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.

  • Here here – I’m not a great fan of Microsoft’s business practices, but I am a huge admirer of Gates, the man.

    He’s probably one of the most significant global figures to straddle the 20th and 21st centuries. Whatever you see as Microsoft’s failings and weaknesses, their global impact has been undeniable and largely positive in empowering and enabling millions of individuals – who then went on to OSX!

    If his work at the foundation is a fraction as impactful, he’ll have earned a reputation as a role model for self-improvement, philanthropy and giving.

  • Bill Gates changed the tech. world we live in, perhaps more than any other living person, by seeing the power of software….

    Perhaps the Gates Foundation will show us a way to help in the world without Politics and War….
    The power of Caring!

    That would be Magic indeed.

  • A wonderful appreciation. I think Gates is deserving of our admiration for his consistency of purpose in making a difference.

  • Wow, synchronicity. This popped up in my RSS feed just as I was tweeting:

    sometimes I get misty-eyed when working on a campaign for Mercy Corps. This never happened when I was designing ads for printers.

    I left the world of creative agencies and software companies a year ago to become the full-time web designer for Mercy Corps. My work now has an urgency on a completely different shelf from my old work hocking consumer junk.

    Right now I’m crafting some ads around the phrase “helping families in the world’s most desperate places” and I’m looking at photos of displaced Iraqi families, children in our mobile clinic in Myanmar, AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe, the sprawling refugee camps in the Congo.

    I don’t care at all what trinkets I get for Christmas this year. At all.

    I’m reminded of a story I heard as a child, about a kid who said “if I had a thousand dollars I’d give it all to poor people.” Then he finds a dollar and uses it all to buy candy. His mother says: “well, you had a dollar … how much of it did you give to poor people?”

    Only one man on Earth has Bill Gates’ heft but I definitely have an extra $100. That’s three months’ salary for more than a billion people.

  • Dale,

    Wonderful post. I wholeheartedly agree. Bill is setting such a wonderful example for others to emulate. It’s also good to see others, like Jeff Raikes, along with him at the Foundation or doing good stuff, too.

    So we have a new vision of techie geek: Works tirelessly to bring technology he/she loves to the world. If makes money, continues tirelessly to fix problems in the world. Sees all people as important, even if they aren’t techie geeks or poor. Builds society and doesn’t just live off of it. They may not dress in the latest of clothes, but you’d be extremely proud if your kids grew up to be one of them.

  • DanF

    Well said, I felt the same way watching on Monday. The guy is an inspiration to take what we’ve got and do better. I also thought the reference to the Teaching Company stuff was great and intend to pick up some of those (just finished at the uni, but why lose momentum? ;))

  • Bill Gates is just one of a long line of “Robber Barons” who made a vast fortune and then decided to give a away a big piece through philanthropy. Like his forebears, he managed to acquire great wealth through a de facto monopoly that we are only now starting to emerge from.

    Arguably we would have been better off economically without Microsoft.

    Gates is most certainly a very smart man and we can admire that. But there are very many smart people out there, any of whom could provide just as good a vision for the world given the resources.

  • Dale, I feel the same way and have gone on the record with it as well. I think the more we can do to encourage this kind of social responsibility (and yes, to fairly criticize the business practices used to get there) is worth shouting from the rooftops.

  • I agree w/ you there. I would vouch Bill Gates for Person of the Year. His commitment to philanthropy is amazing.

  • @Dale: wholeheartedly agree. excellent piece :)

    @AlexTolley: i think the point is we’re lucky to have folks like Soros, Buffet, & Gates as our current slate of Robber Barons… not all RBs have been quite so philanthropic.

    Dale’s post isn’t focused on whether we’d be “better off economically” with or without MSFT, but whether we’d be better off with or without Bill Gates the person.

    to suggest there are “many” other smart folks who could do “just as well” given the resources is rather narrow-minded, and almost demonstrably false — the Gates Foundation has pretty much single-handedly redefined how foundations & philanthropy operate in the 21st century, and their global impact on education & healthcare has been nothing short of astonishing. while that legacy is due as much to Melinda, Gates Sr, & Buffet as to Gates Jr, he has certainly been one of the key driving forces in making millions of lives around the world better.

    you’re entitled to your opinion about Microsoft, but Gates himself has been an amazing example for the advancement of the human race & the betterment of literally tens of millions, perhaps eventually billions.

