Bill Gates Is Not Running for Prom King

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I don’t generally like to work when I’m on vacation. I like to vacation when I’m on vacation. But I got an e-mail last week saying that Bill Gates was thinking about doing some press around his Harvard Commencement address today, and whenever there’s a chance to talk to Gates, I take it. Hence my getting on a plane to Seattle on Sunday.

As an interview subject, Gates never disappoints. It’s pretty electrifying to hear him talk about the early days, when he and Paul Allen were kicking around Cambridge reading chip ads in Electronics magazine and figuring out how all this stuff was going to go down. He’s also a surprisingly funny, warm presence.

But as terrifyingly effective as he was as a CEO, it may all end up being a footnote to his work as head of his foundation. He’s got $60 billion to work with (that’s factoring in Warren Buffett’s gift, which will take a while to fully kick in). He’s not running a business, so he doesn’t have to worry about taking on risk. And no one is going to hire David Boies to defend a malaria parasite.

Anyway, the piece is here. I’ll tease you with this rousing nugget of cultural history:

Gates wasn’t just the nascent titan of a new industry. He was the harbinger of that quintessential fin de millennium American type, the power nerd. He didn’t have social skills, but then again, he wasn’t running for prom king. The forces that were reshaping the world weren’t political or cultural anymore; they were technological, and if you knew where the bits and bytes were buried, you had the power. Long before the dotcom boom, long before it was hip to be square, Gates crossed over to the dork side.

Update: “they” put quite a bit of the audio of the interview here. Listen to Bill Gates and myself geek out about the wild west days of personal computing, explain away his C+ in organic chemistry, and compete for who has the squeakiest voice.

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