I’ve been listening to Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning “River: The Joni Letters” CD a lot recently. It’s the album where he covers a bunch of Joni Mitchell songs. The title track, “River,” is one of Joni’s best. It always makes me think of departure, of an exit, of somebody leaving. And because it’s time, whenever I hear the song now, I think of Bill Gates.
“It’s coming on ChristmasThey’re cutting down treesThey’re putting up reindeerAnd singing songs of joy and peaceOh I wish I had a river I could skate away on“
I told myself I wasn’t going to join the crowd and write about Gates’ departure from the day-to-day. But here I am, trying to get my little piece in.
To me, Bill G. is a hero, plain and simple. -Nuff said. For real.
Anybody who came up in the tech press in my era is sure to have some Bill Gates stories, but I don’t want to talk about random stuff like seeing Bill absolutely throwing down and dancing with women six deep at Comdex parties. Shucks, I damn near inched myself over to say I had danced with Bill Gates myself! OK, enough of the nonsense.
For me to try to promote any interaction I’ve had with Gates right here would be a joke. I mean, sure, for somebody who has covered software — and app dev in particular — for as long as I have, there are all kinds of occasions where I have had interaction with or observance of Gates. Who cares? I could share a “me too” story. But I don’t claim to know the man in any true sense of the word. Yet I raise a hand high, way high, in salute to Bill Gates.
You don’t need me to tell you about the Microsoft history and how Gates shepherded the company to a position of dominance in the PC era. And I’m not going to try to predict what will happen at Microsoft post-Gates. You can go to my SisterLady Mary Jo Foley, also known as MJF to me (another three-initialed nickname, like my own DKT) to see what she believes the next step for Microsoft will be. I am not going there. However, as MJF is a good friend, my former online editor and a trusted source, I defer to her. She even allowed me early access to prominent chunks of her book prior to publication to get a sense of how it read to a different set of eyes.
Anyway, Bill Gates set out to see to it that a PC would find its way onto every corporate desk and into every home. And that’s just about true. He parlayed that operating system monopoly into dominance in other areas. Yet throughout, Gates knew the value of the developer in driving the adoption of the Microsoft platform. His courtship of developers was relentless. He hired a lot of very smart people along the way to ensure that developers got the best tools available and others to evangelize those tools and the Microsoft platform.
And Gates was a fierce competitor. I recall a conversation I had with a colleague who said Gates had no, well, guts. But this person used another term. I begged to differ. You don’t take the risks, make the bets or fight the battles that Gates fought if you have no cojones. Gates has them in spades. A walk onto the Microsoft campus is also a testament to Gates’ guts, will and intellect.
In the early days of Microsoft’s courtship of developers, Borland had a solid following and was able to innovate ahead of Microsoft on many fronts. Borland became a stone in Microsoft’s shoe. No, more than that, Borland was an obstacle — a tough little company of smart, development-savvy folks run by a tough Frenchman who was unafraid of a fight. But by 1995, that Frenchman, Philippe Kahn, had resigned as CEO and Microsoft began to woo Borland’s top talent. So much so that in 1997, Borland CEO Del Yocam filed a lawsuit against Microsoft to stop the software giant from raiding Borland’s staff. Yocam said Microsoft was sending limos down to lure Borlanders away. Many former Borlanders left to join Microsoft, including the creator of Borland’s first product — Turbo Pascal — Anders Hejlsberg, and Paul Gross, who in many ways was part of the heart and soul of Borland after Kahn left.
Yet, while many current and former competitors did not want to comment on Gates’ departure, Kahn, ever the class act, said: “The industry is transitioning from the PC to the world of the iPhone/Google, yet Bill’s legacy will endure”
Another former competitor, but also a good friend of Bill’s, Gordon Eubanks, former CEO of Symantec (which sold development tools under Eubanks), said:
““More than any person in the software industry, Bill’s vision drove the direction of the industry and certainly the execution of that vision has changed how all of us work. It is hard to pick specific memories, but Bill has always been a forward-thinking visionary with a great will to win.”“
Many folks who saw Bill Gates’ deposition in the Microsoft antitrust trial with the Department of Justice got to see Gates’ will to win as he turned into a hostile witness and did his best imitation of Bill Clinton’s evasive responses when he was deposed in the Monica Lewinsky mess. Yet later, when Gates appeared live in court in D.C. in a different phase of the case, he was in total command. He was back to the Gates so many developers know and love.