  • personne

    Gates exemplifies the hero-worship, masses as fodder, leave it to someone else to do the heavy lifting (even if they’re shallow) culture that is the “American way” (and calling Gates III self made is very funny). On the one hand, he made a fortune selling middle of the road, copycat software, fortunately having a monopoly position so they could be late in big happenings (GUIs, internet, low cost computers – netbooks, etc), and his approach to “problems,” giving scholarships to individuals who are already doing well, berating AIDs workers to do better, curing disease into a void, are just more signs of his shallow, nerdy drive. But go ahead and worship him if you want to.

  • @dave mcclure:
    In extremis, you are simply saying that people are lucky to have a benevolent ruler rather than a vindictive one. I’m saying that people would be better off without the ruler.

  • Kevin

    Like it or not, it was Bill Gates and Microsoft that led and dominated the computer/information revolution and put a computer in every home (read every desk). If it hadn’t been Microsoft, it would have been another company no doubt, with the required foresight to dominate.

    Imho, I think that because of the nature of the information revolution, the world actually benefited from a monopoly in the early development of the computer age. Now we see growth and diversity along with improving net applications, ideas and products where new and resourceful companies have come to the fore including the likes of Google and many many others.

    Bill Gates is central to computer software development and the expansion of the net generally. His current philanthropic exploits are a credit to him and he is one of the most significant figures on the world stage in the last 100 years.

  • You can say about Bill Gates and Microsoft’s business practises what you want. Bill Gates has always been one of those who cared about the world and helped the poor and the sick. He didn’t just start doing this at the age of 52 after retiring from Microsoft. He has donated huge amounts of money to charity for at least a decade.

  • Bill Gates is my childhood idol I worship him. What he has done for IT Industry is something no other can do. He has not just big pockets but big heart too. He has donated Billions of dollors for charity. Something only very few can do.

    Take Ambani Brothers for example, the are in the top ten richest men in world but gives away nothing for charity. Bill Gates is the Person of the Year.

  • @alex tolley: in extremis, you’re being extremist.

    bill gates might be a monopolist, but he wasn’t appointed dictator & he’s not a feudal lord (well, maybe only if you worked for him). to compare him to such is indeed extreme, and entirely inaccurate.

    again, dale’s post wasn’t a commentary on MSFT, but rather on the Bill Gates the individual and the Gates Foundation. in fact, it’s probably in spite of Dale’s [pc] politics that he chose to write the post.

    it may indeed be an interesting intellectual debate to review whether our economy would be better off w/o MSFT as a dominant monopoly, but the discussion is moot at this point, and this post wasn’t really reflective of that perspective.

    regardless, there really isn’t much legitimate argument as to whether Gates has been a significant force for eliminating global disease & poverty, and for saving millions of lives.

    to belittle his efforts and to suggest they are somehow ordinary or average, and/or to state that we’d be better off without them is rather impressively small-minded.

  • Thank you for this posting.

  • Keith Weinberg

    Celebrate the good stuff but don’t forget to learn from the bad. Give the man his whole legacy, he earned it.

    These posts remind me of Gates’ first legacy building move: Before Gates gave away almost anything, he bought Funk & Wagnall’s dictionary(grocery store fluff at the time), renamed it Encarta, and changed his personal entry to rewrite history. While erstwhile it denoted him as a “ruthless” businessman, he changed to to say that he was known for his corporate and charitable contributions. Getting other folks to engage in this level of hero-worship is the last part of the shoe to drop in his legacy-building.

    There is a whole history here that is far more complicated — even though a great deal was clever, and recent actions commendable — much of it involved burying technologies, taking profits unfairly from the work of others, preventing knowledge-sharing and amassing wealth in ways that were far beyond the ethical pale. That money came from somewhere — maybe from the same places that would have fixed some of the poverty/disease problems in the first place.

    Sure it is great that Bill Gates is giving money to charity (that should always be lauded), but this level of worship is a little saccharine sweet for my taste.

