6 May 2021

Bill Gates: from Mr Microsoft to Mr Philanthropy


Bill Gates and his wife Melinda have announced they are ending their marriage. So who is this man, who spent years as the richest person in the world and now ranks fourth on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people with a fortune of $130bn?

I have been following Bill Gates’s life for three decades. In 1992, as Chief Editor at the German publisher Ullstein Verlag, I published the very first biography of Bill Gates in Germany. The book was written by James Wallace and Jim Erickson and, at the time, hardly anyone in Germany had actually heard of Gates. That’s why I decided to call the German edition Mr. Microsoft. After all, more people were familiar with the company thanks to its word processing programmes than they were with the man behind it. Today, almost everyone has probably heard of Bill Gates. 

The secret to success

In early July 1991, Bill Gates Sr. had some guests over for dinner. Among them were his son, the founder of Microsoft, and Warren Buffett: two of the most successful men in the world, who, for many years, had taken turns at the top of the Forbes list of billionaires. The host asked his guests: “What factor did people feel was the most important thing in getting to where they’d gotten in life?” Buffett immediately said: “Focus.” Bill Gates Jr. said the same.

His biographers note that, even as a youngster, Gates was not an easy person to deal with. He did very well in school, especially in maths, but he was known for his “hard-nosed, confrontational” behaviour towards his teachers. In tenth grade, for example, he had a blazing row with his physics teacher. “The two were heatedly arguing with one another, jaw to jaw, in front of the class on a raised stage that was used for class demonstrations. Gates was yelling at the top of his lungs, waving his finger, hammering away at (the teacher), telling him he was wrong about a physics point…and Gates was winning the argument.”

Gates’ obsession with computers began at the age of 13: “I mean, then I became hard core. It was day and night.” His parents were worried about him: “Although he was only in the ninth grade, he already seemed obsessed with the computer, ignoring everything else, staying out all night.” In the end, they banned him from even touching a computer for nine months.

The visionary

Gates’ relationship with his parents hit a low point when he decided to drop out of Harvard. He explained that he had gone to the prestigious university hoping to meet people who were intellectually superior to him but had yet to find any. He had decided he would be better off moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico to set up his own company.

His parents did everything they could to stop him from going through with what they thought was an absurd idea. They asked a well-respected and successful businessman they knew to talk some sense into their son. Gates told the man about his plans and about the revolution in personal computing, which was just around the corner. One day, he said, everybody would own a personal computer. The acquaintance who was supposed to talk Bill out of his plans ended up supporting him. His parents were appalled when he did drop out of university in order to form Microsoft, the company which would eventually make him the richest man in the world.

According to his college roommate, “Bill had a monomaniacal quality. He would focus on something and really stick with it. He had a determination to master whatever it was he was doing.” One of Gates’ ex-girlfriends paints a similar picture, describing his constant focus and hatred of distractions. He didn’t own a television and had even dismantled his car radio. She explains: “In the end, it was difficult to sustain a relationship with someone who could boast a ‘seven-hour turnaround’ – meaning that from the time he left Microsoft to the time he returned in the morning was a mere seven hours.”

A difficult boss

Gates was a difficult boss – a trait he shares with lots of brilliant people. In many respects, Gates was the exact opposite of the executives championed in books on leadership. He was notorious for sending emails to his employees in the middle of the night (often, they would still be at work). A typical missive would start: “This is the stupidest piece of code ever written.” His employees referred to such messages as “flame mail” – they were “blunt and often sarcastic.”

Like many bosses, Gates lacked patience, and he would often express his impatience in a way that others found offensive. A former Microsoft manager remembers Gates bursting into his office during his very first week with the company and shouting: “How can you possibly take this much time working on this contract? Just get it done!” 

In discussions, Wallace and Erickson write, “he wielded his formidable intellect like a blunt instrument. He could be rude and sarcastic, even insulting, when he wanted to make a point … Once the flaw was pinpointed, he would rip the person to shreds.” Gates would often rock back and forth in his chair, staring into space as if his thoughts were elsewhere. “Then suddenly, when he heard something he didn’t like or didn’t agree with, he would stop rocking, sit up straight, and become visibly angry, sometimes throwing his pencil. He often yelled or pounded his fist on the table.”

Despite being far from easy to get along with, Gates’ employees appreciated the fact that they always knew where they stood with him. As one former colleague notes: “A lot of people don’t like their jobs because they don’t get any feedback. There was no problem there. You would know exactly what Bill thought of the work you were doing.”

And, of course, the anecdotes about Gates’ notorious temper only tell one side of the story. He knew better than any other entrepreneur how to inspire and motivate his staff to achieve a shared goal. Nobody can get excellent performance from employees only by putting pressure on them. Even though Bill Gates was notorious for his aggressive attitude towards others, he also knew how to encourage his staff by giving them a lot of leeway to develop creatively. The pioneering spirit and inspiring atmosphere at Microsoft attracted many intelligent and ambitious young people to the company.

New goal: The philanthropist

Having achieved everything with Microsoft, Bill Gates set himself newer and bigger goals. He has always wanted to change the world for the better, in particular by dedicating himself and his resources to the fight against diseases. In 1994, he set up a foundation that became the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 1999. It is the largest private foundation in the world and has assets of around $50 billion. Since its inception, it has spent nearly $55 billion on charitable causes. The foundation’s projects are primarily aimed at developing countries, where it supports efforts to combat diseases such as malaria and polio. Bill Gates also co-founded the Giving Pledge initiative with his friend Warren Buffett in June 2010. The billionaires who have signed up to the Giving Pledge this initiative have promised to donate at least half of their wealth to charity.

His vast wealth and philanthropic work has made Gates the undisputed chief bogeyman for conspiracy theorists everywhere. They put a negative spin on everything he does and even condemn him for being the largest private sponsor of the World Health Organization (WHO). Five years before the outbreak of Covid-19, he issued a stark warning that a highly infectious virus was likely to kill large numbers of people in the near future, but his opponents have twisted these prescient words against him as well. Some even accuse him of releasing coronavirus into the world so that he could then vaccinate everyone and secretly install chips to control them. 

Divorce from Melinda

What about Gates’ personal life? 

He met his future wife, Melinda,  by chance in the Microsoft parking lot in 1987. Gates asked her if she wanted to go out on a date with him in two weeks, which she declined, saying it wasn’t spontaneous enough. An hour or two later, Gates phoned her and invited her out that evening. Seven years later, they got married and went on to have three children. Despite his huge fortune, Bill and Melinda Gates do not have a prenuptial agreement. They do have a separation agreement – though its terms remain secret – setting out how the couple will divide up their assets after the divorce.

From a financial point of view, Gates should be able to cope well with the divorce. Two years ago, the marriage between Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie Bezos also ended in divorce. In their divorce settlement, the courts ordered Jeff Bezos to transfer $38.3 billion of Amazon shares to MacKenzie. Even after the divorce, Bezos is still the richest man in the world. In fact, with a fortune worth over $200 billion, he has now overtaken Bill Gates.

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