Behind The Gates Myth

"She's a little redhead with brown eyes, the happiest person I've ever met. Everything she does is just so fascinating. Just getting up in the morning... 'Dah-dee, can I get up now?' So I go in and pick her up. I like carrying her around a lot and she likes to be carried around. She's just the perfect size for it, so she rides on my head. Last Sunday the Blue Angels were here. She has all these books about angels, and she's trying to figure out, well, 'Who are these Blue Angels?' Are those planes like the other planes she sees in the sky?"

Over a period of 16 years I have had a number of interviews with William Henry Gates, but none quite like this. The setting is familiar: the sparsely decorated office in Building 8 on the sprawling Microsoft campus, where buildings sprout like glass-and-steel mushrooms. And though his face at 43 is somewhat fleshier than that of the 27-year-old CEO I first encountered, the man rocking back and forth in his chair could not be mistaken for anyone else. Other sessions have been characterized by a certain tension. Will he bear down on you, as one victim says, "like a pit bull on your ankle"?

But today Gates sounds like Mr. Rogers. He's talking about 3-year-old Jennifer, his first child, and the man whom competitors regard as the Satan of Software will soon segue to even more mawkish domestic regions. Like his love of wife Melinda. He'll talk about his idea of fun, not only traditional play but hard-core pursuit of high-tech innovation. And he will speak with frankness and introspection on his feelings concerning the relentless pressure that comes from Being Bill Gates.

It is an opportune time to take a look at Gates unplugged. The life of the world's richest man (about $77 billion, most of it in Microsoft stock) is in a state of flux. His professional life is changing, not just by a year of government attack, but by an only partially successful shift in his role at Microsoft. His personal life is thriving, largely due to a passion for fatherhood that even those closest to him once doubted he would ever develop. His efforts at philanthropy have accelerated from a dismal pace (compared with his Croesian riches) to historic levels--including a previously unannounced $6 billion gift that is the largest ever given to charity. And it is clear that he is committed to a struggle that will inevitably entangle the rest of his years: attempting to eke out as much normalcy as possible in the blinding glare of a celebrity status--not to mention a demonization--that he never asked for.

"When somebody's successful, people leap to simple explanations that might make sense," Gates says. "So you get these myths. People love to have any little story. Yes, I'm intense. I'm energetic. I like to understand what our market position is. But then it gets turned into this--the ultracompetitor. It's somewhat dehumanizing. I read that and say, I don't know that guy."

But many believe they do, and celebrity, to his dismay, has changed Gates's life. I saw vivid proof of this while tagging along on a two-day book tour this spring. Though he tries to avoid many of the perks of megawealth (he'll insist on an ordinary sedan instead of a limo, for instance), he can no longer move around with anything approaching anonymity. After a "Today" show appearance, he is ambushed by autograph seekers. Will you take a picture with me? Gates is whisked from speech to speech, managing to maintain his humor. Every so often, Gates withdraws, expertly forming a virtual cocoon around himself, and uses the space to read e-mail or simply to think. Later in the day, there is a cocktail party at the Council of Foreign Relations. Though he is tired--and clearly there are things he would rather do than smile and make small talk with a succession of well-wishers--he submits. And you think, This is the richest guy in the world. Why does he do this? Especially since, as long-time compadre and Microsoft president Steve Ballmer says, "Bill is essentially a shy person. He can put on a good face, but he has to work to do it." Colleagues and friends universally agree that the reason he does it is to promote his mission: telling the world about the revolution in software. Which to him is synonymous, of course, with Microsoft.

Then there is the sort of fame that's no fun at all: that of a defendant. There was no way that Bill Gates was going to avoid involvement in the Justice Department's prosecution of Microsoft for alleged violations of the Antitrust Act. But he did not expect to become the centerpiece of the government's trial strategy. From the opening day, government attorney David Boies used pieces of Gates's videotaped deposition to attack the company's credibility. It was regarded as a disaster for Microsoft--to Gates's astonishment.

"I gave totally truthful answers," Gates insists. "I have a great memory. When [Boies] would ask imprecise questions I would simply point out to him the imprecise nature of the question." But Gates did not merely "point it out"--he obfuscated, he mocked, he stonewalled--with a chip on his shoulder bigger than 20 Pentiums.

