The Book of the Week is “Idea Man” by Paul Allen, published in 2011. This autobiographical ebook’s author is best known as the co-founder of Microsoft, and one of the world’s wealthiest people.
This is not exactly a career memoir, because he gives only an overview of his eight years with the company– from which he withdrew as an employee– and the rest of the book is devoted to his other life experiences. It appears that the amount of information he chose to provide on his short tenure with the software company is insufficient to fill an entire book, so he supplements with his: investments in sports teams, stadiums and communications and aerospace companies; his medical problems; travels; musical encounters; and philanthropic endeavors.
Allen, a ten-grader in 1968, describes eighth-grader Bill Gates’ physical appearance: “…pullover sweater, tan slacks, enormous saddle shoes… blond hair all over the place…”
The two youths took full advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime to learn the craft of programming in the computer room of a private school in Seattle. They had endless capacity for the extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive brainwork required. When he had yet to turn twenty years old, Allen’s experience spanned “…ten computers, ten high-level languages, nine machine-level languages, and three operating systems.” Pretty good for a college dropout.
In the late 1970’s, affordability was a major requirement for selling personal computers, an industry in its infancy. “Today’s laptop is thirty thousand times faster than the machine [the PDP-10] I was lusting after, with ten thousand times more memory.” At that time, memory was expensive and lack of it made machines glacially slow. Today’s base iPhone has four million times the memory contained in BASIC– the programming language that ran on Altair, one of the first computers sold to businesses and consumers in the late 1970’s.
Allen said Gates was a thrill seeker, enjoyed driving fast. In the early 1980’s, “Bill got so many speeding tickets that he had to hire the best traffic attorney in the state to defend him.”
The author discussed how a technology company must always be on the qui vive for the Next Big Thing, and introduce it before its competitors in the right way with the right people, or perhaps suffer significant financial losses. In 1982, DEC came late to the party by selling the high-quality Rainbow 100. Unfortunately, the minicomputer was behind the times– running on the old 8-bit CP/M system, while a 16-bit system was already on the market.
Suffice to say on most of his investments, Allen was a Warren Buffett wannabe. He deserves credit for freely admitting to his epic losses. Nevertheless, it was just another case of redistribution of wealth among the wealthy.
Read the book to learn the details of this billionaire’s life stories.