Monday, July 07, 2008

Bill Gates Did More Than Program Computers

I have been known to speak irreverently and harshly about Microsoft®. Most often these diatribes are prompted by some “blue screen” error or other irritation emanating from my computer. Even if it is something I did wrong, I am prone to blame the crew from Redmond, Washington. Well, that crew now has a new captain. The end of June marked the end of one of the most storied business careers ever, as Bill Gates stepped down from day-to-day management of Microsoft® and will now serve only as the board Chairman.

As a college student in 1975, Bill was the quintessential math nerd. There were the glasses and the tussled hair. I’m not sure if there was a pocket protector, but I bet there was a slide rule or two hanging on his belt. He was hardly what the blue bloods of industry would have predicted to become one of the most influential persons of the century. His innovations are not only in the technology arena, but permeate new business management practices and more important, modern philanthropy.

It was due in large part to what he conceived in college, what he developed in the proverbial garage, and what he sold to some skeptical suits at IBM, that our world today is radically changed and can barely function without the computer. If you step back and reflect on how our home life, our work life and even our leisure pursuits have changed in the 30 some years since he and his college buds founded Microsoft®, you can’t be anything but amazed.

While he and his colleagues have contributed greatly to the technology we use and enjoy, it is only part of much broader contributions. For example, the collaborative and participatory management style used to develop software is now taught at the very university from which he dropped out. Once only found in the cubicles of Silicon Valley and Redmond, Washington, the informal work environment, less hierarchical chain of command and collaborative approach to problem solving are now just as prominent at P&G, Kroger and GE as they are at Cisco, Google and Apple.

What is even more impressive to me is what Gates and his wife have decided to do with the fortune that he has amassed by working with the bits and bytes. Mr. Gates is said to be the third richest person in the world. Now that he has relinquished his day job, he and his wife are concentrating on the operation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has already made a big impact on major health and education improvement in this country and around the world especially in sub-Sahara Africa. Gates brings many of his experiences honed at Microsoft® to the foundation. He gets the best of the best to find new, creative and effective ways to address humanitarian issues.

To be sure, we should not elevate him to sainthood. There are those pesky antitrust suits that keep coming up. You do have to say, though, that it has not been a bad career for a smart skinny kid who dropped out of college.

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