Boies: Can you tell me, Mr. Gates, what question you're purporting to answer?

Gates: Your last question.

Boies: Do you know what it is?

Gates: Could I make it as convoluted as you did? No.

Gates admits, "If I'd known that the video was going to be shown... I would have helped [Boies] do his job more. Because I do come off as a bit pedantic when he does a bad job asking questions. Still, there is no law in this land about being a little rude in a deposition."

Gates believes that he and his company are victims of a government lynching. His view of the digital world doesn't admit the possibility of entrenched monopolies--it's an article of faith for him that some guy in a garage can knock him off at any time. So he rejects the idea that Microsoft's dominance means the company can't always go full tilt. Letting up, Gates believes, is bad for the company and bad for the customer. Yet in his view not only didn't the government see this--it was pounding Microsoft for it. Every day. Gates was infuriated that instead of conducting their case with pure legal arguments, the Feds were fighting with PR tactics. ("Call me naive," he says.) And the press, as far as he was concerned, ate it up.

"Bill holds himself personally responsible for the company in a deep way," says Microsoft exec Bob Muglia. So it was bad enough that the company was being tarnished. But on top of that, Gates himself was being pilloried. The process took its toll on him.

"There's no question that there was a time when this PR contest got personal," says Craig McCaw, a longtime friend and the CEO of Teledesic, a communications venture partially funded by Gates.

"It was in the press every single day," says Bill's dad, William Gates Jr. "His own government, suing him, that's not chocolate sundae! He was concerned, he was angry, he was distracted from things he'd rather be doing."

Most of the time, Gates kept his rage private. But occasionally the frustration would trigger flashes of petulance. On his book tour, he politely responded to interviewers popping the inevitable questions about the suit. Yes, we'd rather settle. No, we didn't do anything wrong. But late in the day, as I was recounting a speech I'd heard Antitrust head Joel Klein make a few days previously, Gates jumped out of his chair. His face inches from mine, he demanded that I explain to him just what the hell he was supposed to have done wrong. Microsoft, he insisted, was playing by the rules!

Did people really think he was evil? In April, Gates took his annual weekend retreat with former girlfriend (now just friend) Ann Winblad. Since it was off-season, the local mini golf courses were closed, but they stowed clubs in the trunk and climbed over fences to play on the sly. At one shut-down course, there was someone on duty. "You look familiar to me," the man said, eying the billionaire. "I'm Bill Gates," he said. "I've been following what's going on," the man said, "and I'm for you."

"That was an uplifting moment for Bill," says Winblad.

While the trial brought Gates pain, his home life was a refuge. Longtime friends have always understood the importance of his upbringing: Gates and his two sisters were raised by his father (a prominent lawyer) and mother (a charity activist) with a closeness that approached sitcom levels (though Gates himself showed early independence to an extent that was "traumatic" to his mother, says his dad). "In my parents I saw a model where they were really always communicating, doing things together... they were really kind of a team. I wanted some of that magic myself," he says.

Those high expectations, he says, "have been completely fulfilled." Indeed, friends say that the marriage has made Gates a happier person. "I have a much more balanced life," he says.

Having kids, of course, changes everybody. Several times in the past, close friends had maneuvered Gates into close encounters with infants and toddlers, but the man of logic seemed impervious to those charms. "It was not necessarily clear that he was going to [get great joy from children]," says his father. "It might have been the other way."

But once Jennifer arrived, Bill was instantly a doting dad. What particularly absorbed him was watching how his daughter learned. He makes it a point to be at home in time to play with the kids before they sleep. (Top Microsoft people usually know what bedtime is, because from that point their in-boxes fill up with Bill's e-mail.) Late at night, though, Gates has another duty: since Melinda feeds their 3-month-old son, Rory, his job is tending Jennifer if she wakes, and sometimes when morning comes he can be found snoozing beside his daughter's bed.

Frustratingly for him, even some aspects of his personal life have been misinterpreted, he feels. Example: the inscription in the library of his sprawling house by the lake. Since it is taken from "The Great Gatsby," some observers have used it acidly to compare Gates to Fitzgerald's distant, self-absorbed protagonist. The truth, Gates says, is rooted in his romance with Melinda. During their courtship, Melinda worked in an office whose window was visible from Gates's office. One day Gates asked her to turn on her green-shaded banker's lamp on nights when she wanted him to drop by. "I explained to her that was like in 'Gatsby,' when he was on his dock and he sees the light at the end of Daisy's dock," Gates says. As a reminder of that period, they picked the "Gatsby" quote for the library, "just for each other."

