Thursday, June 7, 2007

Another BG
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Money, Philanthropy

Mr. B. has reluctant but great admiration for Bill Gates. Probably because he is about to put his money where his mouth is, unlike a lot of other people, including a number of very wealthy people, the majority of politicians, and even some university administrators. A very amusing and insightful article about the amazing Mr. Gates has appeared in Time online.

Thursday, Jun. 07, 2007
Bill Gates Goes Back to School
By Lev Grossman

He is transitioning out of Microsoft to become a full-time philanthropist-at-large, directing his formidable intelligence and ridiculous wealth at improving global education and global health.

"The only computer-science course that I ever signed up for was the one that had the most prerequisites in the whole catalog — and I signed up for the second half of the year," Gates says. "So my freshman year I show up, and it's all graduate students, and two days into the course I tell the professor, Hey, you know, this thing is wrong ... My social skills weren't that great."

When Gates and Allen sold the Altair folks a version of basic — which they wrote without ever having seen an Altair — the school brought him up on disciplinary charges for running a business out of his dorm room. So Gates turned on, booted up and dropped out.

Long before the dotcom boom, long before it was hip to be square, Gates crossed over to the dork side.

Gates' social skills still aren't all that great. He may omit to shake your hand when you meet him. His voice has one setting: high and loud. He still has that much remarked-upon habit of rocking back and forth while he's thinking, and he sometimes jumps up, rather startlingly, to pace while he's talking.

But there's a warmth to him and a weird but genuine charm

It's just how his mind works — he can't help answering your questions seriously and literally. There are tales, probably true, of his brutally breaking down employees in meetings. He likes the truth, and he likes things to be clear. I sit in on a meeting in which he works through the kinks in his Harvard speech. He stumbles on a superfluous phrase: more fully. "That's the kind of stuff I hate," he says, pausing for a minute to riff. "I delete stuff like that all the time. The word truly — whenever I see it, I tend to delete it. Why say 'truly X'? Is 'X' not enough?"

That's typical of Gates: he takes an engineer's approach — a literal, analytical, hacker's approach — to everything, whether it's an engineering problem or not. This isn't always the best approach. On the one hand, it's worked out pretty well for making software. On the other hand, look at Gates' haircut.

For all his drive and intelligence, Gates doesn't see things with an artist's eye for those human intangibles. In May, Gates made a rare and instructive public appearance with his longtime frenemy Steve Jobs. An audience member asked each of them what he had learned from the other. "Well, I'd give a lot to have Steve's taste," Gates said. "You know, we sat in Mac product reviews where there were questions about software choices, how things would be done, that I viewed as an engineering question. That's just how my mind works. And I'd see Steve make the decision based on a sense of people and product that is even hard for me to explain. The way he does things is just different, and you know, I think it's magical." The audience cracked up. But Gates wasn't joking.

So it'll be interesting to watch Gates try his Vulcan approach on challenges like curing AIDS and fixing America's public schools. In July 2008, his primary focus will become the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which he and his wife founded to address health and education issues. It has an endowment of more than $33 billion, making it by far the largest charitable foundation in the world. Last year his close friend Warren Buffett committed to transferring to the foundation much of his wealth too, which will eventually add about $30 billion more. Gates' foundation makes him one of the most powerful nonelected actors on the global stage.

The worst grade Gates ever got at Harvard, a C+, was in organic chemistry. Now he has to study it all the time. He monitors clinical research, talks to doctors, sits in classrooms, flies to infectious hot zones. As a foe of disease and ignorance, he is fearsome.

Gates is probably getting out of technology at the right time. Funnily enough, it's not really a business for nerds anymore. Gates was at the center of the personal-computer revolution and the Internet revolution, but now the big innovations are about exactly the things he's bad at. The iPod was an aesthetic revolution. MySpace was a social revolution. YouTube was an entertainment revolution. This is not what Gates does. Technology doesn't need him anymore.

Now education and health care — those are areas in which the bedrock problems, the bits and bytes, have yet to be solved. All that pretty, fluffy stuff, that can come later. That's for the cool kids to figure out. Sickness, death, ignorance, illiteracy — those are the problems that need nerds. That's where Gates 3.0 needs to be, and that's where he's going.

Based on the performance so far of Gates supported research, Mr. B. is very impressed. You can't lose them all.

Ciao, Bonzo

No comments: