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What motivated Bill Gates?
July 23, 2005 10:16 PM   Subscribe

What motivated Bill Gates?
posted by ValveAnnex to Work & Money (19 answers total)
The idea that he could enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.
posted by Jairus at 10:20 PM on July 23, 2005

He left Harvard. He worked insane hours. He was a computer nerd with very few social skills. Do you think he wanted to become rich? Why? His dad was a fairly successful lawyer. He didn't grow up needing anything. Why would he press towards a goal of helping businesses?

His overarching concerns with his foundation are mostly centered around improving public schools, and third world health. Obviously, once one becomes wealthy, the motivations probably become refined and targeted. But it's those middle years, before Windows 95 and the boom that makes you wonder what drove him.

I wasn't there, and wonder what, if anything, drove a person to persist as he did. It was a new frontier, he was in a new world. He had a vision.

BTW, I never admired the man. I'm just curious.
posted by ValveAnnex at 10:30 PM on July 23, 2005

posted by rafter at 10:59 PM on July 23, 2005

Having taken the man's name in vain so often, I am slightly embarrassed to realize how little I know or care about him. I assume he and Paul Allen played around with electronics until they had a saleable product - like a garage band that hits the big time with a runaway CD.
That Gates was smart enough to sideline Allen is to his credit. (See the decline and fall of Allen-owned Portland Trailblazers, Seattle Seahawks and a TV channel etc. Billionaire Allen had the nerve to put the Portland Rose Garden Arena into bankruptcy.)
Since his marriage, Gates has championed some noble causes and if his financing enables a cure for malaria, more power to him.
posted by Cranberry at 11:13 PM on July 23, 2005

I read this book a long time ago and from what I remember from it, growing up Bill Gates was genuinely interested in mucking around with technology, like any computer nerd of his generation. So initially, at least, the technology itself motivated him. At some point though, that changed. Probably around the time he bought MS-DOS and licensed it to IBM. If I were pressed to guess why the change, I would say it was Ballmer's doing, in that Ballmer's aggressiveness rubbed off on Gates. I think Ballmer's influence on Gates is very underrated and I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft's aggressive attitude flows from him as opposed to Gates.

P.S. ValveAnnex, there's no such thing as pre-boom years for Microsoft. Microsoft was rolling in the money almost from the start.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 1:01 AM on July 24, 2005

my understanding, from seattle local media, is that mom and pop gates strongly encouuraged extremely competitive behavior within the family, a sort of upper-middle-class hypercapitalism. That explanation, while certainly overly pat, does appear to satify most behavior-motivational questions. Personally, while I doubt that Gates is any more driven by the desire to good than Jobs, I doubt that either intrinsically wishes to do evil.

Despite what actually occurs.
posted by mwhybark at 1:35 AM on July 24, 2005

i think that Gates was always motivated by money and power. Perhaps his parents were rich but it was their money not his and just made it easier for him to take the 'risk' of dropping out of school.

perhaps this is an oversimplification but in my opinion corportate policy/philosophy stems in part from the people in charge and if you consider MS's actions to be a reflection of BG's personality then one can surmise that BG doesn't have many scruples and isn't very interested in helping anybody other than himself. all you have to do is watch his performance for the DOJ case against MS to see that the guy is an arrogant weasel.

his foundation is a bit out of character but if i'm not mistaken it's probably his wife's influence and possibly a reaction to the DOJ case against MS. pre-case MS/BG had no redeeming characteristics but all of sudden he's donating money left and right and MS is all about 'innovation'. His foundation's investment (yes,it's an investment) in public education is more about creating markets for Windows than anything else. However the malaria/3rd world health donations are a good thing.

looking at how MS/BG react to situations i can't see any altruistic motivations but rather paranoia, arrogance, an overwhelming need to be number one and to be in control of everything.
posted by canned polar bear at 2:10 AM on July 24, 2005

"About 3 million computers get sold every year in China, but people don't pay for the software. Someday they will, though. As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade." - Bill Gates (1998)
posted by Pseudonumb at 2:28 AM on July 24, 2005

Tinkering. Money. Maybe Power. Some ego. And some more tinkering. But certainly not Wozniak level tinkering. Certainly not Wozniak level altruism or Jobsonian Insanely Great-ism.

Read the book "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution" by Steven Levy. (ISBN: 0-385-19195-2) (It has nothing to do with the mostly unfortunate movie of the same name that contains the aborted phrase "hack teh gibson!", among other travesties.)

Ironically, Gates was subject to an act of "piracy" very early on in his career.

The story condensed: Altair was (habitually) late shipping a punched-tape copy of a BASIC interpreter to hundreds or thousands of Altair BASIC buyers. Altair was doing a tour promoting their hobbyist computer. One stop was the Homebrew Computer Club in Palo Alto - also at the time home to Jobs and Wozniak. Someone liberated a copy, gave it to Dan Sokol, who took it to a PDP-11 and churned out a bunch of copies.

Keep in mind the majority of the end users had already paid for a copy of Altair BASIC that they hadn't yet recieved and was something like a year or more overdue for prepaid orders. Could you imagine pre-paying for vaporware today? Not to mention, the whole concept of paying for software was anti-hacker from the start. It was then something to be shared openly, and only shared. Software was religious sacrament then.

Gates wrote an "Open Letter to Hobbyists", explaining that while he and Allen had recieved lots of good feedback about the interpreter, most of the people praising it hadn't bought it.
Why is this? As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?
Gates was threatened by the Southern California Computer Society for calling hobbyists thieves. He recieved several hundred letters, only a half dozen containing the voluntary payment he suggested that the owners of pirated BASIC send him.

Also, as far as I can recall, (Rumor alert!) Gates didn't really program MS-DOS, or all of it, or something. He bought it from some other programmer or team either in whole or in part for a paltry sum of something like $5,000, and turned around and sold it to IBM for something like 11-12 million, either as is or added to and doctored.

Either of these incidences were probably integral to forming Gates' and Microsoft's philosophy towards code control, piracy and the like.

But it's important to remember that the whole "Open source/free software" Vs. "Closed source/paid software" debate is almost as old as computing itself, and certainly as at least as old as personal computing itself.

It isn't some newfanlged linux zealot slashdot sourceforge creative commons open source phenomenon. It used to be free by default. Before there was a market for it. Before NDAs and shark-mouthed venture capitalists.

All software used to be free. And without it, we wouldn't be where we are today - standing on the shoulders of giants - err, well - giant nerds.

Excerpts, quotes and interpretations taken from "Hackers", by Steven Levy without permission under known fair use Copyright conventions.
posted by loquacious at 3:09 AM on July 24, 2005

ValveAnnex: Also, keep in mind that Windows 95 is closer to the tail end of Microsoft's history. Before 95, there was 3.11, and 3.0, and 2.0, and even 1.0. The latter two which were even worse than anything else, vastly inferior to non-GUI character-based "windowing" systems like Quarterdeck's Desqview.

And before that there was Microsoft Word (A knock off of Screenwriter, Easy Writer, and others I'm failing to remember.)

And before that there was MS-DOS, which skyrocketed Microsoft from the beginning into unheard of financial territory for a "mere" software company that didn't actually make any hardware or, say, games for the Apple machines. (See: Sierra OnLine)
posted by loquacious at 3:19 AM on July 24, 2005

According to and the BBC Gates started coding in high school and made $4,200 writing software for his school at the age of 17. Not bad money in the early seventies for a high school kid. Here is a history of MS-DOS from Digital Research, the guys who couldn't cut a deal with IBM. Gates was aggressive from the start.
posted by caddis at 5:18 AM on July 24, 2005

From the excellent How to Start a Start-Up:
If you work your way down the Forbes 400 making an x next to the name of each person with an MBA, you'll learn something important about business school. You don't even hit an MBA till number 22, Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike. There are only four MBAs in the top 50. What you notice in the Forbes 400 are a lot of people with technical backgrounds. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos, Gordon Moore. The rulers of the technology business tend to come from technology, not business. So if you want to invest two years in something that will help you succeed in business, the evidence suggests you'd do better to learn how to hack than get an MBA.
What motivates the most successful among us isn't necessarily the desire to make a boatload of money--at least not initially. First off is a deep passion for whatever it is you plan to make money doing. Which makes sense, considering the enormous investment of time needed--you'll quickly burn out working 20 hours a day unless you have a serious love of the work you're doing.

So, step one: find something you love doing. Something you could do every day, a hundred hours a week, all year-round without vacation, and still not be bored. Step two: find a business angle so you can sell your hard work.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:15 PM on July 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

Also, as far as I can recall, (Rumor alert!) Gates didn't really program MS-DOS, or all of it, or something. He bought it from some other programmer or team either in whole or in part for a paltry sum of something like $5,000, and turned around and sold it to IBM for something like11-12 million, either as is or added to and doctored.
No rumor: no one claims Gates wrote MS-DOS. He wrote a BASIC interpreter once upon a time, and I don't know that he's done much programming since. In the most profitable bluff known to history, he agreed to provide an OS he didn't have, and then bought it. (The numbers are way off, though.) Wikipedia entry.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:36 PM on July 24, 2005

As is the case with most "industry giants," his success is largely a matter of luck and the hard work of the people "under him."

At some point, most "giants" drink their own kool-aid and start to believe that they have more "vision" or "guts" than most. That's rubbish. Most would-be CEOs with "vision" and "guts" sink straight to the bottom. It's only a few who succeed due to circumstances largely beyond their control.

And, again, this isn't just Gates. It's anyone in any field who achieves "greatness," yet fails to acknowledge that they stand upon the hard work of others.
posted by SPrintF at 2:29 PM on July 24, 2005

Try and watch Pirates of silicon valley if you can find it, it's quite an interesting film and apparantly pretty accurate on most things.
posted by fvw at 7:49 PM on July 24, 2005

I think the secret to Bill Gates's success is that it never occurred to him that he couldn't remake the world in his image. If the rest of humanity wasn't getting it, it was because they weren't as smart as him, so he kept trying until they finally got it.
posted by kindall at 8:53 PM on July 24, 2005

If the rest of humanity wasn't getting it, it was because they weren't as smart as him, so he kept trying until they finally got it.

That is so depressing.

I've read two biographies of him, though neither in the past 8 years, and got the sense that he was motivated primarily by his competitive drive. When he was young, his priest offered to take any child out to dinner at some ritzy place (I think on top of the Space Needle) if they could memorize some particular chapter out of the Bible. Naturally, Gates was the only one that won. He also apparently enjoyed asking people at Harvard what their SAT scores were, just so he could say that he got a 1600 (although maybe everyone at Harvard does that). More recently, he seems to be driven by his philanthropy more than anything else.
posted by gsteff at 9:28 PM on July 24, 2005

He liked to win. He still does. The good news is, for at least some of his time/money/attention, he's now fighting AIDS.
posted by anildash at 1:53 AM on July 25, 2005

Malaria, too, anildash. One of the few people actually spending boatloads of their own dough to try and eradicate one of the world's deadliest diseases.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:13 AM on July 25, 2005

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