March 31, 2011

Bill Gates Bashing Memoir

Friends since childhood, Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen have long been considered an "iconic" partnership in American industry. Allen left the company in the early 1980s, but the founders' relationship was typically thought of as quite amicable... until now. In his upcoming memoir Idea Man: A Memoir by the Co-founder of Microsoft, Allen offers what's being alternatively called a "revisionist history," "sour grapes," and "the unvarnished truth" on Microsoft's early days. Allen's account, excerpted Wednesday in Vanity Fair, has stunned the tech world. Here, six takeaways:

1. Gates was always ambitious

Allen recalls meeting Gates in the late 1960s. He was a "gangly, freckle faced eighth grader" at an old Teletype computer. He was clearly "really smart," "really competitive," and "really, really persistent." Young Gates read Fortune magazine religiously and once asked Allen, "What do you think it's like to run a Fortune 500 company?" Already a budding entrepreneur at 13, Gates said maybe they'd have their own company together someday.

2. Allen was cheated out of his fair share

When it came time to figure out the terms of their partnership, Allen assumed it would be 50-50. Gates pushed for 60-40, noting that he'd put in more hours. Allen agreed, but later Gates said he thought 64-36 was more fair. Maybe that's the difference between being the son of a lawyer, like Bill, and the son of a librarian, like Allen. "I'd been taught that a deal was a deal," Allen writes, "and your word was your bond." Wah wah, says Frederick E. Allen in Forbes. Today, both Allen and Gates are "among the richest men who ever lived."

3. Gates was a tough boss

"Some said Bill's management style was a key ingredient in Microsoft's early success," Allen writes. "But that made no sense to me." Gates was unable to settle arguments rationally and could be an extremely demanding boss. Once, Gates seemed extremely puzzled by a programmer's request to take a day off after working 81 hours in four days. He insulted employees with put-downs like "that's the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard" and "I could code that in a weekend." It may have just been that Gates was more focused and devoted to the company than Allen, say Nick Wingfield and Robert A. Guth in The Wall Street Journal. "As Microsoft grew, it attracted more people like Mr. Gates who were single-mindedly focused on building Microsoft" and "willing to work around the clock, sleep in the office, and battle each other over strategy and technical decisions."

4. Allen left because of Gates

In 1983, Allen decided to leave Microsoft because, he says, after his illness he realized "life was too short to spend it unhappily." He paints his decision as largely related to his unhappiness with Gates, contradicting previous ideas that it was more related to health. Gates told him it was unfair for him to keep his share in the company and made a "lowball offer" to buy his stock. Allen declined, kept his stock, and consequently became one of the richest men in the world. There's "no need to feel sorry for either Gates or Allen," says Frederick E. Allen in Forbes.

5. Gates plotted against Allen when Allen had cancer

In September of 1982, Allen was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He went through several weeks of radiation treatment and was left feeling quite ill. Back in the office that December, he overhead Gates and Steve Ballmer, a friend of Gates' from Harvard who'd been brought on as a business manager (and is now Microsoft's CEO), complaining about Allen's lack of contributions, and plotting to cheat him of his fair share of the company. Current and former Microsoft bigwigs are questioning Allen's interpretation of key events, say Wingfield and Guth. "Mr. Allen, for instance, puts himself in meetings that people familiar with the meetings say he never attended."

6. Allen comes off as bitter

It's not surprising that Gates tried to screw Allen, says Frederick E. Allen. "Anyone who builds great empires is shrewd, canny, acquisitive, and at times stubbornly unyielding." The surprising news is that Allen has gone public. It has long seemed that the two were at least cordial, and there's a real streak of "bitterness" throughout the book, say Wingfield and Guth. Yes, but this is the story of "countless successful technology start ups," says Jennifer Valentino DeVries in The Wall Street Journal. "A close knit group of founders develops an idea, but eventually one person emerges as the leader and drives the company forward. Even in the best-case scenario, there can be bitterness."

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