Matters Beyond the Keyboard
At Microsoft’s TechEd Developer conference in Orlando in early June, Gates gave his last keynote as a full-time Microsoft employee. He also took time to have lunch with 15 “influencers” or developer types who have focused on Microsoft technology. I later learned that technology was barely discussed at the lunch. And I was mad. I was thinking it was a disservice to have a group of techies who viewed Gates as a hero and not talk tech. It was like getting a chance to hang with Michael Jordan and him saying he’d rather not talk about basketball, but about baseball and golf. But I was wrong. I misinterpreted what I’d heard.
Besides, Bill can talk about anything he wants. After all, the influencers hadn’t paid to be at the lunch like someone paid to have lunch with Bill’s buddy Warren Buffet.
Andrew Brust, who attended the TechEd lunch, said in his blog: “To my surprise (and, from what I can tell, the surprise of everyone there), the questions asked of Bill at lunch were almost entirely focused on education, policy and issues concerning the world’s poor. The questions from our group were all quite astute, and I, for one, enjoyed very much being able to talk about matters beyond the keyboard.”
Meanwhile, in an interview with eWEEK, Stephen Forte, who also attended the lunch, said: “Bill Gates was the uber geek, the uber developer. He was a hero to my generation of developers. Unfortunately I don’t think many developers under 30 understand this. They grew up during the dot-com boom, and to developers under 25 they worship Facebook and Google, who while innovative, were not nearly as innovative as Bill Gates in his heyday. Bill understood that computers were small and would be everywhere at a time where there were just big mainframes and only in big air-conditioned closets. Bill pioneered an industry. That industry may now turn to new pioneers and that is OK, since it is the sign of a mature industry. However, Bill will certainly be missed by my generation.”
On local Seattle area radio stations, all manner of folks weighed in to discuss Gates and what he has meant to them. One construction worker thanked Gates for keeping Microsoft’s construction contracts for in-state companies. Think globally, act locally.
Tandy Trower, who is fourth in terms of seniority at Microsoft, behind Gates, Steve Ballmer and Jerry Dunietz, said he will celebrate his 27th year with the company in October. Trower leads Microsoft’s robotics effort and at TechEd, Trower introduced a University of Massachusetts student who led a “Ballmer Bot” onstage during Gates’ keynote. It was the most animated Gates got during the entire event.
Said Trower of Gates:
““Bill’s impact on the software industry and on developers is evident in Microsoft’s success, but also in how the PC industry itself has evolved and grown over the past 33 years. He was there in the beginning providing both vision and delivery of technologies that helped catalyze its growth and has always been recognized as a significant contributor and influencer in the industry.”“
Moreover, “now as Bill focuses his time on even greater challenges and greater objectives, I think I speak for many Microsoft employees in saying that his imprint on the company will never diminish,” Trower said. “Yet I also feel confident in that he has helped recruit some solid leadership at Microsoft that cannot only sustain Microsoft, but help the company to continue in its passion to deliver great software solutions. Ballmer, [Craig] Mundie, and [Ray] Ozzie are just a few of the examples of the high quality people that can take the company forward.”
In addition, Trower said: “Bill and Paul [Allen, Microsoft co-founder] started with an incredible vision to see PC on every desktop and every home. Hard to imagine that they dared to envision the impact that PCs and software would have, long before the industry was well-formed. Without a doubt, Bill has left his mark on the industry that will be felt yet in years to come. And I wish him even greater success with the new challenges he now turns to.”
Meanwhile, Bill and Steve said their own goodbyes.
I don’t think Joni could have said it any better (even sounds like Seattle):
“But it don’t snow hereIt stays pretty greenI’m going to make a lot of moneyThen I’m going to quit this crazy sceneOh I wish I had a river I could skate away onI wish I had a river so longI would teach my feet to fly-y-y-y-y“
Fly, Bill, Fly.