Another flash point for Bill Gates's critics has been his philanthropy. He has established two foundations: the Gates Learning Foundation, concentrating on wiring public libraries for the digital age, and the William H. Gates Foundation, focusing on health issues and, to a lesser extent, giving to nonprofits in the Northwest region. But much was expected of Gates, especially when his fortune began to be measured in terms of the gross national product of developing nations. Some of his early contributions went to already loaded institutions like Harvard. Cynics noted that his library donations potentially seeded new marketplaces for Microsoft software. "People are going to second-guess anything you do," says Gates.

But now Gates has accelerated his giving in a way that makes it hard to dismiss as a tax dodge or PR ploy. In the first half of 1999, he transferred more than $8 billion in stock to his charities (for a total of about $11 billion). And in our interview, Gates announced two important developments in his charitable life. The Gates charities are about to merge into a single entity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In addition, "I've put in more stock the past few months to get the size up a bit. So there will now be a little over $17 billion in the foundation."

A bit? That's a $6 billion boost in the quarter year ending this month. Not a pledge over a decade, like Ted Turner's billion-dollar donation to the United Nations, but a completed stock transfer. "The money is already there," he says. It is the largest gift ever given to a charitable organization.

Such activity is making waves in the philanthropic community. Gates has always said that he will give away the bulk of his dough, but "nobody expected this much this soon," says Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. "It's really staggering to see so much coming from a living donor, especially one so young." The Gates Foundation is now America's biggest, and within shouting distance of the world's largest, Glaxo Wellcome.

Even for a smart guy like Bill Gates, it's not easy to give away giant sums of cash in a way where you know it will generate the maximum amount of good. He does this with Melinda, who works with his father and former Microsoft executive Patty Stonesifer, who will be cochairs.

In typical fashion Gates "drills down" into the charity issues the way he's always dug into software problems. He will subject even a national leader like William Gray, head of the United Negro College Fund, to the equivalent of a Bill Review. "He has a voracious appetite for facts, and he'll keep pushing you," says Gray. "He'll often drive you nuts." When Gates gets fully engaged by a philanthropic problem, he's really engaged.

But don't expect Bill Gates to become a full-time philanthropist. His heart lies, and will always lie, in technology. "Software is changing the world, and throughout my lifetime that will continue," he says. "That's my life's work."

But even at Microsoft, his role is changing. Last winter the company unveiled a reorganization designed in part to free Gates from much of the day-to-day operations of the company (which would be the province of Steve Ballmer). That way Gates can concentrate on developing technological and strategic responses to the myriad challenges that, in his mind, pose dire threats to the $500 billion company. "Even Bill can't be on top of everything," Ballmer says. "So we're going through a major role definition. Bill has to pick the places where he's unique, to be the sort of technical architect and product visionary."

The scheme still needs tweaking: Gates feels he still isn't getting enough time with the technology. Under consideration are ideas like moving Gates's office to a location where he'd run into tech people more than top-level managers.

Being spread too thin, it seems, is just part of Being Bill. At Microsoft, Gates's presence is regarded as a human equivalent of the crown jewels. He'll do top-level strategizing, but he really likes to get involved in product designs (right now he's participating in Web-based discussions of the next version of Office). A few months before a beta release of a new program, he will make a visit to the product team for sort of a one-man trade show, and go from office to office, viewing a demo of each new feature by the developer who wrote it. Usually, after each assessment, the door shuts and the Micro-serf gets on the phone: "Mom? Bill Gates was in my office!"

Much has been made of his confrontational style, which might be described kindly as a cross between Socratic dialogue and professional wrestling. (Unkinder souls call it a temper tantrum.) While it's certainly conduct unbecoming a traditional CEO, "Softies" have learned to cope with it. At one meeting he went into a tirade, ending with his trademark invective, "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard!" After a brief silence, one of Microsoft's top whizzes, Chris Peters, said, "Bill, you're going to have to come up with something better than that."

