played cards to see who would do the dishes. Perhaps the ultimate moment in the Gatesian gaming legend came when Mary and Bill Jr. learned of her unexpected pregnancy. The parents broke the news to Trey and Kristi via the medium of Hangman. Before the noose won out, the kids guessed the message: "A little visitor is coming soon." Bill's sister Libby was born in June 1964.

For a sixth-grade project, Gam helped Bill prepare a report entitled "Invest with Gatesway Incorporated." Bill's father, who did legal work for Physio-Control, the Seattle firm that marketed the first portable defibrillator for the revival of heart-attack victims, got Trey an interview with one of the company's principals.

In the portrait of the capitalist as a young man, Bill imagined himself a "young inventor" out to market a coronary-care system to hospitals. Raising sufficient capital would be one problem, he decided; hiring management, a sales force and skilled workers would be another. "If my idea is good and I am able to hire good people and raise enough money," he concluded, "I should be successful."

Gates was a good rollerskater; a decent tennis player; a straight, fast, formless, reckless snow skier; and a passionate, stylish water-skier. But despite his parents' encouragement, team sports were not his calling. Gates recalled one stint as a center linebacker in an admittedly low-ranked pee-wee football league.

When Gates entered eighth grade at Lakeside School in 1968, he and the other math-science whizzes were about to catch the front curl of a new wave of personal liberation through the sheer exercise of intellect. Computers were about to change their lives, and the rest of society as well. Before then, a computer was typically a multimillion-dollar machine comprised of refrigerator-size units linked together by special cables underneath a raised floor in an air-conditioned room accessible only to initiates.

But timesharing, which allowed remote connection to a computer via telephone, was democratizing the computer. Using an ASR-33 Teletype, a clackety contraption recognizable today primarily as background noise for radio news broadcasts, Lakesiders could tap into an amazing new universe which they could customize and command to their own liking.

Bill Gates' first program let you enter a number in any arithmetic base and convert it to a number in any other. Tic-Tac-Toe was Gates' second BASIC program, using tabs, slashes, X's and O's to simulate the game grid. Other classmates, including Paul Allen, two years ahead of Gates, came up with their own programs. When senior-class president Matt Griffin, more than two decades later the CEO of Egghead Software, had trouble getting a 25-line BASIC program to run, teacher Fred Wright steered him to the computer room. "It was just all getting started then," Griffin later recalled. "There's this little blond kid sitting over in a chair ... His feet are swinging and they aren't touching the floor." Wright posed the problem. Gates unhesitatingly rattled off the answer. Before he finished 10th grade, Gates and his companions had formed a variety of business enterprises and were programming for profit.

WHEN BILL PHONED HIS parents to learn whether they'd received word about his Harvard application, Paul Allen, a college sophomore experienced in academic circles, gave him some portentous but unappreciated advice: "I remember telling Bill, `There are going to be some guys at Harvard who are smarter than you.' And he said, `No way! No way!' "

Although the 1960s had run their course, the early '70s retained the flavor of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. "I don't think I was unusual in any of those dimensions, plus or minus," Gates later said of his Harvard years. But Gates was mostly indifferent to music; his record collection amounted to a bunch of albums by Seattle native Jimi Hendrix that had been urged upon him by guitar-playing rockhound Allen with the catch phrase, "Are you experienced?"

At Harvard, Gates was not known to have girlfriends, and didn't join his buddies for the social mixers that ended mostly in frustration when the girls refused to go home with them. He did, however, amass a fairly sizable collection of Playboy and Penthouse magazines, and was the subject of rumors for his visits to Boston's Combat Zone, notorious for porn films and prostitution and drug deals. "I used to hang out in the Zone for a little while, just watching what was going on," Bill related. "Mostly I just sat at this pizza place and read books."

As for drugs, Gates was certainly not unusual there. Marijuana was the pharmaceutical of choice, but in his roommate's words, "on a couple of well-planned isolated occasions we'd go off to the country and spend time contemplating the universe."

With all his extracurricular activities and "hard-core" work ethic, freshman Gates burned his candle at both ends. Just after final exams he suffered a case of ulcerative colitis serious enough to put him in the hospital for more than a week, fly home first class for the first time ever, and force him to continue a course of steroids into early summer. Although the disease is primarily genetic, friends believed the episode had been brought on by stress, overwork and sheer Gatesian intensity. Some speculated that it had been linked to Bill's unhappiness at Harvard, the first place where he had been forced to confront his limitations. "I was under a lot of pressure," Gates later said, recalling his problems with the final exam in organic chemistry, a class he'd skipped "because I was nervous." He ended up with a C in the course, the lowest grade he would receive at Harvard.

