Admiring Bill Gates

Dare I say this on O’Reilly Radar? I admire Bill Gates. If I had a vote for Person of the Year, Gates would get mine. Let me explain why.

This year, Gates made an important and potentially difficult transition at age 52, leaving Microsoft as CEO and devoting more of his time and energy to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s a shift in focus, moving from defining strategy for Microsoft to a broader strategy for improving the lives of the world’s poor. Bill Gates exemplifies what Tim O’Reilly is talking about when he says that those of us in the tech industry should increasingly “focus on stuff that matters.”

In many ways, Gates represents the “best of us” — it’s not just what he’s doing but how he thinks about what he’s doing. He’s a curious geek. He wants to find interesting problems to solve. He believes that smart, self-motivated people working together can make a difference. Bill Gates reflects the best qualities of a generation that has grown up finding the innovative ways to apply science and technology to impact our everyday life in mostly positive ways.

These thoughts about Gates were sparked by watching Charlie Rose’s interview with Bill Gates this week. What comes through in this interview is the optimism of Bill Gates and his belief that technology is a kind of magic. Good magic. Powerful magic. Software is magic that allows people to do things they dream of doing. What’s most telling is Gates’s belief that the best is yet to come, that we’re still in the early stages of realizing what can be done with this technology.

The second half of the interview is the best part, when Gates is talking about his life after Microsoft and his interest in the work of the Foundation. (Many will find the first half of the interview about Microsoft’s past and present product strategy and Gates’s belief that they can compete with Google in search uninteresting or irrelevant.) The primary focus of the Gates Foundation has been to explore ways to reduce common diseases such as malaria and rotavirus that affect the world’s poor. Here’s a section from a letter from Bill and Melinda Gates.

More than a decade ago, the two of us read an article about the millions of children who were dying every year in poor countries from diseases that were long ago eliminated in this country. One disease we had never even heard of—rotavirus—was killing literally half a million kids each year. We thought: That’s got to be a typo. If a single disease were killing that many kids, we would have heard about it, because it would have been front-page news. But it wasn’t a typo.

We couldn’t escape the brutal conclusion that—in our world today—some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.”

In the interview, you can’t miss how committed Gates is to the efforts of the Foundation. He realizes that he’s in a special position to see problems like the one above and formulate a plan backed by resources to do something about it. Yet he doesn’t come across as a do-gooder. What excites him about the non-profit world is similar to what he enjoyed at Microsoft — finding and working with smart people who are really engaged in issues and problems.

As much as I appreciate the goals of the Foundation, I found myself admiring Bill Gates as a person during the course of the interview. The truth is that while he was busy developing software, he’s also worked on developing himself. He is the self-made American who has matured into a role model and leader. He is thoughtful and tactful where a younger version would have been brash and impetuous. Like Windows, improvement for Gates has required multiple iterations but the insistence on getting it right won out eventually. The newest release of Bill Gates is the best yet.

When he talks about improving education, he’s not just analytical. He appears to be moved while describing his interaction with highly motivated teachers who see their profession “as a higher calling.” Gates also tells us that he’s watching courses on DVD while he exercises. He highly recommends “Big History” a series of lectures by David Christian, available through “The Teaching Company.” I found it inspiring that he was “watching three hours on Modern Economics” over the course of a weekend while on a treadmill. That’s lifelong learning in action. I just wonder how many present or former CEOs are that inquisitive.

Gates gives me hope at a time when I’ve grown tired of reading how the short-sighted schemes of Wall Street’s top brass and other American executives have brought ruin to American business and our economy. They aren’t leaders worth following. Gates is different. He deserves genuine admiration, in my view. He’s more than a technologist. He’s both a realist and an optimist. He’s become a world leader worth listening to.