Here’s the Bill Gates retirement scene I’d like to see: Bill, punchcard in hand, waiting until exactly 5 p.m. before punching out so he can make sure to get his last hundred thou in hand before going off to fight malaria, feed the starving masses and stop second guessing Steve. While that scene is not going to take place, the high-tech world, which has been largely defined by Gates and Microsoft for the past 40 years or so, will be a different place without Bill G. being applauded as a nerd hero, vilified as a business barbarian and always ready to argue the intricacies of operating systems and software-code pounding.
In the annals of business, and, in particular, high-tech business history, there is no one that got things wrong or late more often than Bill, and yet he still won those two sought-after business prizes of market-share and money. Remember, Bill was late in figuring that GUIs would be big, that e-mail would become the predominant way organizations communicate, that the Internet would be a very, very big deal and that search would become the major computing entranceway. In most business organizations, those big misses would soon find you relegated to the building cleaning-services department. But when you own the company, and are sitting on a cash mountain built on a monopoly, a big miss simply gives you a big target and a rallying cry for the troops.
“Most of what I do is leading,” Gates told Mary Jo Foley in the August 1988 issue of Electronic Business (where I was the editor), and that quote probably defines Gates’ business philosophy as well as any consultant’s analysis. Often, that leading process would involve blistering product-development review sessions, late- night calls and e-mails, and an expectation that any manager would be willing to jump on any flight at any time to gain a customer or defend the company’s marketing plans.
I never saw Gates lose an argument, but I did see him accede to a draw in a back and forth with then-PC Week Labs Analyst Peter Coffee at a Las Vegas Spencer Katt party-when the two became embroiled in an argument that I think started out as something to do with Visual Basic and soon extended beyond the range of any human-technology understanding.
Gates is leaving Microsoft at a time that is appropriate for him and with a mission (saving the world) that seems appropriate in scope for someone with his intellectual range. I don’t see anyone currently on the high-tech stage (except maybe the Google troika, but there are three of them) with the drive, focus and range to match Gates’ record. Most of what Gates did do was leading, but that is what business, political and military leaders should be doing most of the time.