Years later a friend, aghast at Gates's penchant for fast driving, remarked, "I hope your life insurance is paid up." Gates turned the idle remark into a serious matter, explaining that he had no life insurance because he had a lot of assets and no dependents. What Gates believed but did not explain was that he was probably uninsurable. Episodes of childhood-onset colitis are strong predictors of future colon cancer.

By his late sophomore year, the budding enterprise that metamorphosed into Microsoft was occupying more of Bill's bandwidth, even if his parents were not entirely convinced of the wisdom of the enterprise. Mom was a University of Washington regent; her son had at least temporarily departed the hallowed halls of higher education. For their 1975 Christmas card, Bill and Mary Gates featured a group portrait of their kids on the cover and penned a short poem about each one inside. The verse about Bill ran:

Trey took time off this fall

in old Albuquerque His own software business

we hope not a turkey.

(The profits are murky.)

Murky, perhaps, but profits there were. Microsoft's income for 1975 amounted to $16,005.

A WOMAN DIDN'T HAVE to be a techie to win Bill's attention, but it helped, as computer sales rep Jill Bennett discovered. Born a day apart in the same Seattle hospital, she and Gates had much in common: tennis, computers, friends. "We even look a little alike," Bennett said, though she more strongly resembled Bill's younger sister Libby. It was techie love at first sight when the two 27-year-olds met at a Madison Park party in 1983.

Bennett found Bill shy but focused. So focused, she discovered, that he had disconnected the radio in his Mercedes and refused to own a television set. And Gates brooded constantly. "He feels so committed and he's so hung up on setting such an extreme good example for his people, being there, being there late, working hard, setting the pace," Bennett said. "He was always worried about stuff."

It translated to insomnia. "Just worried about everything," he would have "a real hard time sleeping at night, and then during the day he could sleep instantly. He'd crawl under a desk. He'd crawl under chairs at the airport and fall asleep. People would lose him."

Yet the Gates focus went soft when it came to the mundane - money, clothing, credit cards, wallets. Fixed on corporate problems, Bill paid little attention to himself: "He doesn't get enough sleep, and he doesn't exercise, and he doesn't eat right." Gates would leave clothes in hotel rooms, leave money in clothes sent out for cleaning. On dates with Jill, he'd often discover he was short of cash and had forgotten his credit cards; Bennett would pay for the date. But when he wasn't flush out, Gates was flush: "He would just go to the bank and get $2,000 cash."

Driving was another bone of contention. "He's just not a good driver," Bennett declared, adding "he will dispute that." Bill loved speed and did fine at 100 miles an hour down a straightaway, but Bennett found herself in one too many close calls on narrow highways, and in city traffic Gates, focused elsewhere, was "the absent-minded professor."

In 1983, after Gates bought the lakeside Laurelhurst home he still owns, he returned from a business trip to find everything neatly in place. The resourceful Gam had gone so far as to label Bill's dresser drawers with yellow Post-it notes designating their contents.

Gates immediately ordered a bigger bathtub. Bill preferred baths to showers so he could multitask, doing things while the water was running, and then reading while soaking in the tub. But he often omitted sudsing his hair, leading to reams of copy over the years about his "greasy locks" and "dandruff." According to Bennett, she and his mother were "always after him" to shampoo. But what else could you possibly do while you were doing that?

A later girlfriend of Bill's was Ann Winblad, a brainy, articulate Minneapolis programmer and entrepreneur. More worldly than her beau, and an abstainer from red meat since college, Winblad weaned Gates off hamburgers and Coke to more healthful, more vegetarian Thai and Indian cuisines. In a paroxysm of high-tech romanticism, the two would even have "virtual dates": They would go to the same movie simultaneously in different cities, and discuss it on their car phones on their way to and from the theater. So that they could watch and discuss old movies when they were together, Ann bought Bill a VCR and monitor. But at Bill's insistence, both lacked the tempting broadcast tuner that he viewed as potentially time-wasting and "decadent."

Given his dim view of the other companies he saw, Gates had adopted for Microsoft the model he knew and loved best: the extended family. In one-on-one interviews, Gates was capable of charming the socks off his questioners or of high-bandwidth multitasking, skimming the latest trade papers and sipping a family-favorite Fresca while diverting some minor fraction of his attention to the questions at hand. If he yawned or cut you short or blew his top at some offhand question or comment - well, you were no different from his sisters or his parents, so you could always yawn or shout back.

And Gates was fully aware of certain aspects of that style. Challenged when he called one random remark "the most nonsense I ever heard in my life," Gates could mock his own penchant for exaggeration, particularly on the negative side. "The world is full of superlative events. I reach new extremes. It's incredible. There's some kind of attenuation for past events, so I'm constantly running into the most stupid thing I've ever heard. Makes life fun! I know that my climaxes are ahead of me, not just behind me."

But were they? From a standing start, Gates at 36 still could jump three feet in the air over an armchair, as he would demonstrate to two disbelieving biographers. His new estate would specify a full-size trampoline. Still, it wasn't quite like the good old days: "I don't jump spontaneously the way I used to, the early years of the company just walking down the hall. I just did this all the time" - jumping and touching the ceiling - "or even in a meeting ... Now the jumping is not that common."

Gates was slowing down, some said, and he was worrying about it. On a good day, he could look like the energetic, boyish wunderkind of the press clips; on a bad one he seemed sallow, tired, jowly. Lefty Gates still played his right-handed game of tennis and at the instigation of his sisters was taking up golf right-handed along with the rest of the Gates clan. His major misgiving, according to his sister Libby: a round of 18 holes took too much time.

"He is the world's busiest man, bar none," said Charles Simonyi, citing one trip that included "Eleven meetings in five days in Europe - you know, like there were days there would be two countries. And he doesn't fly a private plane, either." Gates still managed a schedule as packed as anyone's, but as he headed toward his 40s, he seemed to be modestly tempering the legendary workaholism first seen in all-night programming marathons in his Lakeside days:

"It's hard: Working 80 hours is very hard. You can't do much else if you're gonna do that. So there's lots of weeks I work 80 hours, but I think my average is lower than that ... On average I take every other weekend off. I'm probably more like 70 average now. There are some weeks I work more than 80. Like those weeks I travel to Europe: That's all I'm doing, is working, sleeping, working, sleeping. So you can get weeks where I'll put in over 90. I mean, I assume you don't count reading business magazines, the Journal or the Economist." Upon recomputing, he decided that an average of 72 hours was the proper figure.

Gates insisted work was his happiness, and colleagues agreed: "I think he actually enjoys his day," said one. "In my opinion Bill just honestly loves technology - it's his hobby as well - and it's really kind of a treat to run through the day and chat about it with people."

"I sure do more press stuff than other CEOs," Gates admitted. "But, you know, we have a message. We try to sell millions of copies of stuff that you don't drink or smoke."

Microsoft was in many ways like IBM, particularly the IBM of the Tom Watson Sr. era - not only in its conservatism, but also in its paternalism, and in the fact that it was so closely identified with and ruled by a strong leader. Both corporations exported their cultures around the globe; both Gates and Watson extolled the glories of hard, hard work, and Watson's THINK was a precursor of the "Think smart!" motto Bill Gates had inherited from his grandmother. Yet Bill saw himself as a breed apart from a businessman like Watson.

Gates would not admit to having heroes, but was perhaps most fascinated by Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist who died before Gates had a chance to meet him. "I admired FDR," Gates added. "I've read even more books about him than about Napoleon, and if there were more Feynman books to read I would have." Still, heroes were hard to find. "I admire lots of people. But it's hard to have this totally pristine way of looking at things unless you're a scientist."

And that was it! Despite his astounding financial and business success, despite the fact that Bill Gates was an incredibly smart guy, at bottom he was a businessman - a mere businessman, a Thomas Crown, a Thomas Watson - an entrepreneur, not a scientist. He was more a Henry Ford than a Thomas Edison. He was less the endlessly inventive Gyro Gearloose, more the wily, opportunistic plutocrat that Apple Computer programmer Andy Hertzfeld had made the subject of the first picture ever drawn on a prototype Macintosh: Scrooge McDuck, the richest duck in the world. For Gates that was not enough. Bill Gates saw himself as a "technologist."

Did Gates have his own political aspirations? "I just don't see it. Well, I can only see 10 years, but I don't see it." Looking 11 years ahead? "I think it's pretty unlikely. I mean, it's possible, but pretty unlikely."