Gates is ultrasensitive to the charge that Microsoft has not been innovative. "In a way, it's like calling Bill dumb," says Ballmer. So when Gates hears of a breakthrough within the company he is thrilled. Last November, for example, he heard that one of his product groups had come up with ClearType, a way to make text on the screen look much clearer. For the rest of the weekend, he shot off e-mail missives, loaded with technical suggestions and ideas. When Gates headed to the giant Comdex computer show that month, it was all he wanted to talk about. Refusing to discuss the trial with reporters, he gushed about what he considered one more proof that Microsoft could indeed innovate.

The subsequent New York Times story on ClearType focused on the contention that the technique had actually been discovered years before, by Apple Computer cofounder Steve Wozniak. (Microsoft disputes this.) It was that kind of year for Bill Gates.

Those who know Gates understand that the traits most evident at work--a driving competitiveness, an omnivorous intelligence and an impatience with ego tripping --are equally prominent at play. "He was brought up to win the game," says McCaw. "His family was brought up to be achievers, and games would just test everyone."

The same applies at the home of Melinda and Bill Gates. Guests are sometimes partitioned into teams, each group given a shrink-wrapped jigsaw puzzle to open and solve at a designated signal. Then there are charades, Pictionary, trivia contests and campfire songs, when people make up new verses. On vacations, it's the same routine. Leroy Hood, a biologist whose lab received funding from Gates, went with Bill and Melinda on a trip to Africa in 1993--and played games: "There was even a contest on how fast you could build a fire," he says. "Bill was fiercely competitive, and he did very well--better, on average, than any of us."

Gates does not limit himself to gamesmanship. Steve Ballmer's wedding present was a weekend of dog-mushing with Iditarod legend Susan Butcher and her husband, Dave Monson. Butcher says that both Bill and Melinda uncomplainingly put up with the minus-30-degree temperature, the spartan quarters in Eureka, Alaska, and a nasty fall during a rugged 27-mile trek with the dogs. The two couples enjoyed each other's company and became friends, with Butcher and Monson often visiting the Gates house. Visitors to the residence portion of the 40,000-square-foot (!)house universally describe it as cozy and tasteful, a distinct space from the more public area where one finds the swimming pool, theater and trampoline room.

On the more sedate side, Gates has become an enthusiastic golfer. His money manager and sometimes golf partner Michael Larson describes his game as notable only in that "he keeps score for everyone in his head." Lately, Gates has shown a passion for bridge, a diversion that had already consumed his friend investment guru Warren Buffett. Gates has figured out how to play while holding baby Rory, though during his three-hour weekend sessions on the Microsoft Gaming Zone, he finds it tough to type witty comments while dandling the infant. And on a train trip last winter across the Gold Rush West, he surprised Buffett by flying in their regular bridge partners for a 24-hour orgy of cards. "Bill's pretty much a social player," says his partner, a Canadian champion named Fred Gitelman, "but if he spent the time he could be good as anyone in the world."

Gates is a voracious reader, and he catches every movie he can manage. (Loved the second "Austin Powers." Especially Dr. Evil.) In contrast to his straitlaced, cautious public persona ("You've got to remember he's both been burned and coached at this stage," says Ballmer), the private Gates can be hilarious. Sometimes the humor is directed at his competitors. But often he's the brunt of his own jokes. So while he maintained a public reticence about Anthony Michael Hall's cartoonish portrayal of him in a recent TV movie, Gates had pals howling at his imitation of Hall's imitation of him, as he jumped around the room, crowing, "Ooooo, oooo, I want moremoney!"

But even in the midst of boisterous social moments, friends will sometimes see the reticent side of Bill Gates. Heidi Roizen, a longtime friend of Bill's, was among the contingent accompanying him on the Africa trip. At one point, Bill stood quietly watching all the other participants talking excitedly. "Isn't this funny," he said to her. "I organized this trip and picked out all the people--and I'm the most introverted person in the group."

That's another part of Being Bill Gates: confounding our impressions of what the richest guy in the world must be like by simply being a human being. We've heard and assimilated the tales of amazing business acumen, icy competitiveness, unnerving genius, uber-nerdness. What we find amazing are details that would be unremarkable in, well, mere mortals: a solid family life, a rich sense of humor and an affinity for a good movie. "His brain operates different," says Seattle businessman and Gates friend Seth Landau, "but the rest of him is just like us." Now that's an innovative concept.