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If you like Bill Gates's story, you might also like:
Timothy Berners-Lee,
Jeffrey Bezos,
Stephen Case,
Michael Dell,
Lawrence Ellison,
John Hennessy,
Jeong Kim,
Ray Kurzweil,
Craig McCaw,
Pierre Omidyar,
Larry Page,
George Rathmann,
Carlos Slim,
Frederick Smith,
Ted Turner and
Oprah Winfrey

Bill Gates's recommended reading: A Separate Peace

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Bill Gates
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Bill Gates Interview (page: 4 / 7)

Co-Founder and Chairman, Microsoft Corporation

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  Bill Gates

For people who don't remember those early computers, could you explain why time-sharing was so important?


Bill Gates: Computers were immensely expensive and cost millions of dollars -- a machine that was far less powerful than what you have on a cell phone today. So either you would have a very important application or you just shared the machine with other people, and still you had to pay quite a bit of money. So time-sharing is where you're connected up and sharing the machine. It's a lot better than sending your programs in, because you can see when you make a mistake pretty quickly. Even so, because they charged us so much, we actually typed the programs off-line on a paper tape, so that we didn't have any delay for typing. Then, when we got onto the computer, we'd feed in that tape, so that it was less time online. But it gave you a sense of, "Okay, what you got right and wrong..." and you could try and correct things. We also -- because at that time, the dominant form of computing was using punch cards -- we actually did that quite a bit. We were down at the University of Washington and used some of those punch card systems. As computers became less expensive -- so called mini-computers -- then more people had access, mostly scientists and business people, but also we managed to find machines that weren't being used at night. The idea of a machine as something that an individual would use and that it would just sit there idle when they weren't using it -- that only made sense about a decade later, when the work that we and others had done had gotten the price down so dramatically that the idea of a computer sitting idle doesn't feel like some huge waste of resources, like it did when they were so expensive and rare.


To someone who's never done any programming, can you describe what made it so exciting to you at the beginning?

Bill Gates: Well, programming is where you're describing to the machine how to do something-- telling it how to play tic-tac-toe, telling it how to play the board game Monopoly, telling it how to convert numbers from one base to another. There are these simple instructions, but if you put them together you can synthesize something quite complex. It's a fascinating kind of mathematical thing. How can you make it fast? How can you make it small?


I went through several phases of doing more complex programs where people who were great programmers would look at my work, give me feedback on it, and you get so you can be quite a good programmer. It was kind such an intense activity, between the age of 13 and 17, that we learned a lot. Eventually one of the programs we took on was the idea of the scheduling of our school. When should the classes meet? Who should be in what section? You have all these requests for people who want different classes, and keeping them small, and not having the teachers teach too many classes in a row -- very complex kind of software problem. And actually, when the school first asked me to do it when I was 15, I said that I didn't know how and they asked some adults to do it, and that didn't work. Then, about a year later, I'd figured out how to do it, and so my friends and I actually did the software that did all this high school scheduling. It had some fantastic benefits to us, and we got paid for doing it. It was exactly the kind of complex problem that developed my skills very well. And we got some degree of control over who was in our classes, so it combined the best of everything!

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


We've read that at one point your fellow members of the computer club at Lakeside kicked you out. Is that true?

Bill Gates Interview Photo
Bill Gates: Yeah. Initially, when that teletype showed up, there were probably 20 kids who showed an interest. It was confusing enough that it got whittled down to about eight or nine fairly quickly who were quite serious about it. Then there were about four of us who were hyper-serious, doing it day and night. Two of them were two years older than I was, and one was my same age. Now in a high school, people that are two years ahead of you, they don't socialize with the young kids all that much. So the idea that we had this group, the four of us, was kind of unusual. We called it the Lakeside Programming Group. One of the companies we had been doing work for went bankrupt, the one in Seattle, and so we went to one in Portland, Oregon.

Was that C Cubed?

Bill Gates: Yes, Computer Center Corporation -- C Cubed -- which had been in the University District in Seattle. We'd spent a lot of time there, and they were wonderful to us, but they weren't a well run business, so they went bankrupt.


This company down in Portland, Oregon said, "Hey, we're not just going to give you computer time, you have to do something." So we agreed to write this payroll program. And a payroll program is surprisingly complicated. There's all these taxes and reports and things at the state level and federal level. Anyway, they said, "Well, if you could write one of those, we'd at least give you free computer time." So I negotiated that deal, and the two older members -- Paul Allen and Rick -- said, "There's not enough work to go around, so we're going to take charge of this." And I said, "Okay, I'm not that interested," because I had in mind how I wanted to do the payroll program. So they messed around for about three months, didn't get much done, and then said, "Will you join back up?" And I said, "Okay, but if so, I'm in charge of this," and it's going to kind of set a precedent for future activities. But they said, "No, no. That's fine." And so we worked. We actually finished this payroll program. It was a lot of work. The friend who was my age, Kent Evans, and I ended up doing the lion's share of the work. Now tragically, right as he and I finished that he was killed in a mountain climbing accident. So then there were just three of us left who'd been extremely involved, including Paul Allen, who was the one who was reading the magazines even more than I was. He was the one who actually saw this computer on a chip -- a so-called "microprocessor" -- in a very small obscure article. He saw that it would be deeply important and brought that to me in 1971. So we were still 15 -- I was 15, and he was 17 at the time.


Was it during your work with C Cubed that you got into some trouble for hacking into a system?


Bill Gates: These C Cubed people have this computer, which is a time-sharing computer, and they're letting us come in at night. And they had this deal with the company who made the computer, Digital Equipment Corporation, that they had this acceptance period. If they could find problems with it, they could delay their rental payments. So they thought of us as kind of monkeys that might find some problems and help them delay their rental payments. Well, that was a fair analysis, because at first we were just completely goofing around. Like, we'd try to run hundreds of jobs at the same time, or have all the jobs try and grab the same resources, to see if we could get the system to fail. And we did, in kind of this brute force approach. So they would report that as a problem and delay their rental payment. Well, a few months went by, actually about four months by the end of it. We had gotten very sophisticated. In fact, we'd gotten the source code of the operating system out of the garbage can, and were reading it, and the kind of problems we were finding were far more subtle. In fact, we would not only find the problem, we'd look and we'd suggest how they might fix it. Anyway, Digital Equipment got so tired of this they said, "Look, you've got to pay. You're going to be able to find these kinds of problems forever, but we need to get paid." So then there was a question whether they would let us stay there or not, and it was pretty tenuous. So Paul and I, we understood the system well enough that we could look at all the passwords of the various accounts, so we would use literally any account. And then, people -- when they found out we had done that, they got kind of mad about that. They weren't sure how mad they should be about it, because we hadn't really caused any damage, but it wasn't a good thing. Computer hacking was literally just being invented at the time, and so fortunately we got off with a bit of a warning. But there actually was a period that, because of that, they said we weren't supposed to use the computer. It was over a summer, and Paul actually went up to the University of Washington and found ways to use the computer and get connected up. He took a while before he told me and then eventually he told me about that and we got back on.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 11:02 EDT
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