But although Bill's father had been active in numerous Republican campaigns, "the differentiation between the two parties is rather small indeed," Gates said, adding, "I'd probably be a Democrat."

Charitable requests were a constant thorn. In addition to a pledge of $1 million to the United Way, his million-dollar contribution to Lakeside, and his $12 million donation to the University of Washington, Gates personally had donated $1 million to Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and smaller amounts to other charities.

"There are a few things in the works right now that are bigger," Gates said in early 1992, and by August he had donated $6 million to Stanford University for a new computer sciences building. "But it's not the focus of my time right now. I'm in my 30s, and even in my 40s I'm going to try to contribute by doing a good job at Microsoft. That's my main way of contributing, and there will be plenty of time to decide what charities are worthy of whatever money there is at that time."

Yet on the Seattle scene, whatever Gates did was perceived as not enough, and locals insisted he could be doing more. It rankled Gates. "Yeah. And when I die I'll have time to do more," he said with a tinge of bitterness.

"Decadence" still bothered Gates. Enumerating his cars produced a hint of embarrassment. The limited-edition Porsche 959 on the Oakland docks in storage "effectively I don't have. I've got .... the red Ferrari, Lexus, Mustang, and then the Porsche (964). Which is ridiculous, to own that many cars." Same thing with the house in Medina that cost $5 million for land alone and is not scheduled for completion until 1995: "There was an initial concept of a room that virtually every square inch was screen, and that hasn't survived the design process ... I had this idea of a spiral staircase going down to a room that was just all image and - whew! But that," he said without a trace of irony, "was just too expensive."

Too expensive? Marriage was another thing he might well look at that way. Gates was dogged continually by rumors - and family hopes - of impending wedlock. But his current long-term flame, a Microsoft manager nine years his junior who craved anonymity, flatly stated "absolutely not" when asked about short-term plans for marriage or engagement.

"Someday I'll be married. Someday I'll have kids," Gates insisted. Like Winblad before him, Gates was beginning to worry about the biological clock - not in the sense of fertility, but in the sense of empathy. Friends and colleagues believed he was beginning to wonder about the differences in years between himself and prospective spouses, about the prospect of hanging around with younger women with whom he might have very little in common except a healthy interest in sex.

Despite the segue into family life of his top lieutenants, Gates, the lone free agent at the top, gave no official signs of settling down. Still, the hints were there. He no longer pointed to infants saying "That scares me," as he had a decade earlier. Instead, like some latter-day W.C. Fields, he said of his younger sister's 6-week-old, "I swear, you could line up 25 of these kids and I couldn't pick her out of them. They all look the same till about a year old." Christmas 1991 was the first time Uncle Trey managed to establish rapport with his older sister's 3-year-old. But when his longtime friend and right-hand man Steve Ballmer had a son in early 1992, Gates was the first nonrelative to see the newborn. The second was his girlfriend.

For all that, Gates' biological imperative may have been tempered by the sheer rationalism of the Smart Guy. Perhaps the home was not enough, the desktop too limited: Maybe the computer in every human was the ultimate solution?

Years after VCRs had become fixtures in American homes, comedians still made jokes about their flashing "12:00" and the difficulty of programming them - a software problem. Years after computers had conquered the American desktop, puzzled users continued to struggle with their complexity - a software problem. Years after programmers had developed a vast assortment of "personal information management" programs, Gates' administrative assistant would maintain his personal appointment calendar on paper - a software problem. Clearly, solving software problems would be an industry with plenty of room for growth for the foreseeable future.

And the biggest software problem of all was an idea humanist computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum had treated skeptically back in 1974: "The compulsive programmer is convinced that life is nothing but a program running on an enormous computer, and that therefore every aspect of life can ultimately be explained in programming terms."

It was an idea that had captured the imagination of Bill Gates, technologist: "The most interesting thing to me is not sequencing the data. It's understanding the program. How does it work? How does evolution and the instructions for the creation of the body, how does all that stuff work? It's there, it's not just a matter of getting the numbers, it's a matter of - like a program. You gotta understand the logic in it: Not just the constants, not just the protein instructions, but the branching, the enforcement, copying. It's the most interesting program there is. It created itself. It solves problems we don't understand."

It was like the old days of cracking computer systems from Lakeside. The hacker in Gates wanted to disassemble the program, take it apart, find out how it ticked. And then?

"Go, `Wow!' Say, `What a nice piece of work!' Then we can go back and improve the program."