  • Stuart Gannes

    Gates/Microsoft’s wealth comes from promoting a computing platform that the whole world could build on. Hopefully Gates/Foundation will promote a platform that empowers solutions for health and development.

    Version 2 is a fascinating challenge: more difficult than a computer for every desktop, but more impact in the long run. So good luck to Gates and his Foundation.

  • Bill Gates is one-of-a-kind leader and innovator of the past century and his influence will well continue into the current one. He’s been the brainpower behind all those years at Microsoft, including those darkest days when they face the lawsuit from Apple and antitrust violation from the government. And he’s proved to be as faithful in what he is doing as he is knowledgeable in software. The work he has done so far can only be summarized in one word: inspiring. Now he’s lifted himself from being a software engineer to philanthropist, and be fully engaged in helping others and solving issues that won’t make the headline of major TV stations in rich countries. His work in philanthropy has been truly remarkable and inspirational. I wish him the best and I wish people who need a help hand most will receive Gates’ help in the very soon future.

  • Robber Barons? Ridiculous on its face.

    The fact that it was ever controversial to admire Bill Gates says a lot about how cynical, ignorant, and perspective lacking an advanced affluent society can be after almost 150 uninterrupted years of prosperity and quality of life advancement.

    And…good post Dale.

  • I am surprised and disgusted by many of the negative comments above.

    First of all, as McClure points out, Dale was talking about the man, not his company (and even then, I believe MS has only acted rationally in a very competitive sector).

    But most importantly, you only have to look at other people of comparable wealth to see how the likes of Gates, Buffet and Soros have set an excellent philanthropic example.

    Take the Russian oligarchs. Where are their foundations? Many of these clowns own *multiple* private jets and yachts. I’ve no objection to people enjoying their wealth, but as Bud Fox asked, ‘how many yachts can you water ski behind?’

    I read recently that a Saudi sheik had ordered his own Airbus 380 (the largest passenger aircraft in the world). And I can’t remember reading much about the various Indian billionaires’ charitable activities.

    So not only is Gates putting the majority of his wealth at the service of the truly needy, he is now dedicating the majority of his work time to ensuring that the programs are as effective as possible.

    Anybody who can’t respect that must have some serious issues.

  • Nowak

    Part of what the Gates Foundation does, is to keep Microsoft monopoly. For example, their project in Poland – putting computers in libraries – is just nothing more than sustaining the MSFT monopoly (no, these boxes aren’t Macs nor Linux boxes).

    We are not a 3rd world country, we could do it cheaper and on our own, provided our leaders weren’t MSFT worshippers.

  • I find it interesting that so many here can separate the man from the company. Like most leaders, Gates defined Microsoft. Whatever Microsoft is, it is based on his vision.

    There are plenty of Robber Barons who have tried to do good through philanthropy. Look at the l=this wikipedia list:

    and note the number that still have active foundations today. While those foundations do some very good work, does that excuse the behavior of their original benefactor’s?

    Gates steered Microsoft into illegal monopolistic behavior during his tenure. That speaks volumes to me about Gates as a person. By all means let Gates be a philanthropist and be happy with his goals in this regard, but let’s not pretend that his wealth to fund this philanthropy did not come at a cost.

  • Ben Franklin

    Ye gods, please pick someone admirable to admire. Mr. Gates is following the robber baron playbook to the letter. First amass an obscene fortune by whatever means necessary– ruthlessness, bullying, lying, cheating, and stealing as needed, and naturally they are always needed. Destroy your competition, bleed your customers, buy as many laws and lawmakers as necessary. Subvert entire governments. Then spend your retirement years giving part of your fortune away, because it’s more than you could spend in a thousand lifetimes anyway, and with luck you can purchase a ticket to heaven and new reputation.

    The Gates Foundation is merely another marketing arm of Microsoft. Any actual do-gooding is a side effect, not the primary policy.

