Idea Man is billed as “A Memoir by the Co-founder of Microsoft” – and this is actually a really good way of presenting a book that’s sort-of, but not quite, an autobiography.
This book really describes three different phases of Paul’s life. First of all we learn how Paul’s parents met, how he grew up as a kid, and how he first became interested in science and technology. The really interesting stuff starts in 1968 at Lakeside school in Seattle where Paul (a tenth grader) first meets Bill Gates (an eighth grader) in the computer room.
Paul and Bill were incredibly lucky, because Lakeside had leased a teleprinter terminal that time-shared to a big computer. Their teacher gave the kids a 50-page BASIC manual and they pretty much taught themselves. The thing that really comes over is how much work Paul and Bill put into learning as much as they could about computers over the next few years, leading up to the formation of Microsoft.
The second part of the book focuses on the evolution of Microsoft and of Paul’s complicated relationship with Bill. What comes over very strongly is that – although they were both very technologically knowledgeable and astute – Paul was more the technological visionary while Bill was more the person who made things happen.
Again I learned a lot of stuff here. For example, I knew that Paul and Bill’s first Microsoft project was to write a BASIC interpreter for the Altair 8800 minicomputer. But I didn’t realize just how much work was involved or the level of sophistication that was involved. I also didn’t realize that Microsoft licensed different versions of this interpreter on other computers, or that they expanded into other languages.
The story of Microsoft told from Paul’s perspective is riveting. We also see a different side to Bill Gates than the one with which we are usually presented. However I think Paul is very even-handed here – although he shows us parts of Bill we may not like, we also hear a lot of good stuff like how Bill was right there by Paul’s side when Paul became ill.
The third portion of the book (pretty much the second half in terms of page count) describes Paul’s adventures after leaving Microsoft. Shortly after Microsoft first went public in 1986, Paul was advised to sell his stock and diversify. Instead he decided to hold on to his stock (about 28% of the company) – by 1990 at age 37 he had become a billionaire, and by 1996 he had become a billionaire ten times over.
First of all he purchased a national basketball team – the Portland Trail Blazers. Later he bought a national football team – the Seattle Seahawks. Then he got involved in the SpaceShipOne project, created a Jimi Hendrix museum called the Experience Music Project, did all sorts of things with the Internet (he was involved with America Online and Ticketmaster to name just two), funded a project to map the brain, formed a film company, made all sorts of philanthropic donations to different causes, bought a humongous boat, travelled the world, formed a band and jammed with Bono and Mick Jagger… the list goes on and on.
So, all in all, I learned a whole lot of stuff reading this book. Paul writes really well and provides a lot of insights into all sorts of things. However, the reason I said at the beginning that the term “Memoir” was appropriate as opposed to “Autobiography” is that there are parts of Paul’s life that are not touched on at all. For example, even having read the book I have no idea if Paul is married or in a relationship with anyone. Of course it may be that Paul thinks that this is none of my business, but it did strike me when I finished the book that I was left wanting more (which is not a bad thing when you come to think about it).
The bottom line is that this is a very good and interesting read that I am happy to recommend wholeheartedly.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.