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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,
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Pierre Omidyar,
Larry Page,
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Carlos Slim,
Frederick Smith,
Ted Turner and
Oprah Winfrey

Bill Gates's recommended reading: A Separate Peace

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Bill Gates
 
Bill Gates
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Bill Gates Interview (page: 5 / 7)

Co-Founder and Chairman, Microsoft Corporation

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  Bill Gates

After you got kicked off the C Cubed system, was that tough, spending the summer without a computer?

Bill Gates: Yeah, well no. I had many things that were interesting. I was really quite serious about math at the time and various science things. Paul had actually read more science fiction that I had, by a lot, so he and I would talk about that. But I had plenty of things, it wasn't some great tragedy. But then we got pulled back in, and then that company went bankrupt, and then we had the work for this Portland company on the payroll program, and then we had the scheduling program.


We were lucky. There were always kinds of things that not only gave us an opportunity, but exposed us to that next level. After the payroll program, then there was a computer project to use computers to control all the electricity grid in the dams of the Pacific Northwest. A government agency called Bonneville Power had done a contract with a company called TRW to use computers to do all this control. And TRW had committed to do all this really high-reliability great software work. Well, they found it more difficult than they expected, so they were looking for people who understood these kinds of computers, which Paul Allen and I had done a lot of work on. These were the same computers that were at Computer Center Corporation and at this Portland company, Information Sciences. Anyway, we were kind of famous -- but nobody had met us -- because we had filed these problem reports. And by the end of these problem reports -- they were so sophisticated -- it was like, "Who are these guys out in Seattle telling us how to fix all this stuff?" So when TRW was saying, "Hey, we're desperate. Find us..." they're telling Digital Equipment, who makes these things, "Find us the best programmers," and somebody says, "Well, there's Gates and Allen..." and somebody says, "Nobody's really met them, but yeah, they're really good, we ought to be able to track them down." So they find us, this one guy, and we go for an interview. And these two kids show up and -- what was I when I was interviewed? I was 16 when they interviewed me. So they were like, "We can't hire you." But then they talked to us about software and we clearly know a lot. And when you're young and you know a lot, people don't have any kind of intermediate thing. You're either what you're supposed to be, which is a kid that doesn't know that much, or they think, "Whoa, this guy is the limit!" We were pretty good programmers. But anyway, so we got jobs at this TRW and that exposed me to some programmers, who were way better than I was, who critiqued my work. I could look at their work. And this one guy was really a phenomenal programmer.

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Was that John Norton?

Bill Gates Interview Photo
Bill Gates: Yeah. He would just take my stuff and rip it apart, you know, in this super constructive way. Anyway, it was a brilliant thing. So part of my senior year, and the summer before and after the senior year, Paul and I were down in Vancouver, Washington. So it kind of took our understanding to a whole new level, and it exposed us to a bunch of people there. And Paul, the whole time -- ever since he'd seen that microprocessor article -- was saying, "You know, there's an opportunity here. This is going to be big. We ought to think what we're going to do about this." So we kept talking about that.

So Paul Allen showed you the article about the microprocessor first, and then wasn't there a cover story in Popular Electronics about the Altair 8800?


Bill Gates: In 1971, there's this obscure article on the microprocessor that Intel has done -- what was called the 4004 -- that Paul said, "Look, this thing's going to keep getting better and it's going to be better than these mini-computers." Mini-computers were like $10,000 to $200,000. Paul and I had borrowed some of those and messed around with those. And Paul said, "No, no. They're going to have something better than the mini-computer that costs like $1,000." So we kept watching those chips get better, and we did the scheduling program, then, my senior year, we're down at TRW, they're getting better. And in fact, in 1973, the 8080 chip comes out, and Paul shows that to me and I say, "Okay, this is better than most of these mini-computers." And so we think, "Wow, somebody's going to take that chip and do something wild."


In the meantime I start at Harvard University back in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Paul's at Washington State, another place, so I help him get a job out there in the Boston area, and we're just brainstorming, you know, "What's going to happen with the microprocessor?" I'm playing poker, signing up for lots and lots of classes, undergraduate classes, graduate classes, but then...


Finally, somebody takes the 8080 chip and creates a kit computer, and that's on the cover of the January 1975 Popular Electronics that comes out in December 1974. So we get that, and that's both exciting -- because finally this thing that we've expected has happened -- but the question is, "Is it happening without us?" And so this company, which is in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we call them up and say, "Hey, we can do software for this machine." And they say, "Oh yeah, sure." So we very quickly work on a BASIC for this computer, which I'm well equipped to do, and Paul had some brilliant ideas about how we'd simulate this machine, because we didn't have one, and that was amazing. So we write this thing and we call them up and we say, "Hey, when you connect a teletype up, what's the software programming to get the characters in to print them? How do you do that?" The so-called "input output." And they thought, "Well, that's interesting. You guys may not be flaky, because actually you're the first one who asked that question," which is, if you're going to really write the software, you eventually have to ask that question. So they give us the answer and Paul flies out with this paper tape of the software.


You did this while you were still at Harvard?

Bill Gates: Right. So I'm a student at Harvard, Paul's working at Honeywell, but we spend -- what was it? -- six weeks, and really write this thing, which -- you know, my whole career has sort of been building after this thing. It's one of the most -- probably the most fun piece of software I ever wrote. I mean, it's unbelievable, because it has to be very small -- there's only 4K bytes of memory -- and we don't have the real machine, so you have to be very careful you get everything right. Anyway, so Paul takes it out, and these guys mostly sell kit computers, they'd only assembled a few of them, and so they got it connected up and Paul puts it in and it runs the first time!

But you didn't even have the machine, did you?

Bill Gates: Yeah, that's a complication.


When you turn a computer on, there's nothing in it. It doesn't even know how to go out to the teletype and read this paper tape that has all these funny numbers on it that are this program. So you have to put in -- using the switches -- a little program, that's the program called the bootstrap loader that is the instructions to say, "Hey, go read a bunch of numbers off of this paper tape, put those into the memory and then go run that program." So he wrote a bootstrap loader, literally on the plane flying there, he wrote a nice bootstrap loader. It worked just fine. Later I wrote a really, really small one, because it's a pain to have to -- every time the computer is turned back on you have to reenter the thing, so the less of these funny little instructions, the better. Anyway, so he wrote that, and everybody was amazed because we had to do everything totally right, how we read this instruction set manual and they were selling these kit computers, but they had never really seen it do anything real. And so Paul would type in 'Print 2 plus 2.' Print..." and he ran programs and it worked.


And this was a machine that you had never actually seen.

Bill Gates: That's right.


The chip itself was fairly expensive. Paul and I had bought a previous chip to do a very specialized machine. We had bought an 8008 to do a little funny program that did traffic volume printouts, but this 8080 was much better. And we had never had one of those, so we just read the book that described how it worked. And then we made the big computer that we'd been using all those years -- and we're quite expert in -- Paul had a really breakthrough idea of how to do the simulation thing. So that gave us the full power of that computer to edit and debug and those things. But if we had any mistake in how we read this thing, that paper tape wasn't going to work at all. Anyway, so that was very exciting, and we signed a deal with them. That was called MITS, and their computer was called the Altair. And then I left Harvard University and we started Microsoft. So Microsoft was initially based down in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And this is 1973 when we get going.


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