  • Daniel

    Trey Rocks!!!
    remember… the whole world is a reflection of our hopes, expectations, vibrations, you name it


  • @BenFranklin:

    >>”The Gates Foundation is merely another marketing arm of Microsoft. Any actual do-gooding is a side effect, not the primary policy.”

    blogga please: you want to tell me how a $35B foundation (plus another $30B from Buffet over the next 10-20 years) is “just another marketing arm for Microsoft” ?!?

    please let me FedEx you free of charge a steaming hot cup of STFU to knock back, before i send several hundred million starving kids in Africa to your doorstep to bitch-slap you back to reality.


  • Antitrust Wonk

    Have many of these praisers read much of the Anti-Trust testimony ?? The critical posts here are right on the mark. This man gutted competition in the desktop software industry, and did it very well. Throwing accolades at his Foundation without reservation seems shallow at best.

  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a great thing. I hope he will be as successful in helping people as he has been in the software sector!

  • Tom Potts

    I’ve been in the industry since before microprocessors became computers.
    During this time I’ve watched computers go backwards in terms of real usefulness and we now have computers several orders of magnitude more powerful than ones I used in the early 80’s and yet they produce a fraction of the useful work of those old machines. I’ve watched Microsoft successfully drive business’ into buying the same idea’s repeatedly and not deliver, and those that were delivering and developing into administration.
    If Gates was 1/10th the man you suggest he would have dissowned MS years ago.
    To take money from the ignorant and desperate is not a great achievment.

  • Seb

    I personally think that rather than ‘man of the year’, ‘crook of the century’ would be a better title for Mr Gates. Thanks to him, the world is now plagued with computers running an expensive and ill-conceived software suite. There is plenty of biographical work explaining how he became one of the wealthiest men in the world.

    As for his so-called philanthropy, please wake-up ! A foundation is simply an investment company which commits a fraction of its benefice to good actions in exchange for tax reductions. Benefice means what remains of the money income once all the expenses have been paid including the impressive payroll of the foundation CEO (Mr Gates). Foundations are an old trick for retiring tycoons to enjoy their money while paying less taxes and giving them a good publicity.

    Finally the Bill and Miranda Gates foundation like to call journalists when it feeds and heals poor African children. What they don’t publicize is that this foundation invests money in companies which made the same African children miserable in the first place by destroying the environment.

  • Duaine Hechler

    You people really need your eyes opened. He has been screwing the public since day one.

    Day one:
    Remember the world of DOS. Well, this is how windows first got started, he decided to force PC manufactures to PAY for licenses of windows
    whether they installed it or not – so the manufactures figured if we have to pay for it – we might as well install it.

    Here is the link to prove it:

    Yes, now, my primary focus is pianos and organ however I came from a 24+ year career in IT.

    I’m now very happily running the FREE OS called Linux for over 10+ years

  • Dale Dougherty

    Seb — I think Bernie Madoff has locked down Crook of the Century.

  • Kaarl

    All of you who agree with this do not know what you are talking about. You may think you do, but you don’t. I surmise this has been written to result in just such a debate. This man is responsible for the waste of an unimaginable amount of man hours since 1995 by pushing a product to market which wasn’t ready. What if Boeing did the same thing and planes started falling out of the sky. You people simply don’t understand how human progress has been affected.

  • Although I definitely consider myself of the anti-M$ camp, I have always appreciated somebody that can make that much money and not spent it willy-nilly on yachts and crap.

    It’s funny he still can’t fessup that M$ is behind in search, much less udder their names, but the fact that he’s chosen to pursue this direction with his and W.B’s money is truly awe-inspiring.

    Just imagine how many lives would’ve been saved if the oil barron & train tycoons of yesteryear had invested in health? Maybe he’d be full bore into robotics or something right now…

    Anyway, thanks for bringing that to my attention Dale.

  • He is still my person of the year… I really admire what he does with his foundation! He still seems so grounded and friendly! Wonderful appreciation :)

  • I appreciate Mr. Gates too. He is a great visionary who recognized at the right time, what will be successfuly in the future. And today? I think 80% of the world run Windows!

  • From the viewpoint of a community which is losing its children because of a monster like rotovirus, it is more than admirable that a rich technocrat can develop himself to realize that his own consumption needs to be limited by the lack of others, on the same planet, with the same kind of body and human life. Whatever the background and the motivation behind it all.