Bill Gates, Ambition, Legacy, and Obligation

I’ve followed the history of Bill Gates and his career and work since I was a kid. Though he’s not nearly charismatic enough to inspire an army of fawning fanboys, the complexity and eccentricity of a lot of his choices makes his character endlessly fascinating to me. And of course, it is an extra bonus that most people confuse such an interest for uncritical adoration, which ain’t the case.

I’m not a Bill Gates fanboy, I just think he’s more ambitious and more likely to permanently change the world for the better than anybody else in the history of the technology industry.

Part of understanding why is having the proper perspective. I remember Microsoft’s mission from when I was a young kid — a computer on every desk and in every home. That mission, of course, had an implicit suffix of “…running Microsoft software”. About 25 years into that mission, before Bill Gates had even turned fifty years old, Microsoft had achieved that goal. Think about that — you set a goal as ambitious as you can imagine, and before your kids are even in high school, it’s happened. What do you do when you’ve accomplished your biggest goal?

It’s not a problem most of us ever have to deal with. Honestly, most of us that would even take the time to set such a goal would make it so big or so fuzzy it would be impossible to ever achieve. But by being just slightly specific, Microsoft under Bill Gates’ direction achieved a seemingly-extraordinarily ambitious goal.

So, what next? You have to go for an even bigger goal. What’s bigger than computers everywhere? How about curing malaria? And AIDS? That seems big enough. And the true innovation seems to be approaching those problems in an entrepreneurial way, with a big focus on accountability.

And after years of seeing his awkwardness in articulating the benefits of technology, it’s startling to see just how good Gates is at telling this far more important story. You might have seen a link to Bill Gates’ Harvard commencement address and probably thought “eh, I’ll read it later”. Go read it now: it’s the kind of leadership and accountability that’s been sorely missing from those in a position of power in the technology industry. Hell, it’s the kind of message that’s been curiously absent from the lips of nearly all of our leaders.

Just one highlight:

I remember going to Davos some years back and sitting on a global health panel that was discussing ways to save millions of lives. Millions! Think of the thrill of saving just one person’s life - then multiply that by millions. … Yet this was the most boring panel I’ve ever been on - ever. So boring even I couldn’t bear it.

What made that experience especially striking was that I had just come from an event where we were introducing version 13 of some piece of software, and we had people jumping and shouting with excitement. I love getting people excited about software - but why can’t we generate even more excitement for saving lives?

You can’t get people excited unless you can help them see and feel the impact. And how you do that - is a complex question.

Still, I’m optimistic. Yes, inequity has been with us forever, but the new tools we have to cut through complexity have not been with us forever. They are new - they can help us make the most of our caring - and that’s why the future can be different from the past.

The defining and ongoing innovations of this age - biotechnology, the computer, the Internet - give us a chance we’ve never had before to end extreme poverty and end death from preventable disease.

I’m sure those who make their decisions based on fashion and popularity contests won’t want to give Gates the benefit of the doubt. But I’m okay with someone uncool doing the right thing on an unimaginably ambitious scale.

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